The paperless office has been talked about for almost 40 years; yet recent figures state that only 1% of businesses have actually achieved a paperless office. The BBC have come out and referred to it as a myth; it hasn’t happened in 40 years so it will never happen. I can see the logic in this doubt – the figures speak for themselves. However what if I told you, the reason for the ‘fail’ of the paperless office is due to it being misunderstood?

On June 20 1975, an article in Business Week was published claiming that the office was going to see a digital revolution. It read, the ‘use of paper in business for records and correspondence should be declining by 1980 and by 1990, most records will be electronic’. It predicted big things but this is where the confusion began. Their definition states that the use of paper will be LESS and that most records will be electronic. This definition doesn’t sound like the assumptions we have made years later – that we can’t use paper at all. Truth is, actually most offices do actually use paper less and some have even got rid of their filing cabinets completely to move their records online. Sure, businesses still use paper but it is not used as much because technology means they don’t need to. Businesses use Dropbox and other cloud storage programs to upload and share documents; they email files across to their colleagues and they work on tablets on the go. Paper usage has decreased because it’s quicker to send and keep documents online. It is more efficient for them to use digital methods. Companies might still take notes on a notepad; they might print paper contracts off but usage is less and that is key – less means it hasn’t actually failed.

One reason perhaps digital signatures aren’t as popular as they could be is because of legal requirements and government regulations. There are rules which mean businesses have to keep certain documents in paper form; there is a lack of knowledge however as to which files need to be kept. This lack of education does mean companies do store more paper documents than they need and it is a hindrance in some way to going paperless.

Ok, so I have explained that people took ‘paperless’ to mean something slightly different; well here are a few examples of the unintentional consequences of this.

  • Teachers got on board with the paperless office but instead of doing their paperwork online, they decided to spend the school’s money for textbooks on Ipads. The paperless office was intended as a document management solution yet here it was referred to as a replacement for paper. As you’d expect the initiative failed and high school students took advantage, playing games instead of using it for reading. This just shows how off course the paperless office has gone.
  • Apps to paint. I was scrolling through news related to the paperless office recently and out sprung an article showcasing an app that could be used so artists didn’t have to use paper. Again, a misunderstanding seems to have occurred.
  • Sony has revealed a ‘Digital Paper’ slate which is set to go on sale in May this year. You can take notes on it or scribble on your existing documents. This is more of a relevant technology; it helps with the paperless idea, you can edit documents online and save notes online but it is hardly a new concept. You can edit documents on a computer and you can make notes on apps like Evernote. Plus notebooks are ok.

It seems to me that commentators on the failure of the paperless office haven’t really considered the ‘paperless’ office – this misunderstanding with the definition means it has been associated with wrong products and inventions. It makes you wonder what variables researchers have used to conduct their studies; if they used this alternative definition, how accurate are their statistics?