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Is the 'paperless' office here at last?

By Thom Patterson, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Experts predicted paperless offices would be the norm by the 1990s
  • Analyst: Printing for "read-and-discard purposes" must end to achieve paperless office
  • Paperless office won't happen "for ages," says analyst, but the "less-paper office is coming"

(CNN) -- In the front offices of the trend-spotting network and online magazine TrendHunter.com, there are 15 workers wrangling 35,000 worldwide contributors -- but you'd be hard-pressed to find one filing cabinet.

Trend Hunter is a paperless office.

Founder Jeremy Gutsche tells a story about how an accountant had finally put together all the numbers on a project and offered to send a paper report on his work. When Gutsche asked for an electronic copy instead, the accountant "just started looking at me, laughing."

According to Gutsche, the accountant asked, "These are your most important financial performance records -- don't you think you should have a hard copy?" "I said, 'I really don't know what I would do with it.'"

"Buy a filing cabinet," said the accountant.

The exchange goes to the heart of a cultural divide that may explain why businesses continue to print, copy and fax more than a trillion pages of office paper each year, according to the market research firm InfoTrends.

The dream of the paperless office started way back in 1975, when BusinessWeek magazine predicted "a collection of ... office terminals linked to each other and to electronic filing cabinets."

"It will change our daily life," said one bold technology expert quoted in the article. Said another expert: "By 1990, most record handling will be electronic."

Twenty years after that unmet deadline, a national survey found that businesses have chosen to use paper printouts to archive 62 percent of important documents.

The survey of 882 companies, released in February by the content management association AIIM, indicates that most businesses believe paper documents are needed for legal reasons.

So what happened? Where is this streamlined office of the future, free of clutter and file cabinets, that was promised back in the '70s?

By the mid-1990s, the nation was actually moving in the opposite direction.

More and more workstation computers and printers contributed to a big jump in office paper consumption well into the 2000s, according to industry experts.

Before taking a hit from the recession, the estimated number of office pages printed, copied and faxed annually in the U.S. peaked in 2007 at more than 1.019 trillion, according to InfoTrends, a Massachusetts-based market research and consulting firm.

InfoTrends analyst John Shane blamed the nation's love of office printing and copying on convenience.

Many people can't bring themselves to let go of the convenience of a printed hard copy, said Shane. For some, printed paper may be more portable, and easier to read in a cramped airliner seat than reading on a laptop. Some people may find paper more comfortable and preferable to read during a meeting, instead of reading a document on a tiny smart-phone display.

Eventually it's going to get to a point where it's going to seem awkward when you see someone having something printed.
--Jeremy Gutsche, Trendhunter.com
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"Most of what people print now is for temporary read-and-discard purposes and for transactions," said Shane. "People like to read paper. Then they throw it away. Then they may want to read it and throw it away again. That behavior needs to change if we're really going to see a paperless office."

There are plenty of motivating factors that would push managers to adopt the idea of a paperless office. Cost saving is one. Paperless-office advocates say they save the cost of paper, envelopes, postage, couriers, printers, copiers and, of course, filing cabinets.

The idea of helping the environment also might push a change in behavior, Shane said.

That's the motivation behind Gutsche's paperless office, his second such system after going through the shift with his previous employer, Capital One.

Three major factors will drive the paperless office movement, says Gutsche: ecological, technological and generational.

"The world's getting more obsessed with eco," said Gutsche, in this case the idea of saving paper and conserving trees. "Eventually it's going to get to a point where it's going to seem awkward when you see someone having something printed."

The paper industry argues that recycling paper and managed tree growth make using paper cheaper and easier on the environment than the cost of recycling computer components.

The technology is available to give even home-based businesses the option of going paperless.

Scanners for electronically storing documents are getting smaller and more affordable. "You get back from a conference -- you drop off 15 business cards into a little scanner and it places them all digitally," said Gutsche.

Portable computer tablets, such as Apple's upcoming iPad, are also part of the equipment of a paperless office. "As soon as I switched to a tablet PC, that eliminated the need to be walking around with a pad of paper to meetings," said Gutsche. "I can write things down immediately on the tablet."

When he's giving someone feedback on a document -- whether it's on a PowerPoint Deck or in Microsoft Word -- it's much more tedious to mark it up on a keyboard, Gutsche said. "But if you use a tablet, you're drawing right on it, so there's no real shift from what you're doing."

Next-generation e-readers and tablets have spurred interest in the prospect of a paperless magazine market.

Bold new e-readers grab attention

For home offices, popular tech blogger Chris Pirillo recommends using a Web-based billing and payment system such as Freshbooks to eliminate paper created in the invoice process.

Kevin McNeil, CEO of Ontario-based Gore Mutual Insurance, said acceptance of the company's paperless office system in 2002 was "a generational thing."

More than half of his approximately 280 employees are under 35, he said.

Younger people -- especially those young enough to have grown up with home computers -- have adapted very quickly, McNeil said. Older workers took longer, but everybody was on board within six months.

"Everyone saw the benefits of being able to take care of their work faster, but young people don't want to deal with old technology. They paid more attention."

As a result, the workflow has gone from sometimes waiting days to retrieve records that were archived off site, to accessing the same files in two or three seconds -- saving time, creating efficiency and improving customer service, McNeil said.

An initial outlay of hundreds of thousands of dollars was well worth it, he said. "For every dollar that we spent on it, we saved that dollar plus another 85 cents."

Gutsche said the shift to reject all paper has already started, but Shane is more cautious in his predictions.

Although Shane does see offices in the near future reducing their printing and copying, he says, "I wouldn't call it the paperless office -- that's not going to happen for ages. But the less-paper office is coming."

By the way, that filing cabinet TrendHunter.com's accountant suggested? According to Gutsche, "it's still empty."