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THE paperless office has not arrived yet because desktop publishing gets in the way by creating a proliferation of paperwork that consumes vast resources. Desktop publishing enables businesses to produce more paper with greater speed and, generally, an improved appearance. It is largely an interim phase in the business community's long-term drift away from paper made possible by personal computing.
The computer industry's success in promoting desktop publishing has resulted in a business culture in which the form of paperwork--the typography and visual elements--now assume an importance that might even distract from the content. People have become so fascinated with fonts and fancy formatting that many companies are unnecessarily complicating their transition to internal and external electronic publishing, where it is even more important that content, not form, reign supreme. Document-imaging software, derisively called "page turners" by its competition, could establish standards for electronic publishing that inhibit the development of the new media.
Page turners, or basic document imagers, mimic paper. They can be impressive examples of software engineering, but they inhibit much electronic publishing because they are so deeply rooted in printing technology and attitudes. Especially for internal corporate publishing where a lot of material might exist only in hardcopy form, the temptations to replicate paper are strong.
Page turners are attractive because they can enable you to get a paperless system up and running quickly at reasonable initial cost with little initial opposition. The short-term savings might quickly fade, however, against the long-term disadvantages. For a start, most business documentation is in standard 8.5-´-11-inch (or A4) sheets in portrait format that just don't fit the squatter, wider computer screen configurations. Trying to fit pages laid out on vertical letter-size paper onto horizontal computer monitor screens makes little sense.
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There are some difficult transitional stages as the business community begins en masse to go digital with its documents. The pressures to make the change cannot be resisted. Hundreds of thousands of companies around the world have no choice but to adopt electronic "paperless" publishing technologies. If they fail to do so, they simply will not be able to sell to government agencies and other companies with specific timetables that impose dates by which service manuals and other essential documentation must be supplied in electronic formats.
Digitized documentation is fast becoming an essential capability for the 300,000 vendors doing business with the U.S. government and for individuals and corporations selling to other governments around the world that are also moving to electronic environments for assessing, ordering, and paying for supplies. This change has a far-reaching impact on the way business is done at all levels. Some companies have not even tried doing business with the federal government in the past; these businesses could not cope with government bureaucracy that can take up to 40 months just to reach the decision to buy a computer system--let alone pay for it! Under the impetus given to the paperless business environment by the Clinton Administration, and Vice President Al Gore in particular, the federal government will have a substantial part of its procurement activities computerized by mid-1995, with full implementation scheduled for early 1997, shortening a typical acquisition transaction from three weeks to five days.
Companies dealing with the Department of Defense, aerospace, telecommunications, and other large high-tech industries have no effective alternative but to use electronic publishing and document-managing systems that support the Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) international standard. This standard promises to become ever more important for much corporate and technical
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publishing. It has been adopted by many industry organizations--the Association of American Publishers being among the first.
SGML is part of the Computer-aided Acquisition and Logistic Support (CALS) program of the U.S. Department of Defense, which is setting the standards likely to be adopted for high-level technical publishing around the world, particularly in aerospace, telecommunications, automotive manufacturing, and armaments. The proficiency with which the different "commercial-strength" authoring programs cope with CALS compliance varies greatly, so this should be a major consideration if SGML is important in your publishing objectives.
The decision by federal and state governments to "go paperless" has many other implications. For example, major overhauls have been taking place in the Department of the Environment and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. These are leading to new reporting procedures and the dissemination of much more information, which only digital documentation is able to cope with--both in terms of the volume of the information involved and the speed with which it has to be prepared and processed.
Fortunately, a great deal of software is being prepared to cope with this situation. There are, for example, very specific electronic publications on floppies dealing with various aspects of new regulations requiring organizations to create written injury and illness prevention plans. Floppy disks are a good medium for this kind of publishing because of the speed and economy with which specific information can be updated. It is far easier to ensure that you have the latest disk of, say, the Emergency Preparedness Plan than its 50-page paper equivalent. It might be difficult and expensive, on the other hand, to keep revising a collection of such works on CD-ROM. The best sources to keep up with what is available in these niches of electronic business publishing are the professional and specialized periodicals, dealing with such issues as waste management or occupational safety and health.
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You might already unknowingly work for a company that is an active publisher. It might publish books and other publications to support its corporate manufacturing, distribution, or service functions. Managers often do not realize that the skills and resources to create books already exist within their organization and can be deployed very cost-effectively in switching to electronic document management.
Technology is advancing so rapidly and becoming so complex that paper can no longer cope in many business situations. Boeing Aerospace is, for example, one of the world's leading publishers. The weight of documentation, particularly the servicing and operations manuals, needed for a 747 exceeds that of the aircraft itself. No wonder Boeing is already involved in electronic publishing in a big way! The manufacturers of many other products must also publish extensive technical, servicing, and operational information that is increasingly going onto disk rather than paper.
