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Will There Ever Be a Paperless Office? Exploring the Paperless Paradox

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 1 1

The paperless office remains one of the unfulfilled promises stemming from the digital technology revolution of the past several decades. Why is the concept and application of the paperless office so important? Will it remain as elusive as the flying car and other Jetsonian predictions of the past? The proper implementation of digital documentation management software matched with the continuing refinement of a knowledge management system can yield improvements in operations and efficiency in practically any industry. Yet for every successful peak, a valley remains filled with obstacles that must be overcome for any kind of useful objective to be realized. Each organization must examine the advantages and disadvantages of the paperless office concept and decide if the benefits to workflow will outweigh the costs.

endless paper stack

 Arguably, the first usage of the term "paperless office" appeared in a 1975 Businessweek article entitled "The Office of the Future". Top personnel from IBM and Xerox explained their visions of office life in the coming decades with surprising accuracy. Xerox Research head George Pake stated by 1995 that "I would be able to call up documents from my files on the screen, or by pressing a button. I can get my mail or any messages. I don't know how much hard copy I'll want in this world". While this prescient quote accurately predicted the technology existing, it failed to recognize the deeply embedded relationship between society and paper and they way it is utilized.

Through the 80s and 90s the kind of technology that Pake predicted became commonplace, but, counter-intuitively, paper use actually began to rise and would continue to do so. More and more, industry experts came to realize that the paperless office would continue to be a dream and that the less-paper concept should be the immediate goal for companies. Even people with a vested interest in paperless technology like adobe's U.K. Business Manager Stephen Partridge lists on his blog the benefits of paper (e.g. portability, zero power needed, always arrives in the same format) and agrees that paper will never go totally away. There are many benefits to digital documentation, however, and a brief examination of these shows why the problem will continue to be tackled.


 Like Lean Production in manufacturing, the successful company that can fully embrace a concept can benefit greatly from it. Digitization is no exception and can greatly expedite the flow and access of information. Some of the key advantages to paperless technology are:

  • Storage – The amount of space required for digital storage is a fraction of what is used by a paper file system. The space used for file cabinets and folder boxes can be re-purposed for other business uses. Archiving digital information is far easier

  • Profitability – The storage and retrieval of electronic documents is nearly instantaneous. Studies by Coopers & Lybrand have shown the life cost of storage, filing and retrieval of business documents to be as high as $50 per document. Also the cost of mailing documents is greatly reduced as electronic transmissions are more fully utilized.

  • Accessibility – The paperless alternative allows for potential access to anyone, anywhere at anytime. Information retrieval is quick and nearly instantaneous.

  • Environmentally friendly –Less paper usage means less deforestation and fewer greenhouse emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that 40% of the waste stream is composed of paper.

  • Preservation –85% of business documentation is in paper form and more than two-thirds of businesses would fail in a month if a catastrophic event led to a loss of paper records.

  • Security –It is far easier to control access to an electronic record. Electronic markers can register who accessed electronic information, when it was accessed and from where.

  • Development of a better business model-If source documentation can be analyzed quicker and more efficiently, better decision making and operations planning become possible.

These are all perfectly sound reasons to chase the paperless office dream. The dollars and time saved with electronic documents can greatly increase profitability and efficiency within any organization. Billing, customer service, research and compliance issues can all benefit from quicker and more accurate access to business documentation. Unfortunately, the road that leads to this office utopia is less traveled and full of problems that must be faced.


A list of potential problems covers a wide variety of issues. Some of the key challenges include:

  • Cost-What might be an advantage in the future is a substantial burden at the onset. New scanners and support devices, software, increases in general IT, and employee training are just some of the expenses of implementing a paperless system.

  • Standardization and compatibility-The documents used in a business must be revamped to allow for ease of use for scanning and viewing. Also the format for digital preservation must be accessible across a wide variety of platforms and across a significant period of time.

  • Procedures-Existing processes and personnel must many times be re-structured from the bottom up to ensure that the paperless process begins as closely to source documentation as possible.

  • Security-Just as controlling access to a document is a plus, the increased portability that comes with digitization many times puts security at risk. Carrying around a 500 page document would give many people pause, but a thumb drive download can prove tempting.

  • Reliability-As more and more processes are reliant upon electrical retrieval and transmission of documents, the operating system, servers and back up protocols must be robust and redundant for business to flow smoothly.

  • Regulations-Changes is certain laws and regulatory issues by the government will have to be addressed as digital copies in many circumstances aren't deemed sufficient.

  • Increase in paper use-The most difficult thing to overcome is the actual increase of paper usage in a paperless office.

As mentioned earlier, the actual use of paper has increased throughout the decades and seemingly contradicts the innovations technology has brought. If the paperless office is to ever become a reality, this paradox must be understood and overcome. William Jevons in his 1865 book, The Coal Question, noted that as steam engines made the use of coal more efficient-coal usage actually increased rather than decreased. The more efficient use of a resource leads to more use of that resource. This phenomenon since referred to as Jevons' Paradox is just as applicable in the pursuit of the paperless office. Sociologist Richard York studied this phenomenon in business and dubbed it "the Paperless Office Paradox [where] the development of a substitute for a natural resource is sometimes associated with an increase in consumption of that resource".

As document management software replaces paper, more paper is generated and used. Office paper consumption has risen nearly 15% from 1995 to 2000 and a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey has shown that when an organization allows email usage, paper consumption increases by as much as 40%. As the cost of printing per document has fallen, more documents are printed. Better accessibility to documents has also led to increased paper usage. Analysts in 2001 predicted paper usage will rise by another 50% in the next 10 to 15 years.

The development of better paperless techniques will never lead to a paperless office. The only way this will be achieved is through a change in human behavior and the way paper is viewed and used. Recent surveys have shown that people will retain 30% more information if it is read on paper versus a scanning on a computer screen. Attempts to force employees into paperless situations have backfired with a vengeance. One ad agency removed desks and file cabinets only to find that employees were hoarding paper documents in the trunks of their cars.

The coming decades will hold the best chance for the paperless office to become a reality. Future generations will grow up with a different attitude towards paper. In the next 50 years, the vast majority (if not all) newspapers will be digital only. As e-book devices are more widely used and accepted along with tablet computers and other handheld devices, the very way in which people learn and process information will change. While the workers of today edit, compare, move and print hardcopy backups for added security, future generations won't know such crutches. The notions of paper usage in society will change and, indeed, to some degree are changing now. While the average worker today uses some digital copy, the abundance of paperwork is apparent. The tipping point may have been reached, though. In an article from 2005, the Christian Science Monitor reports that paper usage is leveling off and cite the fact that nearly half of the workforce has entered the business world AFTER computers have already been placed into service. This shift in demographics may build the momentum necessary to achieve a near paperless office. Children of the digital age will embrace digitization. This will be the moment when the paperless office will shine.



    May 6, 2011 10:22am
    I agree with this article and enjoyed it. The time for the paperlelss office begins with the current and incoming generation. Thank you.
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