Enterprise Software

What happened to going paperless?

Remember that quaint idea for offices to go paperless? What can we learn from this failed technology revolution?

When I think of technologies that held amazing promise, created an entire industry and associated hype cycle, and then faded into oblivion, the paperless office seems one of the more notable examples. In case this was before your time or you forgot about the gist of the offering, it was relatively simple. Rather than pushing paper, we would move around digital documents and forms and all that legacy paper would be scanned, organized, and ready for instant retrieval. File cabinets would join typewriters in landfills everywhere, and forests would loom large, spared from the scourge of the office paper industry.

While the vision did manage to sell thousands of huge "multifunction" printers, we seem even further from the paperless office than before. My physical inbox is constantly flooded with paper invoices, catalogs, government notices, and the like, and venues that were prime candidates for going "paperless" still pull out the paper documents and clipboard forms. Furthermore, a side effect of the supposed paperless revolution has been the immense ease with which one can click the "print" icon and spit out hundreds of pages in seconds, with only the smell of hot paper and burnt toner to remind one of the shattered dreams of paperless nirvana. So, what happened to going paperless, and can we learn anything from this failed technology revolution?

The joy of self, and the printed page

Most of us have probably attended a meeting organized by someone who got the "paperless bug." The meeting starts with a request to open a document, and invariably some portion of the attendees didn't receive it, deleted it, or can't open it on their computer. The other two people who actually received the document ended up printing it out in a larger font so it consumed even more paper. After wasting half the meeting printing the document, most paperless crusaders realize the futility of their ways and bring a stack of paper to their next meeting.

A technology needs an obvious, self-centered benefit to be adopted. Paper is immediate, portable, cheap, and the way most of us learned to consume the written word. Throwing an intermediary layer of technology over the problem with vague benefits about trees and "green" will never match the convenience of paper. Contrast this to something like digital music, where the digital version is vastly more convenient than a CD and offers instant gratification, and it's obvious that most people take the path of least resistance. Automating "for the greater good" will never succeed unless accompanied with readily apparent individual benefit.

Medicine that's worse than the disease

Obviously, printed paper is an organizational nightmare. Whole groups of people were dedicated to tracking and filing paper, and one of my first thoughts as I slid open the well-worn drawers of a file cabinet as an intern in my first office job was "there must be a better way." Unfortunately the "better way" proposed by the paperless office involved dealing with potentially complex scanning machines and then overblown electronic filing systems. One afternoon applying categorizations, keywords, and hierarchies to a mundane document is enough to have one running for the manila folders.

The companies that have successfully deployed paperless systems usually automate much of the filing, shuffling, and signing associated with pushing paper, making for a clear individual benefit in terms of automation. The cure alleviates a painful process through speed and seeming "intelligence" in the process. The worst automations take the paper-based process and attempt to duplicate signing, filing, and paper pushing with the additional complexity of technology.

The missing link

Arguably, the critical missing piece of the paperless revolution is at the point of data capture. Despite my love for technology, it's still easier to use $5 worth of notepad and paper to take meeting notes, and this is the case in applications from doctors' offices to field sales and service. The paperless piece failed to consider that so many processes are initiated on paper, and trying to start automation from the end or midpoint of the process was an exercise in futility. If one examined many paper-based processes, they might conclude paper is the best technology available.

Avoid considering only the back end of a process when you look for automation opportunities. The paperless office expected the tail to wag the dog, an obviously rare scenario.

While most offices are anything but paperless, the quick rise and rapid fall of the concept is illustrative to the larger technology industry. Without considering individual benefit, introducing additional complexity, and failing to consider an entire business process, your revolutionary technology endeavors are liable to meet the same fate.

About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

40 comments
Tarfat
Tarfat

I have recently purchased the neat receipt scanner and software. This vendor really gets the job of scanning, recognizing your receipts and documents into a much more interesting one. It makes the categorizing and filing of document an easy task, for those of us who hate filing paperwork. The software turns your documents into searchable pdf too. Now for notes taking, I agree, the feeling of writing is still stronger. For that I recently got the livescribe pen, wow, very impressed. You can write on special notebook paper, record meetings, synchronize your notes to the PC, and last but not least you can search your notes for words you have written and were recognized by the software. Finally your paper notebook images are copied to the cloud into Evernote and can be retreived on an Ipad, Iphone or other mobile android mobile device. So Patrick we are getting Closer.

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

...will have to become IT employees!

