Oh the paperless office. I can remember hearing about the promise of the paperless office when I joined the office equipment industry about 25 years ago. At the time, having such little experience, I wondered if I had made a wise choice, particularly since I had left an industry which held, at least, some role in lessening the need for paper.
Fast forward 25 years and we still have plenty of paper. It sits on our desks, gets handed out in meetings, enters our briefcases and backpacks waiting to be reviewed, and has infiltrated itself into the vast majority of business processes we utilize to effectively manage our businesses.
Considering all the talk about moving to a paperless office, why is it then that paper still plays such a vital role in business? Of course, there are many reasons paper is still critically important.
First, with nearly five generations in today’s workforce there is little doubt that older generations have spent their entire careers interfacing with information on paper. It is a familiar medium for communicating and even with advanced electronic means of information sharing and storage, paper is personal and paper is familiar. For older, or shall we say, “more experienced” workers, moving away from paper is not a simple transition and old habits are hard to break.
Second, paper is effective. For all the advances we have seen in technology, and there are many, paper is still one of, if not the most, effective ways of communicating data and information. Think about the properties of paper. It’s portable. It’s easy to read, particularly in comparison to consuming information from a cell phone, laptop or desktop computer screen. It’s tactile. What feels better to you, holding paper and consuming information or holding your monitor? It’s vibrant, coming in many shapes, sizes, weights and coatings, and is capable of hosting content in a manner that is appealing to the eye.
Research on the role and benefits of paper is compelling. When considering your own experience and the previously outlined facts, it’s no wonder we haven’t achieved the paperless office.
Third, despite the fact that the amount of paper in the office is declining, the amount of content is exploding. All this content needs a place to go, and while more of it is making its way into content management systems and being accessed via collaboration tools, we find that this content is also making its way onto paper. In many ways, the dramatic expansion of content has acted as a counterweight to the many actions that have taken place over the last 25 years to lessen the role and utilization of paper.
So what does this mean for the future? Is the paperless office a possible reality? Should we forget about lessening our dependence on paper? What about the poor forests being decimated?
There are many reasons to continue our quest to lessen the role of and our dependence on paper. While environmental stewardship is important, saving the forests is not one of them as paper is a renewable resource and industry does a tremendous job in maintaining the long-term viability of paper and the forests from which it is derived. I think we can dispense with the “save a tree” message at the end of emails. That said, as indicated above, while paper has many benefits, we still see paper used in business processes today where it may not be delivering its original value.
Take accounts payable (AP) for instance. Historically, this was a business process that was highly dependent upon paper. In fact, the process from initial acquisition of goods, to delivery and receipt through to payment depended upon paper including purchase orders, packing slips, delivery and receipt notices, and invoices to name a few. Although dependent upon paper, the information contained on the paper itself needed to be extracted and entered into systems to ultimately drive invoicing and receive payment. Today this is a process that can be highly automated, less dependent upon paper and more streamlined. Our own experience in restructuring the processes around AP has shown us that while the paper doesn’t entirely disappear (not all vendors operate electronically), there are many ways in which it can be reduced, and where it does continue, it is used more effectively.
What about human resources (HR)? Ah yes, another area where paper is pervasive. This is also beginning to change. The traditional employee onboarding activity and capturing all personnel information on paper is now making way to the use of electronic systems. In particular, content management and document capture technology is being utilized to take what were once paper-based records for all employees, digitize such records and store such content as mandated by regulatory authorities. While eliminating paper records in HR has the immediate benefits you would expect, including in some ways providing better security, one additional benefit being realized through the employees’ digital records is talent management. While paper was certainly an effective medium for capturing and storing HR information traditionally, the electronic record unlocks an entirely new set of capabilities in terms of how HR organizations manage information and identify talent in their own organizations. Will paper disappear from HR completely? Of course not. Just like other business areas, there are some documents that are easier to digest in paper form. These will certainly remain.
Given the reduction in paper use in the general office, are there any areas where paper is still king you ask? As a matter of fact, there are! Let’s look at customer communication management. Quite a few years ago, there was much talk about the death of direct mail. Yes, direct mail did suffer as a result of other customer communication methods including email, web advertising, social media, etc. In fact, according to a study from InfoTrends, “Print Plays an Increasingly Important Role in a Multi-channel World for Marketers,” direct paper mail effectively drives consumers online or into retail stores to ultimately make purchases. An interesting thing happened, however. “Direct mail is the new e-mail” was the catchphrase heard by those of us involved in dealing with the commercial print industry as marketers came to the realization that e-mail (although cheap) wasn’t a very effective way of reaching a target audience, and web advertising and social media were very difficult to measure. It was during this time that we also began to see amazing things being done with direct mail again, taking advantage of the inherent benefits that only paper can deliver. The same InfoTrends study finds that two-thirds of direct mail is looked at, and more than 40 percent of consumers made a purchase in the last three months because of a piece of direct mail received. In addition to the advances in papers, designs and customer targeting, paper itself also went digital. How, you ask? Primarily by embedding digital content through the form of QR codes and, most recently, via augmented reality. While not relating directly to the office, what has happened in this area is another example of the great staying power of paper.
So where is paper headed? There is no doubt that paper, in the office, is on the downswing. Although content, as noted, is exploding, today’s pace of business and competitiveness demand more effective ways of managing processes, sharing and communicating information. Paper will certainly have its place; however, most efforts around automation involve eliminating paper to some degree. Couple that with artificial intelligence, robotic process automation, big data analytics and machine learning, and there’s no doubt that paper utilization will diminish. As indicated by recent research conducted by InfoTrends, print volume has a five-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of -1.8 percent. This is a bit faster than what we had seen in the recent past, and as the technologies mentioned above become more pervasive, it would be no surprise if the pace of decline increases.
For those of you who love paper, don’t worry. Yes, its utilization will decline and it will ultimately be replaced in many business processes. However, in today’s office, there is an awful lot of paper. Like turning an aircraft carrier, eliminating paper is not a fast process. Its properties still make it the best medium for viewing information (no display technology has proven its equal) and its resilience is equal to that of Rocky Balboa.
Paper is here to stay! So when the pundits profess that paper in the office will become a thing of the past you might retort, “yes, when reindeer fly.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of The Imaging Channel