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The Whiteboard: Paperless office remains elusive goal

Do you remember all the talk 20 years ago about going “paperless” in the office? In the 1990s the paperless office of the future was like the Holy Grail.

So why do businesses still have so much paper to handle, copy, file and manage? Let’s look at the constraints that existed in the 1990s and where we are today.

Desktop and laptop computers were becoming more common. Software was available to create memos, forms, spreadsheets and drawings. Email was becoming widespread. It seemed the paperless office was just around the corner.

However, computers weren’t on every desk and, relative to today, they were still expensive. That meant that some people would still need paper. That was a constraint.

Today, at least in the office, everyone can have access to a computer and to digitized documents at a very minimal cost. The factory floor is a different story. Many businesses are still years away from having computer monitors at every work station. Today we’ll focus on the office.

Digital storage was a 1990s constraint. Going paperless sounded fine until you calculated how much disk space would be needed to store all of those digitized documents. Tape was still a common backup medium. With large amounts of data, tape backups take forever. Today disk space has become so cheap we barely think about it. Daily backups to server hard drives or the cloud have replaced tape.


Of course, storage isn’t the biggest problem if you don’t have digital content to store. In the 1990s many important documents were still arriving at businesses in the form of paper, sent through the mail or through a fax machine. Storing those documents digitally would have meant scanning numerous documents on equipment, which was slow and expensive.

The content situation has changed dramatically. Requests for quotes and purchase orders are sent in as digitized email attachments. The same is true for digitized drawings and design models. Documents can be signed electronically. There are still some dinosaurs sending faxes, but today we have services available that allow us to send faxes using email and to receive faxes as digitized email attachments.

The percentage of documents arriving as paper has plummeted. For those occasional items that do take the form of paper, scanners today are dirt cheap and efficient. We even have access to smartphone apps for converting paper documents to Adobe PDF files.

Those constraints are largely gone. But many businesses still maintain rows and rooms of file cabinets, storing sales folders with copies of correspondence, quotes, drawings, spreadsheets and notes. They receive searchable, shareable, digitized, content, instantly accessible from any desk, and convert it to unsearchable, unshareable paper, stored remotely from everyone.

People who need information leave their desks, walk to the cabinets, look for the file and carry it back. When they finish, they return and refile the documents. The wasted motion is bad enough, but sometimes folders or documents are lost or misfiled. It is very hard to lose a digitized document in a properly designed system, but very easy to lose paper.

Why aren’t more businesses going paperless? I believe the reasons are habit, inertia and resistance to change. We are so used to the status quo we don’t see the waste right in front of us. If we do, we also see it will take an effort to change. And some people just like paper.

Those are three weak reasons. Elimination of waste, increased access and prevention of misfiling and loss can be achieved at almost no cost. Take a 21st century look at the paper in your office.

Richard Randall is founder and president of management-consulting firm New Level Advisors in Springettsbury Township, York County. Email him at

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