WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO THE PAPERLESS OFF.?
WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO THE PAPERLESS OFF.?
2006-01-27 at 11:14:00 am #13990
What Ever Happened to the ‘Paperless Office’
Slowing Paper Sales Show Offices May Finally be Turning the Page on Paper Use
For office innovators,
the unrealized dream of the “paperless” office is a classic example of
high-tech hubris. Today’s office drone is drowning in more paper than
But after decades of hype, American offices may finally be abandoning
their paper obsession. Paper sales used to grow at a faster rate than
the U.S. economy, but the past two or three years have seen a marked
slowdown in sales — despite a healthy economic scene.
Analysts attribute the decline to advances in digital databases and
communication systems, employment trends, and a generation of office
workers who are more comfortable with the new technology. Escaping our
craving for paper, however, will be anything but a cold-turkey affair.
“Old habits are hard to break,” says Merilyn Dunn, communications
supplies director for InfoTrends/CAP Ventures, a market-research firm
in Weymouth, Mass. “There are some functions that paper serves where a
screen display doesn’t work. Those functions are both its strength and
The Digitally Savvy Workforce
In the early- to mid-’90s, a booming economy and improved desktop
printers helped boost paper sales by 6 to 7 percent each year. The
convenience of desktop printing allowed office workers to indulge in
printing anything and everything with little effort or cost.|
But now, the growth rate of paper sales in the United States is
flattening by about half a percent each year. Between 2004 and 2005,
Dunn said, plain white office paper will see less than a 4 percent
growth rate, despite the strong overall economy. A primary reason for
the change, she said, is that for the first time ever, some 47 percent
of the workforce entered the job market after computers had already
been introduced to offices.
“We’re finally seeing a reduction in the amount of paper being used per
worker in the workplace,” says John Maine, vice president of RISI, a
pulp and paper economic consulting firm in Charlottesville, Va. “More
information is being transmitted electronically, and more and more
people are comfortable with the information residing only in electronic
form without printing multiple backups.”
Maine also pointed to the lackluster employment market for white-collar
workers — the primary driver of office paper consumption — as a cause
of the downtrend in paper usage.
The real paradigm shift may be in the way paper is used. Since the
advent of advanced, reliable office-network systems, data storage has
moved away from paper archives. The secretarial art of “filing” is
disappearing from job descriptions. Much of today’s data may never
leave its original digital format.
Paper Industry Notices Trend
The changing attitudes toward paper have finally caught the attention
of paper companies, says Richard Harper, a researcher at Microsoft and
coauthor of the book, “The Myth of the Paperless Office” (2002). “All
of a sudden, the paper industry has started thinking, ‘We need to learn
more about the behavioral aspects of paper use,’” he says. “They had
never asked, they’d just assumed that 70 million sheets would be bought
per year as a literal function of economic growth.”
To reduce paper use, some companies are working to combine digital and
paper capabilities. For example, Xerox Corp. is developing electronic
paper: thin digital displays that respond to a stylus, like a pen on
paper. Notations can be easily erased or saved digitally.
Another idea, intelligent paper, comes from Anoto Group. It would allow
notations made with a stylus on a page printed with a special magnetic
ink to simultaneously appear on a computer screen.
Even with such technological advances, the improved capabilities of
digital storage act against “paperlessness,” argues Paul Saffo, a
technology forecaster at the Institute for the Future, a think tank in
Palo Alto, Calif. In his prophetic, metaphorical 1989 essay, “The
Electronic Piñata,” he suggests that the increasing amounts of
electronic data necessarily require more paper.
“The information industry today is like a huge electronic piñata,
composed of a thin paper crust surrounding an electronic core,” Mr.
Saffo wrote. The growing paper crust “is most noticeable, but the
hidden electronic core that produces the crust is far larger — and
growing more rapidly. The result is that we are becoming paperless, but
we hardly notice at all.”
Business Travel Increased, Too
In the same way that digital innovations have increased paper
consumption, Saffo says, so has video conferencing — with its promise
of fewer in-person meetings — boosted business travel.
“That’s one of the great ironies of the information age,” Saffo says.
“It’s just common sense that the more you talk to someone by phone or
computer, it inevitably leads to a face-to-face meeting. The best thing
for the aviation industry was the Internet.”
As buzzwords go, “paperless” has been bandied about for a long time
with little or no result. The term “paperless clearing houses” was
probably first coined in a 1966 Harvard Business Review article in
reference to the emergence of digital data storage.
But “paperlessness” did not enter the public’s imagination until 1975,
when a BusinessWeek article entitled “The Office of the Future”
predicted that by 1990 “most record-handling will be electronic.”
The article quoted Xerox’s George Pake, who rightly predicted a
“TV-display terminal with keyboard” on office desks by 1995. “I’ll be
able to call up documents from my files on the screen, or by pressing a
button,” Pake told BusinessWeek. “I can get my mail or any messages. I
don’t know how much hard copy [printed paper] I’ll want in this world.”
Overestimating the Demise of Paper
Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, the term “paperless” came to embody
technology’s promise to permanently change the way people do business.
The exuberance sometimes took on a life of its own, with the trendiest
companies demanding “paperlessness” long before it was practical.
In 1993, advertising mogul Jay Chiat of Chiat/Day was inspired to
“free” his employees from paper — and to make that freedom mandatory
– by eliminating desks and filing cabinets. The awkward, abortive
attempt backfired: Employees started storing paper in the trunks of
their cars and hauling it around the office on toy wagons.
“You can never go wrong by betting that change will go slower than
everyone expects,” says Saffo. “We’re still lurching into the paperless
office future. That’s a little bit of a surprise to me, but I didn’t
expect paper to disappear completely.”