The paperless office: Why it never happened.

Rewritten from IT ProPortal.

Written by
Gordon Kelly

Gordon Kelly is a London based writer and journalist specializing in technology, music and film.

We’ve been talking about the paperless office for decades, so why is it still just a dream?

In 2012 the global demand for paper is expected to exceed 400 million tons for the first time. Before recycling this equates to 7.2 billion trees, after recycling it still tops four billion trees and eliminates an area the size of Croatia. Remarkably this landmark will be set against a background of flourishing digital media, economic downturn and increasing pressure to live in an environmentally friendly manner. It is a damning situation: try as we might, we just can’t break our addiction to paper.

Nearly 40 years ago this scenario was seemingly unimaginable. Speaking in Business Week in 1975 Vincent E. Giuliano of Arthur D. Little Inc, the world’s oldest management consultancy firm, predicted the use of paper would rapidly decline by 1980 “and by 1990, most record-handling will be electronic.” His comments came in an article entitled ‘The Office of the Future‘ under a subsection called ‘The Paperless Office’. It is thought to be the first time this ominous phrase was used.

A Changing Vision

The notion of ditching paper spread like wildfire and pouring petrol onto the flames was technology. The idea wasn’t new. As far back as 1945 American engineer Vannevar Bush theorised about the memex machine (a portmanteau of ‘memory’ and ‘index’), which individuals would use to store their books, records and communications. It would provide an “enlarged intimate supplement to one’s memory… a sort of mechanized private file and library. It would use microfilm storage, dry photography, and analog [sic] computing to give post war scholars access to a huge, indexed repository of knowledge-any section of which could be called up with a few keystrokes.”

Bush famously went much further in his essay ‘As We May Think‘, predicting the concept of the Internet, search and even Wikipedia:

Wholly new forms of encyclopaedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities. The patent attorney has on call the millions of issued patents, with familiar trails to every point of his client’s interest. The physician, puzzled by a patient’s reactions, strikes the trail established in studying an earlier similar case, and runs rapidly through analogous case histories, with side references to the classics for the pertinent anatomy and histology. … The historian, with a vast chronological account of a people, parallels it with a skip trail, which stops only on the salient items, and can follow at any time contemporary trails, which lead him all over civilization at a particular epoch. There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record. The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world’s record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected.

Bush fed the appetite for technology and for the rest of the century technology drove forward as IBM, Apple and Microsoft went about turning science fiction into science fact. Having initially been ridiculed, Bill Gates’ radical statement that “Microsoft was founded with a vision of a computer on every desk, and in every home” actually underestimated demand. In the face of such overwhelming progress the printed page didn’t seem to stand a chance.

Misplaced Faith

The problem was, however, that throughout the digital revolution our consumption of paper not only grew, but exploded. Between 1980 and 2000 global paper consumption doubled and discord grew. 2001 saw the publication of influential MIT book The Myth of the Paperless Office and it became just the first of many. So what went wrong? All too easily the answer is put down to human nature: the idea that we could not accept change after centuries of paper use or an unbreakable dependence on secretaries, dictation and aversion to reading from a screen. In extreme circumstances the argument did (and still does) hold weight, but two far simpler and intertwined reasons had greater impact: computers were unreliable and printing became cheap.

Unreliability came in many forms. Documents were easier and faster to create digitally, but computers – particularly early computers – crashed, a lot. In addition many early ecosystems were incompatible, universal file formats were largely absent and there was a high rate of hardware obsolescence. All of which trained the user to believe that a document created digitally was not truly ‘backed up’ until it was safely printed out. Printer prices fell, document production went up and paper copies were widely distributed. Then along came the Internet, email and web pages and suddenly millions of other people’s communications, documents and web pages became additional printer fodder.

As such technology was actually driving the consumption of paper. Forest product industry analyst RISI reports that in 1975 as ‘The Paperless Office’ concept was being introduced the average US office worker used 62lbs of paper annually. By 1999 that figure had reached 143lbs. Perhaps worse still is the waste. Researchers at Xerox found that roughly half of all documents printed in a typical office are thrown away within 24 hours. The prevailing mentality: at least this disposal is by choice and not a result of the Blue Screen of Death.

Renewed Belief

The saying goes that when you hit rock bottom the only way is up and as it turns out rock bottom was actually in 1999. In 2000 American office worker’s use of paper evened out and since 2001 it has been in steady decline. But didn’t global demand for paper in 2012 just top 400 million tons? Yes but it comes down to an ever growing global population and paper use outside the office.

According to Finnish pulp and paper price indexing firm FOEX demand also stems from “seven to eight per cent GDP growth in China and India” while US and European demand is in decline. “European demand for the total of wood-containing paper grades showed a 6.9% decline compared to November 2010 figures” while “paper consumption and production continue to struggle in the industrialized world [and] the structural changes in the printing and writing paper sector risk gradually spreading also into the emerging economies.”

What changed? “The explanation seems to be sociological rather than technological,” argues The Economist. “A new generation of workers, who have grown up with e-mail, word processing and the Internet, feel less of a need to print documents out than their older colleagues did.”