Members of a business community steeped in a paper-based administrative culture keep protesting that particular forms of corporate publishing just cannot be digitized. However, every day someone, somewhere is proving them wrong--often a competitor. As author Elbert Hubbard declared, "The world is moving so fast these days that the man who says it can't be done is generally interrupted by someone doing it."
Despite the traumas involved in moving away from paper, the benefits can be enormous. When Byte magazine investigated
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the corporate use of electronic publishing in its September 1993 issue, it found examples of companies that had slashed costs and increased productivity five-fold by switching from print to digitized information. Byte's Cary Lu comments, "Electronic publishing gives you the keys that unlock all the information in your documents, information that you couldn't find before or even knew that you had."
These benefits will not be enjoyed to the full, however, if business decision-makers fail to appreciate all the implications of making their words and pictures perform to maximum effect as they graduate from the page to the virtual environment.
Bill Gates, President of Microsoft Corporation, the world's largest software company, expects an acceleration in the ways that the new electronic media actually transform the structure of corporations, not just how information flows within the business world.
"The tools of the information age are prime agents of change for the business community," says Gates. "For example, the average size of companies must get smaller as a result of electronic media, because of the ease with which you can collaborate with people who don't work inside your company. The need to have particular expertise within a company will become very much less, and that is resulting in a scale change in our corporations."
"Although the economic news emphasizes that companies like IBM and GM are laying off people, this scale change is generating other jobs made possible outside the big corporations by the new electronic media," he concludes.
Microsoft itself is an example of this trend. While it has reduced its employee numbers in some areas during the early '90s, there has been phenomenal growth of employment among the 750 smaller software companies in the state of Washington. Many of them are new ventures, and the majority of them do contract work for
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Microsoft, keeping in touch electronically. There was, therefore, a net gain in employment in Washington's software industry, despite the negative headlines about Microsoft's layoffs. A similar pattern is seen in other industries and in other states and nations.
Gates forecasts a business future with new ways of working and communicating that have never been done before. Already he has several hundred people on such projects, many of which will not come to full fruition before the end of the century. He is particularly bullish about developments in multimedia publishing of all kinds, media that he played a large part in creating when he invested heavily in CD-ROM software in the mid-1980s, at a time when hardly anyone else was predicting the present remarkable growth rates.
New highly mobile industries are being spawned by the information revolution. They are being dubbed "footloose industries," and are particularly attractive in scenic areas and rural communities because they are clean and undemanding of local resources. Their environmental impact is minimal because they do not need to extract minerals, dump waste, cut down trees, or consume natural resources. As electronic publishing in all its forms gathers momentum, these industries will increasingly run almost virtual offices and virtual factories, with much of their business being conducted on-line.
Much writing these days originates within the organizations being affected by these changes, but hardly any writers anywhere--even those laboring in the contemporary equivalents of garrets--will be immune to the impact. The change that electronic publishing makes on business has a dominant influence on all of us, so this topic must be examined in detail.
The cost savings, increased efficiency, and logistical advantages of eliminating as much paper as possible are enormous, and already well-proven. Just before IBM embarked on its massive electronic
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publishing project in 1986, it had to ship its European customers the manuals for a new release of midrange systems software. The paperwork crossed the Atlantic in seven Boeing Jumbo Jets at enormous expense and consumption of corporate and natural resources. Now a complete set of all those books can be contained on a single CD-ROM, and enough copies of that disk to meet the needs of IBM's European customers could be checked in on a passenger flight as accompanied baggage!
By transferring personnel documentation such as employee benefits packages, scholarships, and medical programs from paper to computerized formats, IBM saved over $63 million in a five-year period. The comparatively small conversion costs were recovered in just the first year, and from then on the savings have kept on escalating. By 1993, for a modest $105,000 expenditure on maintaining the electronic publishing program, Big Blue was recouping over $15 million each year in the benefits it could quantify. The intangible rewards were probably much higher, particularly at the most critical time for human resource issues as IBM went through a traumatic reorganization of its whole employee structure.
A company or other organization considering going to paperless documentation must make some difficult initial decisions and be prepared to exercise strong discipline on its people to make the change successful. Paper is such a familiar and comfortable medium that the problems for many organizations in trying to move from it to electronic media are as much emotional and psychological as they are practical. Trying to make this major change in an organization is almost certainly doomed to failure if the whole management team does not buy into it, and at least as much attention is given to the human issues raised as to the technology involved.
