I was recently forwarded an IT research organization study that purported to quantify the time and money “lost” to knowledge workers each year due to poor document creation and management. With several pages of caveats, the study presented an exact-sounding figure just north of $19,000 US “lost” to these time wasters, which they claimed was equivalent to a very scientific-sounding 213 employees per year per 1,000.

While these “studies” are rarely without ulterior motive, and the methodologies that produce these quasi-scientific figures somewhat contrived, I certainly buy the premise that significant time and money are spent recreating, managing, collaborating on, and pushing documents around and outside most organizations. What’s fascinating is that the tools to mitigate most of these problems already exist; they’re just not leveraged inside the average organization. Furthermore, like most IT challenges, many of the problems are process problems that can be fixed with some mental exertion and a policy change or two. With organizations pressed for more productivity, who wouldn’t want an additional 213 “free” workers on the books? Here are some low-effort thoughts on how to retrieve some of those lost souls:

Get the most from your Office

Microsoft’s Office is effectively the de facto standard for document creation and editing throughout most of the corporate world. Even the occasional “rogue” organization that steadfastly refuses to join the rest of the world must figure out how to deal with Office files should it desire to collaborate outside its own walls. While bashing Microsoft takes on near-religious proportions in many organizations, the Office tools have fairly effective inbuilt editing, versioning, and collaboration capabilities baked right in.

While most users know this, learning how to use these tools takes time, and it’s generally time that overburdened employees don’t want to spend. Rather than sending out the umpteenth email talking about all the wonderful features, try some novel training methods to build evangelical users within your organization. From “lunch and learns” to one-on-one training, establishing a cadre of users who get the most from the IT tools you’ve provided will spread the word. A co-worker raving about some new trick in Office that saves her an hour or two each week will create rapid converts. So, too, will bite-sized recommendations from IT in the form of light-hearted newsletters or blog postings. Think a “10 minute tip” rather than a multi-page manual.

Form-ulate a better plan

There’s nothing that saps the very lifeblood out of an organization like a good, convoluted form. Direct deposit signups have long been a favorite of mine, since they usually require copies of cancelled checks, signatures, and occasionally that blast from the past, the fax machine. On the receiving end, nine out of ten times the account numbers are keyed into a payroll system and the fancy form shredded. Most organizations have dozens of similar forms, both in paper and electronic format, where reams of information are demanded when only one or two items are used, or approvals and workflows are layered atop a process for no apparent reason. Just because the process has “always been done this way” doesn’t mean it need continue.

Consolidate, or at least consolidate searching

In many organizations, well-intentioned people have set up disparate document libraries that begin life as a team or process-specific library and morph into a company-wide repository. This becomes a problem once your organization acquires dozens of libraries in disparate tools, making searching for a document to reuse such an onerous task that it’s easier to just create a document anew (and then store it in yet another repository, further muddying the organizational waters).

While there’s littler budgetary tolerance for what amounts to corporate “librarians” to curate these document collections, there is a very real financial penalty associated with fruitless searches and content recreation. If nothing else, employees expect a Google-like search for internal information, and if you don’t provide a universal search than can dig into all your corporate resources, expect to continually throw money into a black hole.

While I wonder whether anyone can quantify the money “lost” to poor dealings with documents, there’s surely a large price to pay, especially when the majority of most knowledge workers’ lives revolves around creating, reviewing, and sharing documents. While this task seems utterly mundane in an era of “sexy” technologies like Big Data and social networking, there just may be some “lost souls” your organization can reincarnate with some simple, and smarter, working practices.