There has been plenty of chat about going paperless, motivated by a variety of reasons including economics, the environment, efficiency, and convenience. They’re all valid reasons, but I don’t think that we will ever become paperless, whether at home or at work, in our lifetimes. The best, I think, that we can expect is to reduce the amount of paper we consume.
On a recent project we (the client and I) debated the idea of going paperless. The best that we could actually come up with was to transition from a mix of paper and electronic records to electronic records only, over the next n years. Paper will still be used for draft versions and for circulation of the some content. The client holds monthly meetings where materials numbering in the hundreds of pages are circulated to attendees in 3-inch thick binders. Theoretically the client could transition to a variant of an e-Council model, but that would necessitate acquiring the correct equipment and a very significant change management effort. My gut tells me that this may well happen, but as a result of attrition rather than a conscious effort to actually go paperless. The potentially affected users are in an ageing demographic and of a nature not to be messed with. Trust me.
I am an annotator; I like to make notes, circle stuff, and highlight things. Sometimes I make notes that question the sanity and intelligence of the author of a document. Yes, I know that there are plenty of tools out there that would allow me to do all of these things electronically, but I won’t use them. I have this thing about reading long-ish documents on a screen, any screen. It’s a comfort thing; I like to lean back and put my feet on my desk when I review long documents. Also, when I do question someone’s sanity or intelligence in a note on a document, I’m not certain that I want it recorded electronically and stored in some repository. [2013-10-10: I now use tools on my tablet for this, coupled with cloud storage.]
I may give ebooks a try in the future, but there is something comforting about having a 900-page plus tome on your lap while you’re reading in bed (I am currently reading Fall of Giants by Ken Follett, if you’re interested). I also like the way a full bookshelf looks. My wife would appreciate me switching to ebooks just so I’ll turn the damn light off and let her sleep. [2013-10-10: Other than during takeoff and landing, e-books on my tablet are my preference now.]
I absolutely agree that invoices, claims, benefits applications, and other form based transactions can be processed more efficiently electronically than they can be on paper. However, there is still an ageing demographic to contend with, as well as the fact that not everyone has access to the required technology. A government department that I worked with several years ago serves senior citizens. Their mandate is to provide benefits such as education and property tax relief, dental benefits, and other benefits that people on fixed incomes require. In addition to many of the beneficiaries having issues with adapting to and using technology, many of these people live in rural or remote areas with less than modern technical infrastructures, some have none.
Economically, going paperless makes tons of sense. If a paperless process is more efficient, it stands to reason that it is less expensive to run. Also, storing paper costs more in real estate costs than storing the same content electronically. We can throw in the costs of running and managing network storage, but it’s there anyways so the incremental cost as compared to what it would cost to store paper is likely negligible.
The environment aspect is the one that I find most fraught with gotchas. Generally, the paper we use is made from recycled materials and then recycled again once we’re done with it. But what about the other tools that we need to deal with the paper? I’m referring to the printers, fax machines, scanners, photo-copiers, and all the consumables they require. I’m not an expert in this area, nor do I ever plan to be one, so I will leave it to someone better qualified than I to comment. One thing that I did read somewhere (I forget where) related to the environmental impact of going paperless. The gist of the issue was the additional environmental impact of replacing paper with the technology and tools required to replace the paper. This struck me as either disingenuous or ill-informed, depending on the author’s intent. We’re already using the technology and there’s more coming every day.
We won’t be paperless, but there will be less paper.