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Still not paperless after all these years

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. In fact, the mantra of going paperless has now been downsized to what is perceived to be the more achievable goal of “paper light”.

The incentives to reduce paper use in the workplace are still significant. From an environmental point of view, it has been estimated that if the US had cut office paper usage in 2007 by 10%, it would have resulted in the saving of 1.6 million tons of greenhouse gasses - the equivalent at the time of taking 280,000 cars off the road. Gartner estimates the US spends $25-35 billion a year filing, storing and retrieving paper.

Far from going paperless, we are actually accelerating in our use of paper with the annual growth rate of the amount of paper produced by the average company standing at 25%. Each day, an estimated 1 billion photocopies are made.

So why have we found it so hard to break the addiction to paper?

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 documents.

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 of an object was an idea first proposed by the psychologist James Gibson in 1977 who described affordances as the properties of an object that determine what actions an individual can use it for.

In her book on the paperless office, Sellen argues that it is the affordances of paper that have determined its use within the workplace which have dictated work practises to incorporate those properties. 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.

One of the best examples of how workflow has been largely responsible for delaying the move away from paper has been the form in all of its different incarnations. Although online forms seem common enough, they have not made it through to many government and corporate environments. Where they do appear in these situations, they are normally presented as PDF or Word document files that require printing, signing and then faxing or scanning to send by email. There is still a pervasive belief that this is necessary because a signature is required even though in Australia as in other countries, electronic alternatives to paper signatures now exist.

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.

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