Aylen Taci
Aylen Taci

Although I can understand the point the writer of this article is trying to make, it sounded to me a lot like a premature obituary of a paperless office. If you start with the unrealistic aim of going totally paperless, then it is obviously not possible. Boring and menial as it may sound, indexing of documents can save hundreds or thousands of hours for your employees over the years to come. Also, the point is to not stop at scanning and indexing documents. Take it further to managing workflows digitally. If you have studied your organization's digitization and process automation needs and previewed some document management solutions like Globodox, Alfresco etc., you will start off on a solid footing. You can then map the solution's features to each task in your business processes. This will ensure that your employees need to put in minimal effort at 'adapting' to a new way of working. The result: a successfully implemented 'less-paper office'.

BdeJong
BdeJong

Maybe we are aiming to high and should start in just reducing the amount of paper we use? This way you can get a better view of your company in a paperless environment or at least see if this is viable for you.

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

Ever tried to sent a copy of a bank-scanned check to prove a payment? Your printout won't be accepted. If you can't prove the existence of a physical check, you can't prove payment . You will have to rely on your bank's cooperation to do it (for a fee, of course). So should you just rely on credit and debit cards or cash to make a payment? Some say cash (paper again) is going away, and more and more banks and credit unions are charging higher and higher fees & interest to use cards. The more I think about a "paperless" office, and eventually a :paperless society, the less I like the idea.

brianmcd
brianmcd

One of the main reasons many companies (and individuals) have not gone completely paperless is with us humans. There is something gratifying with holding that piece of paper, sport ticket, even most books, in your hand. I have worked in the Document Imaging industry since 1989 and was amazed at how companies would use technology to capture and digitize documents but then would print it out. I remember a company (KeyFile I think) that had an internal mandate that NOTHING was to be printed. You had better be the CEO or have a darn good reason to send something to a printer. When I was at Xionics Document Technologies our first products were scanner interface boards that went into PCs. Many of these were sold to help digitize documents. The final product that Xionics sold (and one of the most popular) was a device (XipPrint) that installed into a LaserJet and helped print those digital images. I tried for sometime to digitize my bills after I paid them but I still kept the bill before that because it was easy to put it in a slot at my home desk and know I had to pay them when I got paid. Even if I went online to pay the bill. As someone mentioned here one of the biggest hurdles is having an inexpensive easy to use device that is thin and easy to manage that can capture the notes we take that would normally end up on paper. I am sure, though, that many of us would use this but then print it out. :-)

jdm12
jdm12

Let's keep in mind that "going paperless" is NOT an act devoted to saving the environment. The actual number of trees in North America has increased dramatically during the past century, due in part to the steady increase in paper use. Paper makes trees valuable. The greatest environmental harm is occurring in Brazil, Africa and Indonesia, where trees are being cut in order to convert land to agricultural and mining use.

l_e_cox
l_e_cox

I think a big part of this is that we are trying to replace one of the most workable and useful technologies ever developed on this planet. Until a "paperless" technology can fully reproduce or handle all the advantages of paper, it will have a rough time competing with paper. Part of the advantage of paper is that it, and what is written on it, exists and persists as a separate physical object (as long it is kept dry and away from fire). Another advantage is that paper documents require no decoding other than what most people are already capable of doing with their minds and bodies. Years ago I was faced with moving into a space that was not going to be big enough to accommodate my two-drawer file cabinet of personal papers. I put the cabinet in storage and started a scanning project that got rid of the file cabinet, but is still not complete. And frankly, I don't feel as good about my documents being on a hard disk and a set of backup CDs as I did having them in my file cabinet. What happens if I somehow lose my computing technology? All those electronic files will be useless to me. So the trade-off, or at least the perception of one, is still very real. We need to make the leap, but we need to do it right, too.

maj37
maj37

Back in the 80s I had a cartoon, I think I still have it, with a bear person sitting at a desk with a PC and printer. The printer was spitting out paper and the paper was going straight into a shredder. The caption said "The Paperless Office".

iworsfold
iworsfold

I think the problem is that some people expect it all to happen overnight. In my organization we've started by looking at internal processes and ensuring the least amount of paper is required however there is still more work to be done. I believe the real problem starts when you have to interact with external partners and customers. Even the use of tablets will most likely not eliminate the need for paper in the future.

Gisabun
Gisabun

I remember working at a company in 1997. Part of my job was to print out the montly reports [A/R, A/P, etc.] for my boss [the controller]. We had 10 reports. By the time the place was sold off, we had 60+ reports.... All on paper.

