The curse of paper – Please do NOT print!


The written word is arguably the most important human innovation of them all. It is certainly up there with fire and the spoken word; however what writing has allowed us to do is to store and condense information such that it can be passed on and down through the generations. This has meant that lessons learned can be shared accurately so that others may benefit without having the same, sometimes painful, learning experiences.

The way we write and record information has evolved over the millennia, from the earliest scratchings on clay and later wax tablets, through papyrus, onwards to modern paper, Mr Caxton’s printing press, and now we have the joys of the laser printer and modern lithography. In today’s Information Technology world however the majority of information in the world is now stored on computer, at an unimaginable density. We were however promised the ‘paperless office’: What ever happened to that?

The introduction of IT systems actually led to an almost exponential rise in the consumption of paper and globally we now produce about 100 million metric tons of paper for writing and printing alone. One wonders how much extra paper has been wasted by that one line at the bottom of an email asking that it not be printed, to save paper, has cost by forcing the email to need a second page to print?

Paper isn’t all bad, there is a joy to reading a book rather than looking at a screen. We can derive all sorts of information from the physicality of paper. How far through a document are we? Visualise where an image or key piece of data may have been on a page, what was near it.

There is however a fundamental incompatibility between the use of paper and many of today’s business processes. The nemesis of efficient business processing; The Paper Form.

Forms for everything

We are addicted to them, they’re everywhere, from wanting a day off to recording a medical complaint, we cannot seem to do without them. The fact is however, that information recorded initially on paper usually needs to be entered into some form of back office system. No one can tell much from looking at 100,000 pieces of paper all stacked in boxes in a room. Not if they want to preserve their sanity anyway.

So, generally speaking, a team of administrators or in many cases the person who recorded the information on paper in the first place then types the information into a system. Ignoring for a moment the waste of precious organisational time, this is doubly inefficient as transcription errors are often introduced. Then the unnecessary paper that was used to produce the form is often held in a salt mine somewhere at great expense to store or recover and then ultimately destroyed.

And if the information was collected with no intention of it being used, then shame on the idiot who decided that was a good use of time, money and the environmental cost. (Estimated at 5 litres of water per page of A4 by the way!)

We mention these scenarios as we come across them in our daily lives with a frequency that is baffling. And before we all point the finger at ‘red tape’ the inefficiencies of government administration, this is not the preserve solely of the public sector rather it is a ubiquitous and endemic problem across the commercial sector too. Ironically it is often the very need for good governance that drives the creation of mountains of paper which hide valuable information as well as the basic need for structured, form-based data for the very back office systems which might process it.

The rise of the ‘e-Form’

Its not all bad news, for the last 20 years or so we have had web technologies and along with this came the e-form. We simply create an online form, fill it in and it’s all good right? Sadly, not quite so. Given that e-Forms have been around for 20 years, why are they not used everywhere? Why is that not the default these days?

Well certainly there are more and more around, however at this point, leaving aside the connectivity problems that persist in many areas of the UK, eforms are still rather complicated to create and the vast majority of these have limited, if indeed any, ability to connect with existing systems.

Breaking this down, the average Microsoft Office User would struggle to use the vast majority of eforms offerings. They are usually the purview of specialists in the IT department who have very limited time, and so out of expediency, the departmental user knocks up a paper form to be completed by hand.

In the event that IT or an external agency can provide the resource to produce an eform, what happens to the data? In our experience, it ends up on an email targeted to an admin somewhere that has to type it in again. – We seem to be re-inventing inefficacy. But the good news is that with all our technology, we can be inefficient at speed! In many cases the data can end up in a separate database, but we have come across scenarios where this has to be held by a third party ‘in the cloud’. In all of these scenarios, travelling that last couple of feet, into your target system is usually the hardest step of all.

But what happens when it all works?

At NDL we have striven to overcome these issues. After rounds and rounds of user engagement over the last three years, we have produced a package that is simple enough for the average office user to produce rich, responsive eforms with all the bells and whistles that users expect so that data can be captured accurately, the first time and it only has to be recorded once. This means that your subject matter experts, managers and team leaders can create the forms they need, to match the way they want the business processes to run, without having to be a burden on often over stretched IT staff.

Better that that, it also means that members of the public and customers, both internal and external, can service the information, saving precious administrative resources. Our unique integration tools also mean that the data can be posted directly into existing back office systems directly, saving even more time and money.

And now we have structured data in our systems, so rather than looking at 100,000 pieces of paper, we have real accessible information. We can gain data insights, plan our services and resourcing accurately and even apply business Intelligence and Analytics to predict future needs.

So, if you are looking to adopt an eforms offering, look for these points:

  • Is it simple to use or will it be the sole preserve of the IT team or can I create powerful forms without writing any code?
  • Will it integrate with my existing website look and fee?
  • Will my forms work on mobile as well as desktop?
  • Will it create all the data points I need automatically?
  • Has it a wide range of ways of connecting to my exiting system?
  • If I want to do special and clever things, can we extend its functionality?


At NDL we believe that we should be eliminating as much paper out of our work lives as possible. Not just because it can save money, which it undeniably does, and not just because it is inefficient and environmentally damaging, but because it traps information, locking it up and making it no use to anyone. And it doesn’t have to be that way.

If you would like to discuss real life projects that are delivering huge savings and informational insights at scale, in some of the country’s most demanding environments, then why not get in touch with us.  Then you can use the time you save to dig into a really good book. But whatever you do, please don’t print this document!