Real Talk with Manfred Forst about the vision ‘Paperless Office’

We talk to Manfred Forst, one of the leading experts on “paperless office”. With over 25 years of experience, his company, DMSFACTORY, is one of the specialists in the digitization of document-, data- and information-driven processes in German-speaking countries.

red. Mr. Forst, you have been in your business since the 90s. Were topics like the paperless office relevant even before the turn of the millennium?

Forst. In terms of content and the basic idea, yes, but they were not called that. Before the turn of the millennium, the focus was on the ideas of secure storage and easy retrieval of paper documents in digital form, and less on the avoidance of paper in the office or in daily processes. Above all, the saving of useless time spent on searching was an important criterion. At that time, there was hardly any talk of workflows, i.e. digital processes, or of indexing the content of documents. Interestingly enough, once the documents had been successfully searched, they were printed out again for further processing.

red. When would you say the trend towards a paperless office really took off?

Forst. The buzzword “paperless office” has been visible for several years, but without consistent implementation. The development of systems from simple electronic archives to document management systems (DMS) with workflows to enterprise content management systems (ECM) has digitized the document-driven processes that take place in companies bit by bit. For a long time, however, media disruptions such as printing out documents for further processing, which were then scanned in again after processing, were still common.

In my opinion, the implementation of the idea of a digital office only really took off three to four years ago. The trend has been reinforced by the current pandemic, which has necessitated working in a home office, which is impossible with paper-based documents.

red. Creative contemporaries in particular love pin and/or metaplan wall or flipchart. The process of handwritten sketching and writing has even been proven to have a haptic creative dimension. Does all this have to die?

Forst. Absolutely not. If you still want to work with colleagues on a flipchart or whiteboard, you can do so even in the age of the paperless office, photograph the results with your smartphone and then make the photos available to the others in digital form. For example, in electronic files in which they can also be processed digitally via the corresponding workflows. Those who work alone create their sketches or handwritten comments on touch devices such as iPads and the like or corresponding boards without media disruption. And Generation Y is used to using the corresponding programs for their creativity anyway. For many of them, flip charts are a relic from ancient times.

red. What do you tell people who like to “think” by handwriting and on paper?

Forst. The “paperless office” is not an absolutism. Black – white thinking is inappropriate and there is certainly not one truth. My advice to these fellow human beings is: try it out and see if the keyboard can’t replace or supplement the pen when it comes to thinking. I myself am the best example of this, as my creativity and performance has increased tremendously since I started taking my notes and writing digitally. I can easily adapt them, change them, and put individual sentences in a new order until the document is finished.

red. The factors of availability, document management and archiving are offset by the complete dependence on bits & bytes. Is that a problem?

Forst. Only if you are negligent with the environmental parameters. The systems and the storage of the data must of course be subject to the known access and backup procedures. Equivalently, you would not store your paper archive in flood-prone basement rooms, but in an environment where the documents are best protected against loss.

However, the paperless office also has decisive advantages if the above-mentioned conditions are observed: if systems or data are destroyed by external influences, they are not lost, but can be restored with the appropriate data backup.

red. From your point of view, from what size of company does the paperless office become obligatory?

Forst. If I define the “paperless office” as a working environment in which no or very little paper is produced, then it is certainly the case for companies with just a few employees. A changeover to a paperless office is urgently recommended when more complex processes characterize daily work, when different systems or programs have to talk to each other, when documents have to pass through several departments or when – as is currently the case – employees work in a home office, regardless of the extent to which they do so.

red. The path to paperlessness literally forces one to deal with internal company processes in detail. Is mentoring a key aspect of your own value creation here?

Forst. Yes, definitely. One of my favorite phrases is: “what can’t be done without digitization, can’t be done with digitization, just faster.” This means that when converting familiar processes to digital processes, the sense of the individual process steps must always be considered, i.e., it must be questioned whether exactly this step makes sense at this point in time. In the initial discussions on implementing a solution, our customers ask us directly to take on the mentoring for the processes to be implemented. As “outsiders”, we certainly see one or two opportunities and the potential to do something differently, so that things subsequently become faster, better and more secure.

red. You talk about product neutrality in your solutions? Is that really guaranteed? As an experienced provider, don’t you also have established partnerships?

