Tech

The Paperless Office Has Beaten Out the Paperless Bathroom After All

| Wed Aug. 13, 2014 2:12 PM EDT

Back when I was in the document imaging business, we joked that the paperless office would become a reality about the same time as the paperless bathroom. In other words, even those of us in the biz didn't really believe in the hype of the paperless office.

I haven't paid much attention to any of this for well over a decade, but today John Quiggin comes forward to tell me that, in fact, the paperless office is finally starting to come true:

Paper consumption peaked in the late 1990s and has fallen sharply since 2005....The annual rate of decline (-0.9 per cent) is unimpressive in itself, but striking when compared to the growth rate of 5.7 per cent observed from 1985 to 1999, at a time when talk of the paperless office was particularly prevalent. Compared to the ‘Business as Usual’ extrapolation of the previous growth rate, office paper consumption has declined by around 40 per cent.

....Of course, the “paperless office” myth wasn’t just a prediction that digital communications would replace paper one day. It was a sales pitch for a top-down redesign of work processes, which, for the reasons given by Sellen and Harper, was never going to work.

That's interesting, though not too surprising. It takes a long time for habits to change, and sometimes you just have to wait for old generations to retire and allow new ones to take their place. I imagine that 20- and 30-somethings are way more comfortable with a purely digital information flow than folks in their 40s and 50s, and that's probably responsible for much of the decline in office paper use since 2005.

As an aside, I should add that top-down redesign of work processes sometimes gets a bad rap that it doesn't deserve. For casual work processes it doesn't work that well, and the hype of the 90s really was overdone. But there are also lots of clerical production processes that are highly rule-bound and can be redesigned just fine. Insurance claims agents these days almost never see a piece of paper, for example. It's all scanned and indexed so that everything—both paper and digital documents—can be viewed on screen instantly.

And I wouldn't be surprised if even casual work processes become far more digital in the fairly near future, especially as software gets better, cloud storage becomes commonplace, and high-speed connectivity becomes all but universal. If you can look up movie times on your phone, you can keep track of schedules and due dates on your phone too. That sounds like something of a pain to me, but I'm 55. I'll bet if I were 25 it would sound a whole lot more attractive than being forced to work with messy bundles of paper that can't be searched and have to be carried around everywhere to be useful.