Published Date
01 - Jun - 2006
| Last Updated
01 - Jun - 2006
Getting under top management's skin, Method #32435: Generously apply layers (to taste) of important/important-looking paper on desk.

Nothing frustrates managers like inefficiency or the perception thereof. And the sight of mounds of paper on one's desk creates that perception quite well. Depending on paper to get your work done is quite ineffective, they would say. It could easily get lost, torn, burnt, be the victim of a coffee spill, or just simply become old and illegible. There must be a better way, and technology must provide.

As early as 1975, corporate bigwigs fantasised about an office without paper-a streamlined, seamlessly integrated workplace where one doesn't have to make endless trips to the printer, and lost documents are a little joke that colleagues share at the water-cooler. And not without reason-red tape was rampant even for the smallest of tasks, and the mounting volumes of paper all but clogged the lines of efficiency in the workplace. It was estimated that people spent at least ten hours a week just sifting through paper. Add to that the fact that paper costs ate up about one to three per cent of revenue, and paper-hatred makes perfect sense.

The Promise
The intervention of technology would automate most tasks-no more filling out forms in triplicate, no more running around offices to get paperwork processed. Information would be easily stored in the electronic format, available almost instantly to those who needed it via a fully-indexed search function.

As the years trundled on, the possibility of a paperless office seemed to come closer to reality. From tools such as Adobe Acrobat to full-fledged collaborative solutions for company intranets-everything promised to ease us into the nirvana of clean desks. And so much did companies believe in it that many of them even instated a "Clean Desk" policy, where employees were encouraged to leave their desks free of any paperwork, or suffer their unannounced disposal.

Indeed, paper has been eliminated to a massive extent thanks to the wonders of technology. Paperwork is increasingly being taken online. Collaborative technologies like the wiki have made knowledge-sharing and management much easier than a shelf of reference books and assorted documents. And yet, we always seem to be one step away from the paperless office.

The Reality
The great irony of the paperless office is that while technology can help eliminate paper, its development has actually increased its proliferation. We've never had access to as much information as we do today, and what do we do when we find an interesting article on the Internet? Why, print it, of course! And with the cost of printing a page lower than that of your average cough lozenge, hardly a grey cell is expended in thinking about hitting that Print button.

The fact is, much though we hate paper, we love it. It's an incredible medium for information sharing. It's high-resolution, supports both colour and black-and-white display, it's ultra-compact, ultra-portable, ultra-cheap, requires no expertise to use, and even smells good when old. People still love paper for its tactile, tangible feel, and that doesn't look likely to change in the coming years. The debacle of gadgets like dedicated e-book readers proved just that.

And then there's the question of whether technology is really the great enabler. What's easier, fumbling around with a computer program to take notes, or scribbling them down on a notepad? Until technology achieves the incredible ease-of-use of paper, it's going to remain a preferred medium to jot down thoughts and ideas quickly. Sure, there won't be a full-text search available, but people don't seem to mind that. Moreover, handing in documents in paper has the psychological effect of assuring one that the task has indeed been completed.

There's so much that could go wrong with computers-a corrupt hard disk could be the death of an organisation that chooses not to have anything to do with paper. A system crash or an incorrect command could undo hours of work. With so much that could go wrong, can you really blame yourself for wanting a hard copy of your work? And we still haven't talked about legal documents that require physical copies with real signatures-the idea of a digital signature is still indigestible.

The role of technology in the office is to minimise the use of paper to save on costs and productivity. Even now, documents go through all their review cycles in the electronic format, to be printed out only when final. Technologies like fax over IP and printers that print on both sides of the paper also play their own little role in the big picture of the paper-efficient office. But when it comes to the actual meaning of the phrase, the paperless office is an urban myth-so hang on to your notebooks.

Team DigitTeam Digit

All of us are better than one of us.