Is the ‘paperless’ office here at last?

March 19th, 2010

Letters and Coins(CNN) – By Thom Patterson, CNN- [abridged] ….The dream of the paperless office started way back in 1975, when BusinessWeek magazine predicted “a collection of … office terminals linked to each other and to electronic filing cabinets.” “It will change our daily life,” said one bold technology expert quoted in the article. Said another expert: “By 1990, most record handling will be electronic.”

Twenty years after that unmet deadline, a national survey found that businesses have chosen to use paper printouts to archive 62 percent of important documents. The survey of 882 companies, released in February by the content management association AIIM, indicates that most businesses believe paper documents are needed for legal reasons.

So what happened? Where is this streamlined office of the future, free of clutter and file cabinets, that was promised back in the ’70s?

By the mid-1990s, the nation was actually moving in the opposite direction. More and more workstation computers and printers contributed to a big jump in office paper consumption well into the 2000s, according to industry experts. Before taking a hit from the recession, the estimated number of office pages printed, copied and faxed annually in the U.S. peaked in 2007 at more than 1.019 trillion, according to InfoTrends, a Massachusetts-based market research and consulting firm. InfoTrends analyst John Shane blamed the nation’s love of office printing and copying on convenience.

Many people can’t bring themselves to let go of the convenience of a printed hard copy, said Shane. For some, printed paper may be more portable, and easier to read in a cramped airliner seat than reading on a laptop. Some people may find paper more comfortable and preferable to read during a meeting, instead of reading a document on a tiny smart-phone display.  “Most of what people print now is for temporary read-and-discard purposes and for transactions,” said Shane. “People like to read paper. Then they throw it away. Then they may want to read it and throw it away again. That behavior needs to change if we’re really going to see a paperless office.”

There are plenty of motivating factors that would push managers to adopt the idea of a paperless office. Cost saving is one. Paperless-office advocates say they save the cost of paper, envelopes, postage, couriers, printers, copiers and, of course, filing cabinets. The idea of helping the environment also might push a change in behavior, Shane said.….

The technology is available to give even home-based businesses the option of going paperless….

Although Shane does see offices in the near future reducing their printing and copying, he says, “I wouldn’t call it the paperless office — that’s not going to happen for ages. But the less-paper office is coming.”

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