It is particularly important to reassure all those who must abandon their safe, familiar paper environments that they will personally be more successful in their work as a result of the new paperless systems. Managers at Aetna Life & Casualty did this successfully by
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offering $20 bets to staff who could retrieve information faster through the traditional editions of their manuals than they could in the new electronic equivalents.
The law firm of Hunton & Williams holds annual Infobase Fairs in the lawyers' dining room, at which employees can see new developments in the internal electronic publishing system and make their own suggestions. The type of questions asked at these events changed quickly from "What is it?" to "What's new this year?" as enthusiasm for the paperless environment grew.
Employee involvement at all levels was the key to Aetna's solution to handling 87 million pieces of paper in one of the earliest and most successful introductions of an internal corporate electronic publishing system. Employees even got to suggest which charities should receive the 10,000 manila file folders made redundant by the change over.
"We're talking about a culture so steeped in paper and paper processes, we thought we'd have to pry the paper out of their cold, dead fingers," recalled Charlie Coon, Aetna's director of Mechanization Strategies. Now nobody at the famous insurance company would even think about reverting to their 150-year-old paper tradition dating from the era of quill pens. The savings have been enormous. Just eliminating the regular updating on paper of the manuals used by underwriters saves nearly $3 million in lost time each year. It would have cost nearly $4 million to print the 87 million pages that were eliminated on the initial implementation alone of the Folio VIEWS Infobase system that Aetna has adopted. The easily quantified hard cost savings--the actual expenditure no longer necessary--are estimated at $6 million a year, with the increases in productivity and other soft benefits probably at least as much, if not more.
As in many organizations, the paper crunch came for Aetna when it was forced to find a better way of storing and accessing its archival information. An old mainframe computer system was costing Aetna $500,000 a year just to maintain inactive insurance
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policies, and the possibility of converting them to the familiar paper would have generated a pile of 81Ú2-´-11 sheets over a mile high, with another half-million dollars needed for the filing cabinets to contain them.
Many possibilities for handling this historical data were evaluated before the Aetna people found that their colleagues trying to cope with maintaining underwriting manuals were facing similar problems. Again, it is a common corporate situation that similar document-management difficulties exist in several departments, and that a corporate-wide solution needs to be applied, sooner or later. The moral is not to try to plow a lonely furrow when coping with information overload, but to get a company-wide policy coordinated right from the beginning. Even the new, more fragmented, IBM Corporation, with all its emphasis on smaller autonomous units, has made electronic publishing a global corporate strategy. You can benefit from all that corporate muscle by using IBM's excellent BookManager, which in 1994 was moving steadily from DOS and OS/2 to Windows and other business computing platforms.
There are now many software offerings that, in theory, can cope with almost any business paperless publishing strategy. Aetna's crucial need for speed and reliability underlines the lesson that the service backing up the product must be assessed along with the more easily quantified results of the benchmark testing.
Aetna needed more than twelve million records--100 gigabytes--transferred within a year from its policy archives on the mainframe to CD-ROMs that could be handled on the desktop. The deadlines were beaten, with hundreds of mainframe tape cartridges being compressed by a ratio of 70% to fit onto CD-ROM discs. The payback has been impressive, but that is fairly typical when a move to a largely paperless environment has been implemented so carefully. It now costs Aetna only a dollar to make an inquiry on an expired policy, representing a 90% cost saving. The whole operation has paid back its initial investment in just nine months.
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"Taking advantage of this new electronic medium means thinking differently about how information is communicated, used, shared, and distributed," emphasized Mike Judson, the Folio Corporation's director of corporate communications. "Emulating electronically the look and feel of the paper document should be secondary to helping people find what they need, when they need it."
He continued, "Information is dynamic. It changes, it gets pulled apart, and put back together for a myriad of different needs. That's why it makes no sense to carry over the static nature of paper into the electronic medium. A true electronic publishing solution doesn't mimic the static nature of paper, it removes that artificial limitation and lets people do what they need to do with the document because it is dynamic, like the information it bears."
Lotus Development Corporation founder Mitch Kapor has drawn a parallel between much initial implementation of electronic publishing and the early days of cinema. The early movies were dominated by theatrical conventions, and many were just filmed records of stage productions. Moviemaking quickly developed its own style and manner of communicating, however, just as electronic publishing is developing its own distinctive way of conveying information, free from the shackles of print.
When making the change, try not to compromise by keeping so much of your document management and publishing strategies stuck in a paper-based mold that they hold you back from properly exploiting the new media. This is happening a lot with the use of document imaging systems that focus on trying to transform print on paper to print on the computer monitor, as if this was a microfiche, photographic process. At the very least, the change to digitized information must offer search features that enable the information within the documents to be located quickly and easily without a lot of intensive human indexing effort.
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