So many firms out there claim to be “going paperless.”

Could this really be true, or are they just kidding themselves?

I prefer to use the term “less paper,” and when I present it that way, most firms agree that’s where they really are.

I stumbled across a vendor called “Practically Paperless” about two years ago that focuses on helping small businesses convert their documents to electronic format. They’re one of many such vendors in a crowded market, but I love their Web site.

It pictures a computer with tons of sticky notes hanging off it, pages push-pined into the cubicle walls and tons of files piled on top of the computer, around the desk and under the phone. On top of the picture is the phrase, “Relax, It’s Here Someplace.”

I liked it so much, I made it my screensaver.

The kicker is that someone walked by and asked me whether that was a picture of my desk. After all, I’m the one writing all these paperless best practices stories, but my desk is buried under a mound of paper. I’m not even close to paperless, but I don’t claim to be and, quite frankly, I’m not trying.

Do I see the benefits digitizing documents can bring to a firm of any size, even a sole proprietor? Absolutely.

But it doesn’t happen overnight—and it’s the rare firm that can leap from that hectic picture to a squeaky clean desk.

Does anyone in your firm prepare tax returns off physical source documents? Take notes with an actual pen or pencil? Wait until the return is complete before scanning it into the system? Walk to a filing cabinet to find a folder when a client calls? If the answer to any of those questions is yes, I’ve got some news for you: your firm’s not paperless.

The hardest part about the transition isn’t learning a new technology, it’s the cultural change, getting people to stop doing what they’ve been doing for years. Guess what? If the people don’t change, the new system won’t work, no matter how state-of-the-art it is.

Best practices I’ve heard from successful firms all revolve around buy-in and training for all staff, including admins. Something like Adobe might seem intuitive, so firms often don’t spend time training staff on how to use it. But if the preparers knew they could take notes on the computer and that many of the same tick marks they’re accustomed to using on paper could be duplicated on screen, maybe they’d find letting go of that paper a little easier.

Here’s another tip: don’t wait ‘til next busy season to train them. Extensions are a great way to practice without the pressure.

Oh yeah, and being the crowded market that it is, a lot of those vendors will offer free trials.

What’s there to lose other than some clutter?

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