DBinNC
DBinNC

We've tried to do our part where we can. Unfortunately the reality is that it just doesn't work as effectively as handing someone a physical piece of paper. Take your own personal bills for instance - how many actually rely on getting their monthly credit and utility statements electronically? Not many. Why? Well because we don't want our credit ruined by not getting the e-statement and missing a payment. I know for a fact many have missed my email; either through spam filters blocking it (and don't even suggest living without one of those), the sender's system not working correctly, my isp vendor not working correctly or just the packet got bumped somewhere between them and me. My post-person may be antiquated but dagnabit, he shows up. Unlike an ebill. Fix the simple issues like that and then MAYBE we can move in the right direction.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Our multipurpose devices are leased from one of the large national 'document management solution' companies. I regularly abuse their company representatives about their company's preferred method of ordering toner and supplies by ... fax. The companies that push solutions can't get away from paper. What I can't get my users to quit doing is scanning or e-filing a document, and then filing the paper copy too! Many are of the outdated notion that document retention guidelines require a physical copy.

LocoLobo
LocoLobo

technologywise. As you said the notepad and pen is simpler, easier and more effective at taking notes. Although some people are starting to used tablets or smart phones. OTOH we ARE using less paper. Years ago the office secretaries called me the "Junk Mail King". I signed up for every work related catalog and brochure I could get. I kept a card file book shelf organized with these publications. If you needed to find a rare UV lamp or other widget I could find you a vendor. Those days are gone now. Thank God!

rhonin
rhonin

Instead of attempting to go completely paperless, phase it in or execute in a specific scenario. Ex: don't print email or reports unless there is a legal reason. That's a huge saving. Ex2: don't print docs for a meeting - project or live meeting. Be creative and it can work. Most businesses cannot trly go 100% paperless...... yet.

nustada
nustada

As others have stated, so it is with us. Paper is printer for three things. One is law for some things, two is out of bad habit, three is out of superstition distrust of technology. It boggles my mind, when department heads opt to have their fax machines print out all their crap, where it is so much faster to have it dropped into a common inbox to be sorted, tagged and archived. Also paper is taking up valuable real estate, most of which is just kept for liability and reference, and will most likely never be looked at again after printing. And will have to be manually reviewed eventually for disposal. The only thing that I see paper do better than our tech is it is quicker to jot down a note on the run on paper.

Spitfire_Sysop
Spitfire_Sysop

There are many places where paperless has caught on. I don't recieve any mail at home, for example. At work we try to use digital whenever possible. The "missing link" as you put it is actually a legal signature. Any legal document requiring a signature is printed. There are a few digital signature solutions that are common, like UPS and the bank. For the most part the infrastructure for getting a legal signature is expensive and not seen as better than signing on paper. This is where the tablet PC could really shine. It solves your note taking problems too if it has a digital paper app that you can actually write on. Until these technologies catch on there are some things that will be printed. I think that the paperless movement jumped the gun by pushing too hard before the technology was mature and then they jumped the shark by trying to make it sound more cool than it really is. Common marketing mistakes made by foolish corporate soothsayers.

Slayer_
Slayer_

Some of the good paperless solutions costs 100k+ dollars though.

mattouellette
mattouellette

Well I work in HealthCare IT and what happened is the government pushing a lot of printing ( I won't get into details but many in the same industry will understand) and people refuse to change. I'm guilty of it as well. Its just quicker and easier to jot down things on paper, printed spreadsheets, etc, then finalize them for presentation on the PC. I can write on just about anything but it takes time to open word/notepad/textedit/whatever your word processor choice is and then start typing.

ElijahKam
ElijahKam

One example of reducing paper is that in a professional organization I belong to, all proposed articles in the organizaiton's journal and all papers for presentation at the annual meeting must be present exclusively in electronic form, and paper is not permitted. This greatly facilitates circulation of proposed articles to the editors and readers who are to judge the submissions. On the other hand, although I could access my health insurers on the Internet to see look at my accounts, I never do that. It is much less time consuming to read their reports as they come in through the mail. Then I don't have to remember passwords and navigate through all kinds of Web complications. We certainly could use less paper, but we will never be paperless.

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

All that paper is incredibly expensive.

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

...but preservation as well. As you mentioned, paper must be protected from fire and water damage. Well, so must electronic storage. And, considering the information density in the CDs, hard drives, SSDs and any other system that might come along, it will be *much* more vulnerable to massive data loss than paper.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

is that corporations will have paperless offices on the same schedule as implementing the paperless bathroom.

