Saturday, March 2, 2024

The Final Death of Paper: Why Has it Been So Hard to Create the Paperless Office?

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I used to have this annual discussion with the now ex-head of the HP Printer unit VJ. He thought it was funny that after we started moving to the “paperless office” in the 1980s, the effort seemed to accelerate, not decelerate, the use of printers. This continued until last decade, or nearly 30 years from the time we started working towards the goal of getting rid of all the paper.

I just finished hosting a talk with Ombud (a company that specializes in sharing best practices between IT shops and within companies) and DocuSign (the leader in digital signatures) on the Affordable Health Care Act. We discussed how going paperless with digital signatures could help assure compliance and save a ton of money. But shouldn’t we already be using digital signatures?

Let’s talk about why people resisted the move to paperless, the advantages of digital documents and digital signatures, and why the move to the paperless office is finally happening.

Nobody Likes Change

As a species, we hate change. Our current keyboard layout was designed to keep typewriter keys from jamming (a problem a huge number of people have never seen in their lives). We still use car controls that were outdated decades ago. And we build homes much the same way they did at the beginning of the century, even though we know how to build them to survive the many weather-related events we’ve been having.

But while this change aversion clearly contributed to the issue, the real problem is that we really didn’t have anything that replaced paper well. Tablets did emerge in the 1990s and again a decade later, but they were heavy, expensive things with relatively poor resolution. It wasn’t until the iPad and the Kindle that the market actually started to replace paper with something that was better—at least for consumption. Now companies are pulling back on their printing supplies as more and more folks shift to using their tablets and smartphones for reading reports and filling out documents.

Advantages of Digital Document Management

The benefits of digital document management center on three areas: security, tracking and speed. With a paper document, you can’t really track the number of copies (yes there is special paper that can resist copying, but it is hardly foolproof). And if you want the document back, you have to go and get it physically. Once a paper document is out of your control, there really are no limits on who can read it.

As long as a document remains digital and within a document management system, you can track it. You can limit who views it (granted, someone else could be looking at the screen who isn’t authorized). You can reduce the chance of it being copied. And, most important, you can better track document approvals because they stay in system. If you need an approval from someone who is not on-site, they can approve from their cell phone or tablet, moving the process along more quickly.

So while not perfect, electronic documents improve dramatically on the security, tracking and speed surrounding what has traditionally been a highly manual process of shuffling and storing papers.

Wrapping Up: Die, Die, Die Paper

It has taken a long time to put a stake in paper, but it required that we develop a technology that could actually be as good as or potentially better than a paper document. Tablets, and to a lesser extent, ePaper have arrived to help drive us toward a nirvana of offices without huge filing cabinets and executives who don’t stay awake all night hoping a sensitive document doesn’t show up on the front page of The Wall Street Journal.

As we discovered with my panel, healthcare is aggressively moving to this new paperless model because they have no choice. Privacy regulations and revenue rules are making it critical that they better protect patent information and cut costs in order to survive. Going paperless is one of the many steps they are taking to assure that survival. It has taken us over 30 years, and we clearly aren’t there yet, but finally, I can say, the age of paper is behind us.

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