The paperless office has been predicted for as long as the cashless society - and neither have come to pass. But could paper finally be on the way out, replaced by ubiquitous access to company information via smartphones, e-readers, laptops and tablets?
When asked "Will the paperless office ever become a reality?" TechRepublic's exclusive CIO Jury of tech leaders was evenly split - with half convinced there will never be a paper-free workplace, while others suggest all it might take is better technology and a new generation of workers to come through.
Some tech chiefs were upbeat about the possibility of getting rid of paper - Mike Roberts, IT Director, The London Clinic said: "We have a number of areas that are paperless," but added: "The process will take time as not all 'customers' are paperless".
Similarly, Matthew Metcalfe, director of information systems at Northwest Exterminating said "We've made significant advances in our company with tablets, smartphones to a much lesser extent," although he conceded: "I cannot see it ever becoming 100 per cent paperless however".
Richard Lovelock, head of IT, The Royal British Legion said the paperless office has been "a very long time coming" and the continuing popularity of printers in every office and many homes shows people are still very keen on printed output: "people will frequently prefer the portability, robustness and the ability to scribble all over printed reports, at least in some circumstances".
But he said that even one of the last bastions of paper - the legal profession - is trialling a paperless electronic document management system project, and that if this proves successful, "then it will show that at the very least, paper can be consigned to the bin for many operational purposes, replaced by online access and tablets where practical".
Meanwhile, the cost of printing is another reason for the accelerating shift away from paper, according to Kelly Bodway, VP of IT at Universal Lighting Technologies, who said smart devices, easier authentication and electronic signatures have allowed the paperless office to evolve into a near reality. On top of this, the high costs of printer consumables has driven many organisations to reduce the number of printers: "This coupled with the elimination of personal printers in the office has led to the decline of print material and taken us closer to the realisation of a paperless office".
However, Gavin Whatrup, group IT director at Creston said there are two factors preventing the paperless office - size and quality. "Until you can view information - written or diagrammatic - on the same size media as a sheet of A3 or A2, with same ease and cost, paper will still be required. Second, whilst improving, and the new iPad is a step in the right direction, the easy-on-the-eye luminance of ink on paper still beats on screen viewing in most instances."
While we've been promised viewing displays as in the film Minority Report for years he said, but "the reality is like tomorrow, it never seems to come".
Some IT chiefs see the change to paperless business as a generational issue. As David Van Geest, director of IT at The Orsini Group put it: "Until all of us old-timers are dead and gone we're still going to want to have paper documents available to us. Paper can't be erased, doesn't need power to read, and can easily be written on".
Similarly, Adam Gerrard CTO at Laterooms.com said the paperless office is unlikely to materialise for years to come: "Such a cultural change will require the paper-based generations to change, and that's unlikely to happen across the entire workforce. Clearly the percentage of people willing or even wanting to work paperless will continue to increase as the workforce ages and over a long period of time this will give rise to a paperless culture".
Florentin Albu CIO at the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations agreed: "Such a change will likely occur as the digital natives progressively replace the current work force. We are seeing a transition period at present, which is more 'paper-smart' than paper -less, where the use of smart devices/tablets/e-readers are facilitating the reduction of paper in the office".
Today's TechRepublic CIO Jury was:
- Florentin Albu CIO, Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations
- Kelly Bodway VP IT Universal Lighting Technologies
- David Van Geest, director of IT at The Orsini Group
- Adam Gerrard CTO Laterooms.com
- Delano Gordon, CIO, Roofing Supply Group,
- Richard Lovelock, head of IT, The Royal British Legion
- Matthew Metcalfe, director of Information Systems at Northwest Exterminating
- Mike Roberts, IT Director, The London Clinic
- James Salmon, CIO, BPP Group & University College
- David Thomson, IT and communications manager at Rice & Dore Associates
- Gavin Whatrup, group IT director at Creston
- Steve Williams Director of Information Systems and Services, Newcastle University
The CIO Jury is composed of the first 12 members of the CIO Jury pool to respond, but tech chiefs who don't make into the first 12 still made their opinions heard - and many were unconvinced that the paperless office is likely to arrive any time soon.
For Lou Hablas IT director, RZIM, paper will always have its place: "Where customer relationships, proof of purchase, contracts, and the like are concerned paper will remain king. Yes, much of it will be digitised, but much of it will also still be printed, copied - in triplicate no less."
And Lance Taylor-Warren, CIO HAWC Community Health Centers echoed that, and said: "All we can strive for is what I refer to as 'Paperlight'. There will always be a need for hard copy of certain documents."
Similarly, for David Wilson, director of IT services at Vector CSP: "I have dealt with this since the 386 computer was the state of the art and I was serving in the US Navy, and the desire of people to hand papers to one another, the distrust over electronic transmissions, and the need to hang lolcats on the wall are difficult barriers to breach."
And Kevin Leypoldt, IS director at Structural Integrity Associates said there are still barriers to doing away with paper: "Just one example of why going paperless will be a challenge is the simple act of signing a document. While I am not an expert in this field, but the fact that there has not been any one clear solution to "electronically signing" documents appears to be the only string left holding up the fax machine (which should have died last century). Until we can let go of these antiquated paper based systems moving into the paperless world will remain out of reach."
Like some others, for Scott C Smith, director of technology at 32Ten Studios, use of paper is a generational issue : "Legacy will continue to be king and that means that laser printers are not going to have time to cool down. Until... the next generation of workers come onto the scene. They know what the cloud means practically and know how to connect their devices to it. But until then, I'm still providing a laser printer for every 15 people."
But Linda Webster, head of IT at Wedlake Bell Solicitors, said even if we can't get to a paper-free office we can at least try to reduce it: "If offices use an e-filing system where every piece of documentation is saved or scanned into it then this should be possible. During the lifecycle of a transaction people will always want to print out documents so that they can read them and perhaps mark them up. So why not allow people to do that and even keep a paper file of these documents for the duration of the work and then destroy it when the work is over.
"After that they can rely on the e-file. If we try to impose draconian systems barring paper people get turned off and we've lost the battle before it begins."
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Steve Ranger is the UK editor-in-chief of ZDNet and TechRepublic. An award-winning journalist, Steve writes about the intersection of technology, business and culture, and regularly appears on TV and radio discussing tech issues. Previously he was the editor of silicon.com.