It is a solid theory, but it does technology an injustice: attitudes also changed because technology improved. Reduced cost has helped hardware proliferate, platforms have become more reliable, document standards have been established and data back-up systems have simplified and dropped in price. Arguably off the back of these developments and the advent of widespread Internet access businesses have also become more global in approach and employ digital nomads which reduces the practicality of storing and sending physical documents.

As with any type of change, there will always be an element of heel dragging,” says Phil Greenwood, sector director at document storage and management company Iron Mountain UK. “Every industry has a long-standing relationship with paper, so the offer of an alternative is often met with resistance. Paper is, after all, in our cultural DNA. However, a combination of forward-thinking entrepreneurs and technology savvy young managers coming into the workplace will drive cultural change and see greater take up of a blended paper-digital informational environment. Essentially, business will remain about getting more money out than you put in, and keeping up with technology, including digitisation, is becoming increasingly vital to not only survive, but to prosper.

New Technology Driving Momentum

So are offices finally getting the message? It certainly seems so. HP estimates digital content will grow an incredible 10x by the end of 2012 and analogue to digital conversion will add 200 billion pages annually. By 2015 HP thinks one trillion pages will have been moved to digital. Inspiring this confidence is a wave of new technology including encryption, security verifications, digital signatures and Cloud based systems and disaster recovery. Meanwhile the growth of eBooks is hurting paperback sales, though admittedly this is largely outside the office space.

Certainly in best practice cases, a move towards paperless can have astounding results. Islington Council, London reports that within three years of switching to e-invoicing and B2B transactions using Basware software it was making annual savings of £176,000. It estimates a further £88,000 was saved due to a reduction in admin tasks and paper handling associated with the invoice process and together these two savings are equivalent to a headcount cost of 12 full time employees. Overall the council believes the amount of paper used by its finance team has dropped by 75 per cent.

Numerous similar stories exist. Royal Bournemouth and Christchurch Hospitals service over 550,000 local residents and send out approximately 72,000 invoices per year. A switch to Perceptive Software, interestingly a Lexmark company, saw claims that the Hospitals are both more efficient and “almost entirely paperless”. Equally of note is it is a proactive move by Lexmark long term, which also commissioned a survey at the end of 2011 that found 73 per cent of respondents said they printed fewer emails than in 2010 and 53 per cent stated they had cut back on printing general business and marketing documents over the same period.

Furthermore there is a clear power shift towards companies driving paperless digital efficiency. Cloud backup and synchronisation service provider Dropbox turned down a ‘nine digit price’ from Apple CEO Steve Jobs in 2009 while it was still in its infancy. Faced with rejection “Jobs smiled warmly as he told them he was going after their market.” In 2011 Apple launched competing service iCloud. It was seen by many as a long awaited catch up given rivals Microsoft and Google already had Cloud sync competitors and last month Dropbox itself entered the mobile phone sector inking an agreement with smartphone maker HTC.

“The rise in use of mobile devices has made dealing with digital documents far more intuitive,” agrees Basware UK vice president Andrew Jesse. “Instead of printing off documents to share or take to meetings you can now carry devices smaller than a sheaf of paper containing infinitely more information with probably a higher level of security access. These devices can now be part of the process, allowing employees to take their ‘paperwork’ with them to work on when on the move.

The Long Road Ahead

The problem for the paperless office is essentially one of patience: lampooned as a failure for nearly forty years, in reality even placing a timescale on such a transition misses the point. Paper consumption fails to tell the whole story when a skyrocketing global population recently passed seven billion and even cheap technology remains out of reach for the poorest countries with the highest birth rates (potentially devices like the Raspberry Pi could change this scenario). Similarly technological advancement has often been a case of two steps forward, one step back as new devices make paper less essential, but it becomes ever easier to print and from an ever greater number of devices.

Ultimately, however, the greatest blow dealt to concept of a paperless office was at its inception. What was lost in the bold and catchy subheading in Business Week’s 1975 article was the subtlety of the arguments, which actually followed. As its key proponent Giuliano only ever endorsed the concept of paper elimination in terms of record-handling, while all other quoted sources poured cold water on the idea and promoted office paper reduction. The most eloquent of these was George E Pake, then head of the famed Xerox Palo Alta Research Center (PARC).

There is absolutely no question that there will be a revolution in the office over the next 20 years,” he argued. “[Technology] will change the office like the jet plane revolutionized travel and the way that TV has altered family life. I’ll be able to call up documents from my files on the screen, or by pressing a button. I can get my mail or any messages. I don’t know how much hard copy [printed paper] I’ll want in this world.

Pake was a genius. Under his esteemed leadership PARC developed the modern PC, the graphical user interface, the mouse, Ethernet and the integrated circuit, which is seen in virtually all today’s electronic equipment. Vitally it also invented the laser printer that drove the heart of the Xerox business and gave Pake a unique perspective on the debate. As such his comments, while often misinterpreted as a prediction of the paperless office are actually just the opposite. Pake does not dismiss paper but rather expresses reservation at how prevalent it may remain despite the ever-increasing influence of technology. Pake died in 2004 and yet 37 years later his remains the most incisive and human comment on a journalist’s reductive “buzz phrase” that should never have made it past final edit…

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