Paperless pointers for accountants in business

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Document creation in paper form is inherently inefficient in that someone has to do something with it. Once a file has been created, it must be stored in the right place and ultimately destroyed.

The cost savings of generating less paper may not be that significant. However, less paper generated means less toner used and fewer files to store the output. In addition, less storage space and fewer filing cabinets are required, and less time is wasted searching for files.

Practical "less-paper" tips

Here are some simple practical tips that can assist in reducing the use of consumables, reducing filing costs, and improving working methods.

  • Print only the pages you really need - The "print on demand" philosophy involves only printing out the pages you need, rather than habitually printing the entire documents. If you have made changes to pages 2, 3, 4 and 7 in a 20-page document, only reprint these pages, not the whole document. In Word this is done by selecting the appropriate radio button in the Page Range section. Either, all, a selection, or specific pages can be selected. Alternatively, use the mouse to highlight the section required by clicking and dragging the mouse over it.
  • Print 2 (or more) sheets to a page - Why use one sheet of paper for every printout when it could be printed two to a page with no loss of quality? Printing two to a page may be appropriate for internal reports. In Microsoft Word this can be done easily from the Print screen by selecting the number of pages per sheet.
  • Obtain/use a printer capable of duplex printing - A duplex printer is capable of printing on both sides of a page at the same time. This will reduce paper usage. You may want to use this option for internal documents. For documents going to the customer, such as quotations or correspondence, you may like to consider this option even though it is different from what you have done before.
  • Use dual monitors - Having two monitors (or more) side-by-side means that the user can have different programs open at the same time. This eliminates the need to print documents from within one application and then re-key the information into another. Once you have dual monitors in place, you will wonder how you ever managed without them!
  • Obtain PDF creation software - PDF (Portable document format) is a non-proprietary file format with a .PDF extension and requires Adobe Acrobat Reader to be able to view it. Saving a file as a PDF can make it less prone to alteration than if you save it as a Word or Excel document. In addition, creating a PDF allows you to combine files from different sources such as Word and Excel documents. PDF files are likely to be considerably smaller than files in their native format. You can then print reports to PDF for electronic circulation, or even e-mail them from your accounting application.
  • Obtain/implement fax software - All the recommendations in this guide about e-mailing information could equally apply to faxing documents - not by using a traditional fax machine, but by using fax software that allows you to send documents direct from your PC to the recipient's fax.
  • Obtain a good scanner - A scanner allows you to create images of documents for electronic filing. However, do not be tempted to save money by buying a flatbed scanner. Such a machine is far too slow and labor intensive. A sheet feed scanner should be the minimum specification.
  • Buy a heavy duty shredder! - As less paper (if any!) is going to be placed on traditional files, more paper will need to be shredded, and this can also be recycled.
  • Staff handbooks - employees do not require their own printed personal copies of staff handbooks and manuals. One copy available for all to access electronically is sufficient.
  • Electronic banking - Make payments to suppliers, and send remittance advices by e-mail rather than by post. Security may be an issue here. Whilst checks may require two signatures, electronic payments can be made by one person signing into the banking system via the Internet. This does, however, have the potential for fraud.
  • Obtain 'buy in' from the owners/directors and staff - Moving to paperless is a major culture shift for most team members. Therefore, it is important to involve them in the discussions and the decision making right from the start. Once you go paperless, everyone has to follow the system, otherwise there will be chaos. It only takes one person to derail the success of this initiative, so get everyone's 'buy-in' early and often.

Electronic filing v document management

Note that you do not need to have specialist document management software. It is possible to make significant progress in becoming electronic and reducing paper and associated costs without such software. However, there can be significant benefits in making the investment.

A typical scenario is that each customer has his/her own folder on the network in a shared directory such as S:\customer Folders. This may then be further subdivided into perhaps regions of the country or managers or customer code numbers/names depending on how you have set it up. Windows Explorer can be used to directly navigate to any document or the Windows Search facility can be used.

Using customer folders is simply 'electronic filing.' This set-up can be time consuming, especially when there are many sub levels to negotiate. Overlaps can arise and it is not always clear into which subfolder a document should be placed. Another nightmare can happen if users browsing files in Windows Explorer inadvertently drag files from one customer to another.

All this having been said, an electronic filing system may
well meet the needs of a majority of businesses, particularly smaller ones.

The principal advantage of a document management system (DMS) is its ability to search for specific information in all files. This is particularly critical for larger businesses, and especially, those with multiple sites.

Here's an example. A customer has been sent details of the product 'XYZ' with a detailed quotation. Another customer wants the same specifications for that product. Using the search facilities in document management software and searching for 'XYZ' would find all files containing that text string. This could potentially save untold hours of unnecessary duplicate work. Other advantages of a DMS system are security, speed, and robustness.

Legal admissibility of electronic documents

Often one of the reasons for the reluctance to move to electronic filing and scanning is the legal admissibility or validity of scanned documents. BSI DISC PD0008 is the current British Standard document relating to the legal admissibility and evidential weight of information stored electronically.

Referring to this document in detail is recommended to obtain a full understanding, but the key message is that electronic documents are acceptable as evidence, provided they can be proven to have been scanned, stored and managed with due care and diligence.

Look for quick wins

In seeking to reduce your use of paper, you do not have to do everything at once, nor do you have to rigidly follow any particular order. You may want to consider implementing some quick wins before moving on to other areas.

Having read this and other guidance, you should be able to identify at least two or three system changes which can be implemented without huge discussion or dissent at proprietor's meetings which can reduce paper and consumables consumption quite dramatically.

About the author

This article is an extract from Going Paperless: A Practical Guide for Businesses (with special emphasis on Sage Line 50), a 100-page electronic manual written by Kevin Salter and published by his company BBS Computing. The guide is available from as a PDF download for £40 for single copies. For details of multi-user licenses, e-mail [email protected]. A companion volume is also available that puts forward equally practical suggestions for reducing paper within accountancy practices.

Kevin Salter is a chartered accountant and chartered tax adviser. His 'day job' is a partner with north Devon-based accountants Glover Stanbury. He is also managing director of BBS Computing Ltd, the firm's IT arm, and is responsible for developing Tax Tips and Tools, winner of the 'Best tax software' at the LexisNexis Tax Awards 2005. Kevin is IT director of 2020 Innovation Group and a committee member of the ICAEW IT Faculty.

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