Paperless re-visited (part one)

A lot of stuff (or "data" as it likes to be known) comes into your life on a daily basis. Some of this is on paper, such as bills, letters, receipts, documents and the likes. Data is generated when you write things down on paper or key it into a computer. There’s just a stream of data in a modern life. Not to mention email, and it's better not to mention email, frankly. Nothing you can do will turn off the stream. The best you can do is try to keep your head above water so you can breathe.


People have been dreaming of a paperless life as long as there have been computers. It’s a myth. There is no way to avoid paper as such. And certainly no way to avoid data. Even a hippie in a Yoga camp is going to get bills and have to fill in forms. So what we need is a re-evaluation of the term “paperless”, because that one just doesn’t seem true.


I propose you think of it as a Digital Filing System. If you look into big business and Government, they have Records Management Systems like Recfind, Trim and Objective to name a few common ones. These are filing systems for corporate data. Once you get as big as a Government department, you can’t just file your Word documents on the F: drive and hope people that need them will stumble across them. Even nested folders and Google Search for Desktop isn’t going to be enough. Big data needs better systems. Hence the Records Management industry was born.


So if we have these systems at work, why don’t we have something similar at home? Well because they cost a bomb for one thing. And they are only useful inside the corporate network, while you are sitting at your desk. A modern life generates data wherever you go. And your filing system needs to be there too and keep up with you. Why else are we carrying around smart phones and tablets and laptops and whatever?


Then there’s the whole GTD (Getting Things Done) methodology. This is a system proposed by David Allen that suggests you capture, clarify, organise, reflect and engage all your data. It’s a very good system and has rapidly replaced older Time Management systems to become the go-to for busy people and creatives alike. One of the main tenants of GTD is to have a Universal Inbox; one place to put everything. One place to look for all your stuff. One place to go to organise and process. This is another way to say Ubiquitous Capture. Gathering data anywhere you are.


Of course a scanner helps a lot. It turns paper into digital data. You can get desktop document scanners, multi-function devices (copier, fax, scanner, printer) and lots of other types of scanners. There are portable ones and you can use your smart phone camera as a scanner too.


Then there’s the data that is easily grabbed in a photo. For example if you are enjoying a nice wine, photograph the label and you’ll remember which one it was, assuming it’s good enough for you to forget the name of. On the non-alcoholic side, I photograph the serial number stickers on every computer I work on and all the parts I use. This gives me an easy record of which parts got used and what they were. You’d be surprised at how often this information becomes a bargaining chip when it comes time to pay the bill for my services. And photos have GPS data on them so I even know where I was as well as the date and time.


A lot of people write the most important things on a humble post-it note. Those brightly coloured things are so convenient but easy to lose. More then one customer has lost the cryptic password I invented for them because the glue gave up on the Post-it note.


There are still some people who write with an actual pen on paper. Handwriting is slow to die. Although the way I write, you would hope it would hurry up. I have recently embarked on a project to improve my penmanship, I started a course called Write Now. It seems that we do in fact learn most of what we need in life by grade 5, and my grade 5 writing was not so crash hot.


When we meet people who want to pass data to us, it is sometimes written on a whiteboard. I think the Labor party had one of those once. But I digress. The problem is that once written in dry erase pen, your data is not very user friendly to take home. Dragging a whiteboard on the bus doesn’t work for me. But some bright spark invented the printing whiteboard, although I’ve never worked anywhere rich enough to afford one. But hey, if you snap a photo of the board with your iPhone, there’s another source of data.


See where I am heading with this rant? Data comes in from many sources, in many formats. The world does not exist in PDF.


So I have defined the problem of “paperless” a bit better for you. It’s really a problem of ubiquitous capture.