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.