Reader Story: Controlling Data and Designing A Paperless Workflow

Reader Story: Controlling Data and Designing A Paperless Workflow

Control KeyThis post is part of the paperless stories feature at DocumentSnap. Some stories are from readers that have successfully gone paperless, some are still going through it. Would you like to share your story too?

Today’s featured DocumentSnap reader is Maryon Jeane from Shropshire. She can be found on Twitter at @MaryonJeane.

What problems were you trying to solve by going paperless?

After moving from a large Victorian farmhouse with a huge attic to a small (but beautiful) cottage with a lot of land but very little space inside, I had a paper problem. With the accumulated paperwork of a lot of years and quite a few businesses, I needed to do a major sort out and rethink. Going paperless was the obvious answer – and as I was going to sort everything out anyway (plus I could barely move in the office), I had the spur I needed to go paperless. So I cleared two weeks of work (I am self-employed) and got to grips with the task big time.

What were the biggest stumbling blocks?

The size of the project was daunting, but once I committed to it and made the time it became exhilarating. However the biggest thing was decision-making – it was exhausting! Every single piece of paper had to be examined and a decision made: discard, archive physically, scan and archive, keep extant physically, keep extant in scanned form, OCR or not?

Tell us about your paperless workflow

I drew up a main plan, but was careful not to make it too rigid. I’ve seen people tidy up (their desk, their office, their cupboards, their homes, their garages) and everything looks amazing and they’re so proud – then six months later it’s all back to Square One. This is because they’ve created a system which is just too rigid, too difficult and time-consuming to maintain.

So the outline was:

Incoming documents: initial decision made as to whether it’s worth anything (reading, keeping, etc.); then date stamped; then either dealt with immediately (all basic mail, for example, is skimmed, date stamped if worth keeping or shredded if not), then either scanned or (usually if it’s quite large, as with a legal document, and I’m short of time) put in a scanning folder for attention later (you can scan while you’re on the phone!). Only documents which have a very definite reason for being kept in physical form make their way into the filing cabinet.

Outgoing documents are all digitally created and so are kept digitally (some very few are printed out if, again, there is a legal or statutory reason for this) and/or are forwarded or copied to other people in that form.

Documents are highlighted for keywords before scanning but, in most cases, I allow the scanner software to OCR the entire document. These days computers have enough memory and storage space and scanners (I use a Fujitsu ScanSnap) are so fast even when using OCR that I think that the slightly slower scanning speed detriment is worthwhile, given that it’s then possible to find anything at all by just searching on a word or phrase.

At the heart of a paperless office or home has to be a database – and one that works with humans and not makes a human contort everything to fit into the way it works. It must be freeform, searching the whole database on anything a human remembers as significant, not just on defined keywords. Evernote is very good indeed and that was my first choice – but it let me down. Twice. It deleted some data each time due to a bad upgrade (over which you have no control as your data and most of the program is in the Cloud), and this is the worst thing a database can do, obviously. So I changed to AllMyNotes and I’m very happy with it.

What I needed from a database was that it would be freeform, would handle all sorts of data (scans, typed notes, tables, photographs, graphics, attachments, etc.), would have a reminder/alarm facility, and would be able to find things fast with just a few words. Both Evernote and AllMyNotes fulfil these criteria, but Evernote is in the Cloud, costs quite serious money, and is not under your complete control. Evernote has a lot of communication facilities which AllMyNotes doesn’t (you can e-mail documents to Evernote, or clip straight to it and share the clip on social media sites, for example) – but actually this doesn’t make a lot of difference because you can easily set up ways of working with AllMyNotes for yourself. With Evernote you can give other people access to particular folders (which actually turned out to be disastrous because, certainly in the earlier days of Evernote, this access couldn’t be restricted and someone happily deleted everything in one shared folder because she’d “finished with it”!), but then your personal data is all in the Cloud – forever. With AllMyNotes (which is a one-off price for unlimited personal use and unlimited updates) you can set up the same sharing (I use BitTorrent Sync) with complete privacy, a faster speed – and it’s free!

I have clients, a partner, and a personal life which all need organisation, so often data does need to be shared. If I receive a letter, for example, in the morning mail and I need to let my partner have a copy, share some of the information (but not all) with a client, and file it for future use, then I date stamp the letter, highlight keywords if necessary, and then scan it. As soon as the document is on the computer it’s filed into a ‘bucket’ folder which I use for anything which will end up in the database. Then I e-mail the file to my partner and either cut-and-paste the salient bits and e-mail them (I use a program called ABBYY Screenshot Reader to grab small bits of text from PDFs), or open up the file in a PDF program, redact the parts of the letter I don’t want to share with my client and annotate as necessary, and then e-mail the redacted version on. If I’m going out and want to do anything with the letter when I’m away from my desk I will also copy the letter into a folder which is synced with my netbook.

