Ever since computing pioneer Vannevar Bush the concept of the electronic desk, the idea of the paperless office has been a holy grail for the IT industry - and it remains just as elusive.
"Once paper was an innovation," says Philip Wake, office systems manager at the Office of National Statistics. Speaking at last month's Computer Weekly 500 Club meeting he reminded us that compared with stone tablets or parchment scrolls paper was convenient and flexible.
The problem is that, for all the electronic communication in the world, people still do like paper. Even popular hybrids like fax messaging consume huge amounts of paper, says Wake. "The Post Office says that 360 billion pages were faxed last year. That's 65 million miles of fax paper," Wake says.
Nearly half (40%) of office phone bills are for fax transmissions.
What Wake finds most frustrating about our dependence on paper is that people seem quite happy to use their computers until they go to a meeting. "Even if they have a laptop they don't take it along - they print out loads of paper and, worse, file it somewhere afterwards - probably never to see the light of day again," he says.
The only definite way to get rid of paper is to "scan and destroy" all paper documents in the post room, asserts Wake. That means you need a document processing system, he says. "Don't be afraid to implement your document processing system as a mirror to your current system. There is plenty of time to change things later - getting rid of the paper is the main aim in the first place, providing the advantage that a customer file can be seen simultaneously by many departments - whoever needs that information at whatever time.
"Don't be frightened into changing everything by imposing and expensive consultants. How your current workflow works doesn't affect it - you just need to get rid of that paper," says Wake.
He advocates using the searchable PDF format, readable by any computer in the world. Wake acknowledges that banning paper entirely is too much for most companies. However, it is still possible to head in a paperless direction, he asserts.
"You can get a good start by implementing a less-paper office," he says. To do this requires users to buy in to the less-paper concept. "You can't force them - it won't happen until they're ready," Wake says. "Take the staff with you - they'll turn off if everything changes at once." For example, tell them "it's fine to print out paper for meetings, but it must be binned at the end of the meeting - in a green bin".
Users will not be willing to lose or reduce paper if they don't have good keyboard skills. "Gaining keyboard skills is the most important element to accepting an electronic environment," says Wake. "Imagine for a moment that all your staff could type 15% faster - what would you save?
"And it won't be 15% it will be more like 50%-100% with hardly any effort at all."
"You can easily be 50% faster with a few days training," he points out. "Give them more money if they reach 40 words a minute; more when they get to 60 words a minute - which is not as fast as you think."
Like any culture change - and shedding paper is a very big culture change - the less-paper office must be championed at the most senior level. "You have to start from the top," says Wake.
The head of one Swedish firm, which wanted to become paperless, brought home the message by showering the chaff from the paper shredder through a transparent tube that passed through the staff canteen.
The paper-free organisation may still be unusual and difficult to attain, given an office population reared on printed matter and the novelty of handheld computers but the paper mountain can be eroded, little by little, argues Wake, and the time to start is now.
"You'll save on transportation and storage, you'll need fewer people to process paper, and without filing cabinets you'll need less office space," says Wake.
How your firm can save money by reducing paper consumption
The less-paper route to paperlessness is a staged-hill climb, not a sprint to the peak; so take the journey in stages, says Terry Robinson, enterprise group manager for Adobe UK. "It's perfectly normal to take two years over it," he says. Moreover, each stage is stable, sustainable and viable in its own right - the peak need not be attained.
There are four stages, says Robinson, and the key technology is the Internet. "Use the Internet as the infrastructure for going paperless," he says. The Internet can become a multipurpose paper-substitute, from holding expense forms to serving as an electronic post-room holding all scanned-in mail for electronic distribution to addressees.
Stage 1: Distribute and print
This uses the Web to hold forms which users can collect, download and print out. It is an obvious first start, says Robinson, but it can be a flagship win. "You can immediately see the benefits." The Internal Revenue Service in the US, for example, has saved about $100m (£70m) by shifting the costs of printing tax forms to taxpayers.
Stage 2: Distribute, fill and print
This combines alpha and numeric information on the same electronic form, such as expense claims, which need to be submitted by users and then validated at the server. "It can sound straightforward, but it's very difficult to do letters and numbers on the same page in different fields in HTML," says Robinson.
Stage 3: Distribute, pre-fill, complete and collect
This achieves the first steps towards digital workflow, where forms need to be sent back and forth as the process proceeds, with the server database directing the form to the next person in the flow. It is a favourite of insurance companies keen to escape from the paperchase of claims processing, as well as government departments keen to please the e-envoy. "This is one stage beyond validation," says Robinson.
Stage 4: Fully electronic
This achieves full interaction, and requires a document management system whereby the form guides the user filling it in and unfolds depending on what the user inputs. Submission of the document then stimulates all the other actions that need to be taken. Using the Internet, it is, says Robinson, "a Web services philosophy". It is popular with highly regulated sectors, such as pharmaceuticals, because it can provide audit trails on the electronic paperwork.