Still not paperless after all these years | The Conversation

How is this possible?

In 1975, George Pake, head of the famous Xerox PARC felt that the paperless office was an inevitability. He imagined that by 1995 the world would be using computers to read documents and that this revolution in the office would inevitably lead to it becoming paperless.

With the ubiquity of tablet-wielding executives in the office of today, it would be easy to think that Pake essentially got it right but just misjudged the timing by 20 years. But even today, a recent report found that only 1% of European businesses had achieved the goal of a paperless office.

David Glance, Director of Innovation, Faculty of Arts, and Director of Centre for Software Practice at University of Western Australia explains:

One explanation for the continuing consumption of paper is summarised by the so-called “Jevons paradox” which came from the English economist William Jevons, who in 1865 noted that improvements in the efficiency of coal use led not to a reduction but to an increase in consumption. The Jevons paradox is definitely at work in the use of paper as our exposure and access to documents has increased massively as has the ease in printing and photocopying those document

He offers other reasons as well:

Behind this of course is an industry that has little incentive in seeing less paper used. The forestry and paper industry in the US alone accounts for 4.5% of its total GDP and manufacturing $200 billion of products of which office paper is a large part.

Another element is that although technology has improved to the point where reading a document on a device is almost the same as reading it on paper, it hasn’t improved to the point where it completely replicates what Microsoft researcher Abigail Sellen calls the “affordances” of paper. Affordances … [are described] as the properties of an object that determine what actions an individual can use it for.

To change workflows so as to not use paper requires people to change work practises as a whole rather than simply substitute a computer screen for paper. This poses the biggest challenge in moving from one technology to another as there exists a hybrid stage in which both forms of a technology have to be accommodated which sometimes provides insurmountable obstacles to the full adoption of the new technology.

And he offers this smart conclusion:

There is nothing stopping an organisation from becoming largely paperless other than the institutional inertia that is the breaks of all progress. It is clear that for change to occur, simply having technology that can replace paper is not enough. Work practises need to change to accommodate the differences that the use of technology allows and this needs to come from an institution-wide effort rather than the practises of individuals.

If your organization is interested in going paperless, we’d be delighted to show you how.

You can read the full article, in non-paper form, here: Still not paperless after all these years.