Paper isn’t always the problem

This is a guest blogpost by John Mancini, CEO of AIIM.  As his organisation gears up for another ‘World Paper Free Day’ on 4 November, he reviews where we’ve come from – and how far we still have to travel on the digital road.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article on why 40 years in we’re only just approaching the possibility of true ‘paperless offices’, Christopher Mims points out that after decades of hype, promise and slow progress, the dream of a paper-free workplace is close at hand, thanks to a steady decline in paper use coupled with a rise in business use of tablets and mobile devices.

Since the idea was first mooted in a landmark 1975 Business Week article, many people have proclaimed the imminent arrival of the paperless office. But the reality has been very different – despite the Internet, email and the increasing digitization of many business processes, paper consumption has increased unabated.

The first thing to say is Mims is right. There is definite progress. More and more businesses are ending their addiction to paper. We at AIIM know this as we track these developments closely; for example, we’ve just conducted a major global survey into the rate of progress companies are making in the move towards a paper-free workplace.

Among other things, we found that two-thirds of respondents say the demand for paperless processes in their organisations is on the rise, while the amount of paper arriving at the door is decreasing for half of organisations.

However, the rate of change, although encouraging ,is uneven, and there is a long way to go. What’s more while certain business processes should be wholly electronic, there is room for a nuanced approach; some things work well on paper, and we should acknowledge that – while also continuing to end our reliance on paper-based business processes in the round.

Paper, but not all the way through the business process

The role of paper in modern life is complicated. Many researchers on the psychology of how we work, especially in the knowledge worker context (Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper’s The myth of the paperless office provides a useful survey of this work) point out how paper can be the ideal medium for supporting certain processes.

That’s because paper is spatially flexible and can be spread out and arranged in ways that suit the way we work with ideas. It can be easily tailored and annotated as we read without altering the original text, and can be a useful basis for collaborative working situations. Apple says even the most apparently disorderly desk covered with piles of paper are often highly meaningful to the office worker, and can aid creative thinking. What’s more, having pieces of paper in our peripheral view is a helpful aid to memory, as we can all testify.

What we missed in the 40 years since that Business Week article is that it’s not paper as such that’s the problem but our insistence on holding on to it with miles of filing cabinets and a resistance to digitalisation. There are a great deal of business processes that should be paperless. Archiving is top of that list, increasing efficiency, meeting regulatory requirements and making those paper filing cabinet farms redundant for good – and a digital version of the document can be easily searched, shared, stored, accessed remotely, and linked to other relevant material.

Paper has a role on our immediate workspace but it then needs transferred to a better electronic workflow as soon as possible.