Unless something happens that requires a pretty quick response, this will be my last post of 2011. And since it’s the end of the year I thought I’d do like so many others and take a look back. However, I’m not looking back at stuff that happened during the year; I’m going back to 1991, to a project and period in my career that I really, really enjoyed. I consider it the first ECM project that I worked on, though I’d never heard of ECM at the time. It’s also the first independent consulting gig that I took on.
In September of 1991 my wife was asked to move from the Montreal area to the Toronto area for what was supposed to be a maternity leave replacement as one of her colleagues had just had a baby. Since the alternative was unemployment for her, and since I wasn’t working anyways (I was back in school) we decided to make the move. The company she worked for was a small distributor of electronic components (switches, plugs, receptacles, etc.). Their clients were mostly in Canada, with a few in the U.S. Their suppliers were predominantly in Europe and Asia, with a few in the U.S. They also had to deal with transport companies and customs brokers/agents in order to carry on their core business.
My wife’s job was to handle sales orders, purchase orders, customer service, transportation, and customs (I did say it was a small company). Other roles in the organization included one accountant/bookkeeper, some sales guys, a general manager, a warehouse dude, and the owner (one of the nicest guys I have ever worked for or with). I was engaged to implement some accounting / order processing software for them (ended up selecting ACCPAC vWhateverWasCurrentIn1991). I eventually ended up doing double-duty as the IT / Warehouse dude (regular whse dude ended up in jail, I ended up reporting to my wife – oh the fringe benefits).
This company was really excited to be getting their first computerized system of anything. Included in the bundle of stuff that they were getting was a rockin’ 24-pin, tractor fed, colour, dot matrix printer to handle their multi-part forms. They could only afford one colour monitor so there was a discussion about who’d get it and who’d get stuck with the grey-scale monitor. The fax machine used rolls of thermal paper (I’m sure at least one of you reading this has no idea what I am referring to). Printing to the correct printer was controlled by turning the switch on the printer switch box (I still have one in my basement somewhere). Everything, even the stuff that was born digital, was stored in filing cabinets, and everyone had their own copy (we hoped), whether or not they needed it.
Every customer, supplier, and vendor had a file. These files were kept in the GM’s locked office, which wasn’t generally a problem until his love life fell apart and he started taking “mental health days” several times a week. Orders from the customers came in by phone or fax. Faxes were great, especially when several orders came in overnight and needed to be separated from each other using scissors. Confirmations from suppliers were received by phone, fax (see point about customer orders), and mail (sometimes after the order itself). Customs paperwork came in by courier (time was of the essence) or fax. Outbound paperwork was couriered, faxed, or mailed. Sometimes the same document was delivered by all three methods, just to be sure. Internal – internal paperwork was walked to the recipient, except for the out-of-town sales guys who got their stuff via fax (including a nude picture from a calendar we got from a Taiwanese supplier – very tasteful, too bad I sent it to a customer by mistake, oops).
But, they had ACCPAC now. I don’t remember exactly which modules I implemented for them, but G/L, A/R, A/P were part of the mix. Not only did they have automated accounting software, we even went so far as to try to eliminate some paper duplication and streamline some processes. There was certainly some resistance (mostly from the accountant/bookkeeper but she went batty, got fired, and hid a CDN$36k tax bill in the customer invoice files). The point is that there were improvements made, even if we couldn’t apply automation to everything. And I made really good money (by the standards of the day), wasn’t on the clock 24/7 (no cell phones or internet), had plenty of time for me (and my wife/boss), and delivered a project I felt really good about. As things turned out, the company offered my wife and me permanent positions, but we missed Montreal so declined and headed home.
If I had to do that project over again today I would, assuming that the client could afford my rates. I’ve learned a lot (and made mistakes from which I’ve learned) over the last twenty years, so I certainly wouldn’t do things the same way, process or approach wise. The biggest difference, however, would be in the technology. Not only are the tools we have available today much better than what they were back then, they’re enormously less expensive when you consider what you get for your money. In fact, I’d guess that much of the software they’d need for today’s conditions could be had from truly viable open source sources. So maybe they could afford me, after all.
I was going to write a long-ass section detailing what I’d implement to handle which bits of the business, but I changed my mind. We all have an idea of what we’d do with this type of a project.
There has been plenty of chat about going paperless, motivated by a variety of reasons including economics, the environment, efficiency, and convenience. They’re all valid reasons, but I don’t think that we will ever become paperless, whether at home or at work, in our lifetimes. The best, I think, that we can expect is to reduce the amount of paper we consume.
On a recent project we (the client and I) debated the idea of going paperless. The best that we could actually come up with was to transition from a mix of paper and electronic records to electronic records only, over the next n years. Paper will still be used for draft versions and for circulation of the some content. The client holds monthly meetings where materials numbering in the hundreds of pages are circulated to attendees in 3-inch thick binders. Theoretically the client could transition to a variant of an e-Council model, but that would necessitate acquiring the correct equipment and a very significant change management effort. My gut tells me that this may well happen, but as a result of attrition rather than a conscious effort to actually go paperless. The potentially affected users are in an ageing demographic and of a nature not to be messed with. Trust me.
I am an annotator; I like to make notes, circle stuff, and highlight things. Sometimes I make notes that question the sanity and intelligence of the author of a document. Yes, I know that there are plenty of tools out there that would allow me to do all of these things electronically, but I won’t use them. I have this thing about reading long-ish documents on a screen, any screen. It’s a comfort thing; I like to lean back and put my feet on my desk when I review long documents. Also, when I do question someone’s sanity or intelligence in a note on a document, I’m not certain that I want it recorded electronically and stored in some repository. [2013-10-10: I now use tools on my tablet for this, coupled with cloud storage.]
I may give ebooks a try in the future, but there is something comforting about having a 900-page plus tome on your lap while you’re reading in bed (I am currently reading Fall of Giants by Ken Follett, if you’re interested). I also like the way a full bookshelf looks. My wife would appreciate me switching to ebooks just so I’ll turn the damn light off and let her sleep. [2013-10-10: Other than during takeoff and landing, e-books on my tablet are my preference now.]
I absolutely agree that invoices, claims, benefits applications, and other form based transactions can be processed more efficiently electronically than they can be on paper. However, there is still an ageing demographic to contend with, as well as the fact that not everyone has access to the required technology. A government department that I worked with several years ago serves senior citizens. Their mandate is to provide benefits such as education and property tax relief, dental benefits, and other benefits that people on fixed incomes require. In addition to many of the beneficiaries having issues with adapting to and using technology, many of these people live in rural or remote areas with less than modern technical infrastructures, some have none.
Economically, going paperless makes tons of sense. If a paperless process is more efficient, it stands to reason that it is less expensive to run. Also, storing paper costs more in real estate costs than storing the same content electronically. We can throw in the costs of running and managing network storage, but it’s there anyways so the incremental cost as compared to what it would cost to store paper is likely negligible.
The environment aspect is the one that I find most fraught with gotchas. Generally, the paper we use is made from recycled materials and then recycled again once we’re done with it. But what about the other tools that we need to deal with the paper? I’m referring to the printers, fax machines, scanners, photo-copiers, and all the consumables they require. I’m not an expert in this area, nor do I ever plan to be one, so I will leave it to someone better qualified than I to comment. One thing that I did read somewhere (I forget where) related to the environmental impact of going paperless. The gist of the issue was the additional environmental impact of replacing paper with the technology and tools required to replace the paper. This struck me as either disingenuous or ill-informed, depending on the author’s intent. We’re already using the technology and there’s more coming every day.
We won’t be paperless, but there will be less paper.