When computers were first installed in most major corporations, the buzz at the time was that we would then witness the dawn of “the paperless office” – an office were all information necessary for operations was electronic. Of course, as many studies have shown, this turned out not to happen. As mainframes gained more and more usage, there was actually an increase in the amount of documents printed, and therefore an increase in the amount of paper used. Part of the problem at the time was that while computers could indeed hold an incredible amount of information, user interfaces were poor – no one wanted to lug a 3270 terminal screen with them into a meeting, so the data had to be printed out.
Fast forward to the present day, and a number of things have changed. We have things like laptops, which allow us to carry information around with us, LCD projectors for sharing a report in a meeting, and PDAs to be able to reference a figure on the go. However, despite all these technological innovations, our usage of paper seems not to have declined.
So why, with all these innovations, are we so stuck on paper?
Part of the problem might be that there is an impression in the business world that for something to be truly official (a contract, drawing, or report), it needs to be a hard copy. Anyone who has ever had a attorney create a contract can tell you how they received not only a Microsoft Word version of the contract in their email, but a few days later, a hard copy mailed to them.
Or, perhaps it has to do with the fact that paper is the most reliable, dependable, easy to use information interface that we can possibly ever have. Anyone with a 2nd grade education can figure out how to fill out a form on a piece of paper, and paper does not suffer the limitations of battery life, damage from being dropped, hard drive malfunctions, network latency issues, broken keyboards and all of the other problems that modern technology is prone too. Ask any home inspector what they would like to carry around a house with them when doing an inspection, and they’ll likely tell you a paper form is far easier than even the lightest PDA, laptop, or tablet. The same is true for the rest of the business world.
So if paper, as an information medium, is here to stay, what do we do to address its limitations…?