Paperless offices

I might have touched on this before, but I was thinking about paperless offices again this morning (having cleaned up much of the paper in my office earlier today). I am convinced that the move to a “paperless” office will be a very difficult one to achieve. In fact, it may be close to impossible (although I’d love for someone to prove me wrong.)

Another term for a “paperless” office is a “digital” one; that is, one in which all paper is replaced by digital represntations of the information contained on the paper. We have all sorts of technologies that allow for the digitization of information. But I still think it will be difficult to replace paper.

I have tried numerous handheld devices for capturing information. Palm Pilots, BlackBerries, etc. There are notebook computers that try and immitate literal pads of paper. There are at least two disadvantages to all of these devices as I see it: 1) I have not yet come across an interface that makes it easy to write free-form text as a piece of paper; 2) each of these devices requires some kind of power source, be it a battery or an AC adapter.

All of these devices seem to be attempting to mimic paper in an electronic form. As I see it, there are only two advantages for mimicking paper in electronic form: 1) space: data storage takes infinitely less physical space than the physical storage of paper; 2) searches: it is easier to allow a computer to search through text than to scramble through mounds of notebook paper on your own.

Aside from these advantages, I see very little gain in using electronic “paper” versus physical paper for common tasks such as note-taking, lists, etc. And when we speak of a paperless office, we are speaking of everything, I assume, notes and lists in addition to memos and briefings (which are more easily captured in electronic form).

Perhaps a better distinction is formal vs. informal “paper”. Clearly, a step in the right direction would be the elimination of “formal” paper from the office. Electronic mail has gone a long way to doing this. Memos are mostly electronic, whether written in Microsoft Word or some other word processor. PowerPoint briefings have replaced transparancies. Software like TeX or LaTex has made technical documentation easier to capture electronically. I can foresee a time when all formal paper is eliminated and converted to electronic media.

Informal paper is another story. I scribble notes in a notebook. I have my own shorthand, developed over a period of 16 years of notetaking. I don’t depend on batteries or AC adapters or network connections. And quite frankly, I can take notes faster on paper than I can on the computer. Lists seem much easier to maintain on paper. Pull out a small notepad in the bookstore and jot down the title of the book you want to buy later. It takes 2 seconds. It most certainly takes longer with your PDA. The tough nut to crack will be informal paper.

Electronic devices like PDAs and notebook computers try to immitate the virtues of paper and combine them with the virtues of electronic storage. As they say, however, immitation is the highest form of flattery. The reason these products try to immitate paper is because paper works so well. It is for this reason, the simplicity of capturing informal documents, that I see a converstion to a full paperless office to be a long and difficult challenge.


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