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Why Paperless Construction is Taking its Sweet Time

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When a 1994 InfoWorld article touting the wonders of electronic document management hit the newsstands, companies like Boeing were just beginning to dip their toes into a business world without paper. At that time, Boeing airplane mechanics were taking portable computers with the documentation they needed into the field when they worked on aircraft. At the same time, the state of Wisconsin was beginning to automate the production and distribution of legislative documents.

But 20 years later survey responses to Paperless Office 2014 suggested paper was so ingrained in business that it might take yet another 20 years before paperless offices become a reality. While 68% of survey respondents agreed that continuing to use paper-based systems was an unacceptable business practice, 21% said their use of paper was increasing. More telling was that 44% of organizations said they were only 10% of the way to paper-free processes, and nearly a quarter hadn’t made any progress at all. And, this is a global phenomenon. A UK survey by M-Files, and Sage Small Business Panel found that 77% of respondents still store and manage paper records, while 19% said they use paper exclusively. Another survey done across Europe by Epson reported 64% of employees preferred to read reports in hard copy because they’re easier to share, easier to read, and easier to edit. 

As one commenter pointed out, “paper is instant-on, has infinite battery life, has nonvolatile memory, and is thin, and lightweight.” Paper’s “low-refresh rate” was the only downside. 

So, why the disconnect?

It turns out it has more to do with business processes than it does with paper. Many business processes were born with paper documents, making the two dependent on one another. So if those processes don’t change, the paper stays. The other process problem is that when companies started converting from paper to electronic documents they did it by simply converting their paper file systems to electronic form. 

Some advice on paperless…

If you want to boost your paperless profile with the least amount of pain, then look for a document management system that easily integrates with your existing back office. The idea is to make it simple, and not cause people to do more work just so the paperless dream can come true. 

Projects managed exclusively with software is far from a pipe dream––it’s the future of construction. It’s just a matter of educating the industry on how to successfully leverage technology to do the heavy lifting.

But, not doing more work is not the same thing as not learning something new. Yes, users will need to learn new ways of doing things, but if the learning curve is shallow, and the interface is intuitive, ROI is instantaneous. 

Also, make sure the new system is better than what’s currently in use. People might grumble a little bit because they have to learn a new software that require new workflows than before, but they’ll really put up a fuss if they learn something new only to find it provides no additional value and possibly further headache.

Paperless Construction Projects

From a project perspective, moving away from paper in construction is challenging because of the amount of documents involved, and how many must be shared with people other than those at your own company. If your subcontractor is still using strictly paper, then you either have to provide documentation in paper form, or require the subcontractor to match your document processes. 

Generally, enforcing an electronic document requirement on subcontractors is easier when the two of you have a history of working together and you can illustrate the advantages. It also helps if the document management system you use is easy to understand and offers the subcontractor privacy and credentialing options so they can protect sensitive information.

And of course, the move to electronic documents on any given project is always easier with owner involvement. When the GC, or CM, and owner work together to move beyond paper, it sets the tone for everyone else on the job. 

The Promise of Paperless

Interestingly, it’s difficult to find any sources that can back up the claim that paper is better than digital, although some of those in the legal profession or those defending against lawsuits might prefer paper because it contains much less data than electronic documents. But purely from a business perspective, electronic documents get high praise. They use less physical space, are quickly searchable, improve productivity of the workforce, and make sharing information easy and much quicker. When you combine electronic documents with a cloud-based document management solution, you’ve hit a homerun. With the best of both worlds, you can:

  • Eliminate additional hardware or software required for document storage and retrieval

  • Improve security with permission levels as well as removing physical files from risks associated with building security and fire and water damage

  • Track all versions of documents

  • Own and archive all of your data

  • Easily locate, review, edit, and share your documents with others

A paperless construction world is just the beginning. The power of unlimited construction possibilities lies in software built specifically for the construction professional. Projects managed exclusively with software is far from a pipe dream––it’s the future of construction. It’s just a matter of educating the industry on how to successfully leverage technology to do the heavy lifting. 


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