Monday, June 21, 2010

'I hate working with documents on-screen', and other issues we reinforce

You've heard the phrase "Knowledge is Power". There seems to be a human character trait that says by keeping documents close at hand, preferably within steps of my office chair, I am more powerful. Filing cabinets for individuals, and "working copies" of client files are everywhere in offices. Take that easy access to information away and people fight back. You are removing some of their ability to hoard information, all of which is a duplicate of something available elsewhere, but it exposes a frailty that leaves them uncomfortable. "What if somebody else has the file the one time in a million I actually need it?", or, "What if I'm caught off-guard, a client calls and I don't have their information to hand?". This is just one of the ways employees resist the introduction of enterprise content management (ECM), case management and business process management (BPM) solutions that try to limit the amount of paper moving and filed in the organization.

I have had the 'exciting' opportunity to spend some time working with lawyers over the last couple of years. From helping smooth immigration paperwork to cleaning up company contracts, it doesn't seem to matter who I work with I experience the same thing: paper. When it comes to the workings of a law office, I am frustrated by the apparent waste of paper (and the subsequent charges for photocopying applied to my account). When I think about it though, the issue is obvious with a lawyer because the multiple copies of documents happens typically right in front of you, while you're sitting there in the office. Although not so obvious, regular offices experience the same issue. Most of us I'm sure have seen the pervasive footer on emails, "Do you really need to print this email?". There is no way to know how much paper is wasted on unnecessary printing and copying in offices, because it is not charged per page.

For the 14 years I've been working with electronic imaging technologies, I've always encountered the concern that it is hard to work with text on a screen, but early on companies worked hard to limit the concerns of employees. In the UK at least, as a user of a screen and keyboard, an employer was required to ensure your working area was set up to avoid discomfort and to improve your posture. Companies investing in document imaging put in place minimum specifications for screens, and usability requirements for applications to make it easier and more productive for people to work without paper. These lucky people of the 90's working with electronic documents had it good.

Now when I visit clients, it is not unusual to see LCD monitors in every cube. Screen technology has progressed to a level where great quality should be available on every desk, but we have instilled the concept in the heads of employees that it is hard to work with documents on screen.  Why, beyond an aversion to change, does this persist?

I think that the problem comes not from the screen, but from the documents. Many regular people think of Word documents when reading on screen. Word is an editor, not a document viewer, and it does a terrible job of making documents easy to read. People remember this. Adobe Viewer for PDFs presents nicely prepared documents beautifully. But so often we end up reading marketing brochures prepared in multiple columns for glossy printing, needing to scroll around with every paragraph read, that we learn to hate it. The same with the trend to scan documents to PDF. The viewer does a generally poor job of making scanned documents appear attractive and clean.

My feeling is that companies wanting to become more paperless need to concentrate on the underlying issues of the documents they try and have people use. If your scanned documents look ugly on screen, people won't want to use them. If you force people to use daily reports by scrolling around left, right, up and down, they complain of RSI and general reduced performance. If you archive Word documents for constant reference and record-keeping you're asking for trouble in so many ways. As an aside, I saw a Word document archived in a large government agency that was unreadable, because the pretty font used by individuals was no longer available. This applied to thousands of documents.

Maybe it is time for companies to focus on how they can make the information that gives people the power to make good decisions not only available, but easy to use. This isn't just document scanning. Good application design and recognizing that people want to organize information their way will help people work better. Companies need to focus their investments in document management, business process management, and case management on making users actually want to use the new applications, since this desire to use the application is so important to getting paper off everybody's desk.

A post from the Improving It blog

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IdocCorp said...
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