Provenance the Web Magazine ISSN 1203-8954 - Vol.1, No.3 - July 1996

PAPERLESS FUTURE: Part fact, part fantasy ...

Author - Guy Robertson

  • Guy Robertson & Computer -- It is very rare for one communications medium to wipe out another. TV and radio co-exist, as do movie theatres and video outlets. In the foreseeable future, it is unlikely that computer systems will eliminate paper.
  • -- Despite the obvious advantages of computers, human beings still prefer to use paper for cetain tasks. Lengthy paper reports are easier to read than the same material on a computer screen, which can be hard on the eyes.
  • -- Printers and paper suppliers insist that the heaviest corporate users of computer systems are often the best customers of their products. Want to sell a few tonnes of paper stock, brochures or forms? Visit the nearest insurance company, bank or brokerage.
  • -- Systems departments are the strongest proponents of the paperless office. Managers dealing directly with customers are more sceptical, since they don't want to risk losing business because of a new and unproven technology. The successful implementation of any paperless office will depend on the willingness of techies and front-liners to work together for better procedures and customer service. [End]

In the late 70s, a prominent Vancouver futurologist predicted a phenomenal rise in the price of copper. Since copper is essential for the manufacture of computer hardware, he assumed that one day soon it would be worth as much as gold. Determined to grow rich, he obtained from his bank an enormous supply of pennies, which he stored in the lockers of his elegant houseboat.

The price of copper fell.

The futurologist quietly dumped his pennies into the bilge of his houseboat. Shortly thereafter, he made another startling prediction. He was certain that at the end of the century, no one would read printed items such as books or magazines any more; we would all be engrossed in the data on our computer terminals.

The futurologist's pennies remain to this day in the bilge of his houseboat, and this year millions of readers will spend billions of dollars on countless books and magazines. Book shops are getting larger and larger, and the demand for printed magazines (including those covering Internet news) is expanding rapidly.

Is it any surprise that there are very few full-time futurologists? Think about it. Would you rely on such a person to manage your investments? Would you allow a fuuturologist to design your office or your information systems? Probably not: which brings us to the paperless office, another favourite futurological prediction. Is it a fantasy? Or could it be a future fact?

Everyone has heard about the paperless office, that workplace which will function without a single post-it note. All business operations, all transactions and communications will be fully automated. No more memos, letters, reports, brochures, announcements; on your desk will sit a computer capable of dealing with every aspect of your day's work. The paperless office will enhance efficiency while providing the highest standard of ergonomic comfort and safety. Your day will breeze by...The only paper in a paperless office will be in the washroom.

Some organizations are close to eradicating paper from their administrative offices. At Richmond Savings Credit Union in Richmond, B.C., staff members rely on their computers for much vital information.

"We've been working towards the paperless office for a long time," says Holden Yap, RSCU's Manager of Technology Development and Re-engineering. "We installed Microsoft Mail throughout the company six years ago, and we've had fully indexed corporate communications through e-mail for five years. We have no need to send paper memos or other bulletins. Two years ago we set up InfoBase, a system that holds our operations manuals. We used to depend on the bulky paper manuals, but now they're available on-line."

Despite his preferance for electronic media, Yap is realistic about paper's continuing usefulness at RSCU.

"It's counter-productive to move too quickly, and paper is still handy in certain situations. For example, a paper report is still easier to pass around the table during group discussions. Reports produced at our branches are still distributed on paper. Moreover we have to consider the preferences of our customers. I think that the greatest ongoing use of paper in our company will be for loan documents."

Yap will not support the notion of a paperless office at RSCU unless it leads to more convenience and better service.

"We may be one of the more automated credit unions in the country, but we're moving at a pace that our staff and customers can accept," he says. "I'm not sure when we'll have a completely paperless office. Perhaps in the next decade."

In fact, most senior managers are unable to say when their operations will be paperless.

"We keep talking about it, but whether it will actually happen is debatable," says John Iseli, V-P of Branch Operations at VanCity Savings. "There's no reason why we can't decrease our paper use by 90%. Proportionately, we use a lot less now than we did five years ago. I think that's a trend throughout the entire finance sector. But currently everyone still needs paper. The move towards a paperless office will be gradual. There are certain milestones that we'll come to, like signing loan approvals electronically. Of course the security of the electronic document must be guaranteed."

Like most managers faced with decisions that affect customer service, Iseli emphasizes that there must be good "people reasons" for any high-tech implementation.

"We're not going to change our operations just to say that we have a more trendy system," he says. "We'll make the changes when they're good for our customers."

The gradual approach to implementing the paperless office doesn't surprise Judy O'Mara, a senior librarian at MB Research, the research and technology department of Vancouver's MacMillan Bloedel Ltd, a major manufacturer of wood products.

"I've heard about paperless systems for 20 years, and while there's technology that renders paper obsolete in certain areas, we still find that people are attached to paper," says O'Mara. "For example, we find that reading a long document on paper is easier and more convenient than reading it on the computer screen. And sometimes the systems that were intended to reduce paper use actually contribute to its increase. Everyone has e-mail these days. The problem is that e-mail has become almost too popular. You arrive in your office to find several dozen electronic messages waiting for you. What many people do is to print these messages on paper and review them at a more convenient time. In such cases, paper gives the reader time to think about what is being communicated."

O'Mara notes that people will adapt systems to meet their personal needs. A system may be faster than any other, but a human user will find ways to slow it down in order to make the experience of using it more comfortable.

One component of human comfort is a sense of security. You need to know that your vital plans, reports and ideas are stored somewhere safe, and while you can back them up electronically, many people prefer paper as a long-term storage medium.

"I see an indefinite need for paper and paper storage, especially in the finance sector," says Diane Guinn, a senior representative of FACS Records in Burnaby, B.C. "It's true that the majority of financial institutions are far more automated than they were a decade ago. But they still use an enormous amount of paper. This is partly because there's a constant concern about the readability of electronic media. We're not sure how long these media can last before they degrade or become obsolete. Because paper is so stable, it provides users with a greater sense of security, and I doubt that we will see it disappear in the foreseeable future. Some offices may become paperless, but there will always be operations that rely on paper."

Future generations will decide the fate of paper,printing and handwriting. Based on current trends of computer use, it's safe to say that today's young people will be far more comfortable with high-tech interfaces than we are. They will work in business environments that are completely automated; their homes could be equally computerized. But the Electronic Lifestyle does not necessarily lead to the obsolescence of paper. Remember the success record of a certain futurologist, and be careful when you make predictions. Many of them end up as bilge. [End]

Guy Robertson is an instructor in Information Technology at Vancouver's Langara College, in British Columbia, Canada.

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Last update August 11, 1996