Forst. Yes, of course there are grown partnerships. But these don’t prevent us from benchmarking the vendor market anew every year on the basis of the latest trends in the industry. We determine the result of the benchmarking from, among other things, the quality and modernity of the systems offered, the technologies used, the quality of the vendor’s second-level support, the prices for the solutions, and so on. Incidentally, we test the solutions of potential new partners very intensively on our own systems, so that we know all their strengths and also weaknesses, and exactly which use cases we can apply them to.

We then take on the best two or three manufacturers as suppliers and train our employees before we then start our marketing and sales activities and publicize the solution.

The whole process has exactly one goal: we want to have fault-free running systems with satisfied customers in a highly competitive market in the long term. And you can’t do that if you deliver Banana goods.

red. Do you make payback calculations before or after projects? If so, what are the parameters?

Forst. Usually the question of amortization, i.e. the break-even point of the investment, is asked before the decision to invest is made. Here, various parameters are taken into account that go beyond the pure license or hardware costs when introducing a solution. So, for example, the effort required to design workflows, set up AI to capture metadata during scanning, or set up the entire system based on the requirements of all users. Of course, when calculating payback, there is also the question of what to look at: the implementation of the first use case that is implemented with the solution, or the complete scenario?

red. The trust hurdle is certainly very high in the run-up to orders. You have to let them into the heart of your business. How do you allay the fears of potential new customers?

Forst. By working with the prospect as a solution architect. We have to get to know the business of our potential new customer. They have to get to know us, our solution approach, and our methods, and they have to do so with little or no financial risk. The first step of our joint work is our “starter workshop”, which usually takes three days. First our prospective customer specifies the requirements of his business to the solution, then we present the functionality of our solution on the living system. We then enter into a discussion about the best way to implement the solution and summarize what we have learned in a clear solution outline. This then serves to determine the exact price for our offer and forms the basis for implementation.

red. Do you have different offers or packages? Or, in other words, can you go light, classic or hardcore when it comes to going paperless?

Forst. Yes, of course. Our offers are based on the requirements of our customers. Some of our customers want an “all-round carefree package” in which we provide all services up to the “handover of the keys”, i.e. the start-up of the application in the company, and including individual training. Others, in addition to the delivery and basic installation of the software, only need advice and support in setting up the solution, which they then do themselves. Our post-commissioning service packages are designed precisely to meet these different requirements.

red. In which industry do you create the most – as they say in new German – impact?

Forst. We are active across all industries. Certainly, construction and trades, financial service providers, retailers and utilities have a significant share in our success. But I don’t want to exclude others. What is interesting to observe is that the so-called publics are currently increasingly registering their demand, an industry that has so far been rather conservative and still relies for the most part exclusively on working with paper.

red. Pareto principle: what are your top 20 percent customers in terms of industry, sales, number of employees?

Forst. Our smallest customer has just over 10 employees, our largest customer more than 5,000.

Please understand that I am not allowed to say anything here about the names of our customers, their turnover or their industry for reasons of confidentiality. The customers who allow us to report their success story can be found with detailed articles on our website

red. May I ask you three personal questions?

Forst. Yes, of course

red. What book is currently on your bedside table?

Forst. I get to read far too rarely. As a self-confessed handball fan of the Füchse Berlin, I’m currently reading “Bob Hanning: Hanning. Power. Handball. Light fare, but entertaining.

red. If you had to rank personal qualities on a scale of zero to ten, what would they be: a) Openness b) Conscientiousness c) Extraversion

Forest. Openness – 7 … Conscientiousness – 11 … Extraversion-8 (without the frivolous component *smiles*)

red. Is there a historical figure you admire?

Forst. In a non-political context: Leonardo da Vinci. He was a mastermind and universal genius of his time, an all-rounder for whom nothing was impossible.

red. In conclusion: Do you have a life motto, and if so, what is it?

Forst. Not tried is already lost – do it. Now.

red. Mr. Forst, thank you very much for the interview.

Forst. You’re very welcome, thank you!




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