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

...to work as a picker/packer in a large parts warehouse. Each part I pulled was ordered on two sheets of paper, thousands in a week. Each order showed me the location of the part and the address to which it was to be mailed. Copy 1 I would initial and return to the office after packing. Copy 2 went with the package as a packing list and address label. There of course was a huge amount of paper used here, so how could that be done "paperless"? Just wondering.

grayknight
grayknight

I've had very few problems with electronic billing.

jevans4949
jevans4949

It seems to be standard practice in the UK now, if you want to open an account with credit involved, that you need to produce a utility bill with your address on it. I once asked if a printout of an e-bill was acceptable, and was told no, it wouldn't be. Needless to say, the organisation in question (a bank) was pushing its customers to accept e-statements. Catch 22. I also needed to arrange a mobile phone contract for our church caretaker recently. In this case the phone retailer required authentication of identity by debit card - and as the church doesn't have one, it had to be my personal card. They did, however, manage to set up the direct debit to the church's accoiunt.

SunGlassesTK
SunGlassesTK

I believe too that most businesses cannot truly go 100% paperless... yet and that they should concentrate on what can be executed without printing out paper. Good point.

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

They are huge, slow, and the copy is terrible. Thank god all (?) the thermal-paper machines are gone!

SunGlassesTK
SunGlassesTK

Although, I agree with what was said in your second paragraph to a certain extent, ???that they were pushing too hard before the technology was mature???. The paperless office has not been as successful as some may have thought it would be, however, I agree also that it has allowed for some advancements in technology such as allowing the average home PC to have larger hard drives. Some hard drives today can nearly store up to 1TB of data, and some external hard drives with the ability to store more than 1TB of data, which is available to a consumer. This was not the norm a few years ago, having hard drives that can store large amounts of data available to the average PC user; I think that a few years ago some PC???s did not even have a hard drive with 1GB for data storage on it. The technology for the paperless office may not have advanced as much as some would have liked, but the idea of the paperless office has allowed for some advancement in technology, especially in regards to the amount of data that can be stored on the average consumer PC.

WorkflowGuru
WorkflowGuru

1. Done correctly, the cost and time savings of paperless solutions are significant; that's part of the business side of the cool. I believe the key to transition is effective leadership: set the example and incentivize proper behavior. 2. Yes, the adoption of tablets is easing the transition. Putting a signature on an e-doc is now fast, easy and cheap, e.g., GoodReader. My company uses tablets for almost all C3 (communication, coordination, control) with laptops, desktops, and servers doing the heavy lifting, where appropriate. I admit, sometimes I choose to print. Prime example: as a systems analyst, I often have need to look at several (4-6) areas of a model or related diagrams "simultaneously". This is easier and cheaper to do using printouts than having sufficient screen real estate to display them all at once. Usually, the software won't even support that even if I had the screen(s)! Anyone know of a better alternative?

wizard57m-cnet
wizard57m-cnet

we (my profession, that is) pushed for paperless years ago, around 1984 or 85. The regulatory agencies said "OK, but if you get an order electronically, you must reduce it to writing on paper immediately"! Then, whatever records we did store electronically had to be verified via print-out reports, on paper, and signed by the responsible practitioner! We've ended up having "double duty" as it were, because in addition to the electronic record, I now have boxes upon boxes of paper records!

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

CDs, DVDs, and tape cartridges are easy to duplicate. You could have multiple copies stored in different off-site locations, usually for less cost than one set of paper documents.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

the second copy (packing list and address label) is unavoidable. The first copy served two purposes. One was to tell you what to pull. The second, after you returned it to the office, was to serve as the source document for data entry to record the inventory transaction. Somebody keyed in the part number and quantity, and the background software relieved the warehouse of that inventory and recorded its value against a sales account. This copy could be replaced these days with a tablet. The tablet would display what you are to pull, and then you would record the inventory transaction on the screen when you pulled the parts.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I don't get what's keeping the fax machine alive in the 21st century.

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

...that my doctor, who has reams of records on me alone, would opt for a paperless office. But it was pointed out to me that the cost of converting her paper records to digital would be astronomical and would take so long to complete that the technology she would start with would be obsolete before the task was finished. My wife's doctor, however, has gone mostly paperless, keeping all medical records in a local server, with laptops in each exam room. Even prints out prescriptions*. He swears by it. *My son-in-law, a pharmacist, says the printed prescriptions are too easily forged, but are a heck of a lot easier to read that the typical doctor's scribbling!

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

She won't get rid of hers, and it's actually used now and then. But I still hate it.

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