by Amy Weiss
I was watching a geeky sci-fi show not long ago in which a time traveler from around 70 years in the future made the bold statement, “There is no paper in the future. Or more accurately, there is no future in paper.”
Deep stuff. But is it really true?
Science fiction has been predicting the paperless society for, well, almost as long as there’s been science fiction. It seems one of the most futuristic things we can imagine is a world without paper.
From fiction to fact, though, is another story. The transition to a paperless society has been ongoing and complex – and it’s far from complete. In fact, one thing I’ve noticed lately is a trend away from the word “paperless” and toward the phrase “paper-light.”
Recently, between different trade shows I’ve attended and projects I’ve been working on, I’ve spent a lot of time chatting with IT end users — everyone from CIOs to technicians and administrative assistants. It’s been a fascinating collection of industries, comprising everything from government IT people to AP managers at small architectural firms, from CIOs responsible for large educational environments to those representing small nonprofits. But the goal these people either have, or have been charged with, is generally similar: Make things simpler, easier to find and more manageable.
There is always one common concern as well: letting go of paper. Whenever I attend a presentation or webinar on going paperless, without fail, at least one audience member will address this concern: “What do I do with my important paperwork? Do I have to get rid of everything? What about security?” And the issue isn’t necessarily with transforming information captured on paper into digital format and entering it into an electronic content management system; it’s with letting go of the originals.
This is where paper-light versus paperless comes into play. Google it and you'll find pages of references. One of the top results comes from Canon Business Process Service’s Melissa Carlis on Workflow Magazine (I promise I didn’t tweak the search). Carlis is director of records development at the firm and often writes about records management. She suggests that going paperless is not sustainable nor strategic, as it often leads to a “scan everything” approach that results in digital chaos. That term probably rings a bell with many of us.
Other articles on the subject cite a number of studies (AIIM’s “Paper Wars” being a constant). These articles discuss the barriers to going paperless — one of which is the overwhelming prevalence of printers and MFPs in offices. While those MFPs generally come with a “scan” function, “print” is likely the button more commonly used.
Over the years I’ve heard a number of companies discuss their attempts to move toward digital systems, usually involving adoption of enterprise content management programs. The process is rarely smooth, even in the most successful. In one case study, 7,000 documents were added to the company’s new ECM in the first year. Over three years, more than 132,000 were added. That included client and vendor invoices, purchase orders, contracts, HR documents, W-9 forms and more. I heard testimonials from numerous employees who raved about increased productivity, time savings and better efficiency.
I wondered, though, was the transition truly paperless? Or are papers being stored away “just in case”?
In some cases, it is truly a paperless process (at least, if you believe what they say). No paper is retained. But does that mean you won’t find a single piece of paper in these organizations? Not likely. After all, even the most militant adapters of electronic everything must bow to certain rules and regulations, depending on the industry, that regulate the retention of paper records. It just means that the most efficient means are being used to achieve the most efficient ends.
There will always be those who are loathe to give up their hard copies. That’s OK. No one is going to pry the paper from their hands. But as content consumption continues to evolve, we’ll end up with a society that is much more comfortable with digital content and more willing to let go of the hard copy. It’s less a matter of not generating any prints, but more a matter of finding the balance between storing them and trashing everything — of the balance between digital chaos and a world overrun by paper.
Amy Weiss is vice president and editor-in-chief of BPO Media, which publishes The Imaging Channel and Workflow magazines. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.