As my e-mail program is key to my paperless life I don’t rely on Outlook (in fact I don’t rely on any Microsoft product except for Windows, which I’m unable to avoid!) but use ‘The Bat!’ Professional. This is easily backed up and – key to all the programs I use – is light on resources. The searching facility in The Bat! is awesome: fast and flexible, so you’re never caught on the hop when someone telephones you as a follow-up to an e-mail conversation (and there’s no giveaway sound of rustling paper of course!).

Backups are absolutely vital. Fires don’t happen to filing cabinets and offices too often, but hardware meltdown and software idiocies are rife and frequent. Again, I don’t trust the Cloud any more, having been let down by two different Cloud backup companies, and so backup to an external drive, a USB key (which I can take out of the office for keeping elsewhere if I’m going to be away for any length of time), and my netbook. I use Cobian 11, which is excellent, straightforward – and again free! Backups are also essential in case you accidentally overwrite something, which is a mistake not made in the physical paper world but easily done in the digital.

There is a need and a time for ‘paper and pen’, even in the paperless office. So I have a Livescribe pen, and on my desk in front of me at all times I have an A5 Livescribe notebook. When I’m holding telephone conversations, or having a discussion with my partner about something domestic (or business, we do a few joint things on that front) I jot down notes and reminders etc. I prefer to keep a pen-and-paper ToDo list as well, a weekly one, which helps to keep me on track and motivated because there’s nothing quite like crossing something out once it’s done and dusted! I also keep a small Livescribe notepad in my bag and take my Livescribe pen everywhere with me when I’m out and about. When I upload the data from my pen it’s immediately turned into searchable text by one of the apps in my Livescribe desktop, so then even my handwritten notes become paperless (and also can be accompanied by spoken notes. For example after I’ve finished a telephone call I will often expand on my notes by voice-recording a fuller version of the conversation – which it would take too long to write or type). The pen is also amazingly useful in meetings and interviews (I sometimes interview people for clients) where it’s just not OK to use a keyboard or keypad (and, again, the recording facility is invaluable in this type of situation).

Is this for a business? Tell us about it

I am what was called, in the ’80s, a portfolio worker. My aim is to work completely from home and online, so I do whatever fulfills that aim and interests me.

My background is in teaching, working temporarily in offices during the academic holidays, and in various areas of IT (helping people make the best use of technology, training people in its use, that type of thing), so I just approach people with my various skills on offer to see if I can help them. At first it was hard because people wanted ‘bums on seats’ and middle management particularly had a problem with employing people they couldn’t see and control; now it’s easy and people are more than happy to work with people they only have to pay on results. People approach me with all sorts of projects with which they need help, and I’ll give anything legal (!) my best shot. I don’t often now have to approach people cold (I do it, but only because an idea takes my fancy) because I’m ‘known’.

Right now I’m taking some time out to concentrate on my own work, a writing project, which is exciting – if a little nerve-wracking!

Is There Anything Else We Should Know?

I’ve signed up with everyone possible for paperless billing and notifications etc. and it’s also in my client terms and conditions that everything between us is conducted in digital form. My legal clients still print things out at their end, but what can you do?!?

I make a point of ringing people who send brochures through the post (these are companies with which I already have a trading relationship – I’ve opted out of junk mail) not to do so, telling them that I will be shopping with them online unless they keep sending brochures, in which case I will blacklist them! (Some people need dragging into the twenty-first century…)

I ask people not to send user manuals with things, but this is only partially a success: if I’m buying something from an eBay seller then they’re only too glad to keep the manual in case someone else loses theirs, but bigger businesses have no way of extracting the manual from a box they usually don’t even see before it goes out. If I have to scan a manual I rip it up first to extract all the other-language versions and any other useless bits – then the physical manual is put with the appliance (for example on top of the washing machine or under the printer), particularly where someone might need to look something up while they’ve got dirty or wet hands (not a good idea with computers…).

My average laser printer cartridge lasts two years.

I have one three-drawer filing cabinet in my office which holds not only office files but also all the domestic files – and it’s not full!

Thanks Maryon! I loved this story because it covers a lot of products that I haven’t explored on DocumentSnap in the past. I also like how she made a conscious decision where she wants her data to be and who can do what with it.

If you have questions for Maryon, leave a comment and I will try to get them answered.

(Photo by Faramarz Hashemi)

About the Author

Brooks Duncan helps individuals and small businesses go paperless. He's been an accountant, a software developer, a manager in a very large corporation, and has run DocumentSnap since 2008. You can find Brooks on Twitter at @documentsnap or @brooksduncan. Thanks for stopping by.

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