Whatever happened to the paperless office?

Monday, April 3rd 2000, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

The prediction of electronic-only documents didn't take 'print' buttons into account

Trends analyst Arnold Brown chuckles when someone mentions the paperless office.

"I think we'll see it with the Second Coming," he says. "The paperless office is going to require a massive mutation of the human species. We need to have paper; we need hard copy."

In the late 1970s and early '80s, "paperless office" and "office automation" were major buzzwords. Newspapers, magazines and trade journals used up whole forests writing about how computers would make the printed word obsolete.

Some office gurus predicted that secretaries and clerks would become as obsolete as hat pins and that file cabinets and in-boxes would become museum curiosities.

In a 1979 forecast, U.S. News & World Report said the 1980s "will be a decade of unrest in the American workplace" and predicted that "technology will play its part by upsetting the present occupational mix. Many factory jobs will be lost to automation, and employment will grow in white-collar fields.

Computers will create a 'paperless office,' and some workers may lose their jobs to robots."
Of course, not everybody bought into the notion of a paperless office, even when it was first suggested. In 1982, an article in The Economist began: "The vision of the paperless office is future-gazing nonsense. Even computer giant IBM believes paper will be found amidst the micro-electronic wonders in the office of the future. The Xerox Corp. goes further: It contends that many offices will have more paper in them, not less - together with more automation, of course."

This view has turned out to be right on the money.

Christa Carone, a Xerox Corp. spokeswoman, calls the paperless office a myth and offers these data from current Xerox studies as evidence:

Over the next five years, the number of documents generated both electronically and on paper will soar to 20 trillion each year.
Ninety percent of all documents, no matter how they're created, today are eventually printed out, a number expected to decline to about 40 percent in 2005. But that still represents a fourfold growth in printed page volume, to 4 trillion pages.

Just as the copier replaced carbon paper, making it easier to generate multiple copies, so has e-mail increased the number of people who can be in the loop.

Ms. Carone says time was a factor when you had to "walk up to a copier, make 50 copies, put them in individual envelopes - you limited your distribution because it was a time-consuming task," she says. "With e-mail, it's just the press of a button and you can get a document to thousands of people."

Heavier load

Because of this, she says, the advent of the digital age has created more, not less, paper.
"The research shows that people are printing their e-mails rather than just reading them and deleting them," she says.

Mr. Brown, chairman of the New York-based strategic planning consulting firm Weiner, Edrich Brown Inc., has observed the same thing.

"The fact of the matter is in human society, technology doesn't replace things; it layers on top of them," he says. "People of my generation are not going to give up paper.
"When I read my e-mail . . . I delete almost everything, and the things that I don't delete, I print. I think paper is basically seen as being very cheap, so you use a lot of it."

We do, indeed. Barry Polsky of the American Forest and Paper Association, an industry trade group, says that 4.8 million tons of office paper were shipped by its members in 1998. In 1990, the amount was 3 million tons; in 1986, 2.5 million tons.

Has Mr. Polsky's own office made an effort to go paperless?

"Like every office, we're computer-literate and we transfer a lot of e-mails and mail by Internet as well as interoffice e-mail," he says. "But our office is like any other. Along with the computers come copiers - and people want hard copies to read."

Despite - or maybe because of - electronic technology, paper proliferates in both the public and private sectors. The federal government's ability to churn out paperwork, manuals, memos and documentation is legendary.

"I remember reading some time ago that the U.S. Navy's most advanced warships, like the Aegis-class cruisers, carried 12 tons of paper," Mr. Brown says.

The Government Printing Office, which meets about half the federal government's printing needs, says it handles more than 55 million pounds of paper each year and estimates that an additional 100,000 tons of paper are used each year by its outside contractors.

The agency also uses other media, including microfiche, CD-ROM and the Internet. Through its GPO Access site (www.access.gpo.gov), one of the earliest federal sites for the public, users can link to nearly 105,000 titles on printing office servers and 68,000 more titles on other federal sites.

The Government Printing Office says more than 520 million documents have been retrieved by the public since 1994. The agency also reports that more than 21 million documents, about 924 gigabytes of information, are retrieved each month. How many of those millions of documents are eventually printed on paper is anybody's guess.

Fax, scan, copy

In the office, it keeps getting easier to make more and more documents.

Ms. Carone of Xerox, which is also in the paper business, says the line is blurring between printing and copying - especially with the advent of integrated office machines that may incorporate a fax, printer, scanner, copier and other document-handling devices in one desktop unit.

She said most of Xerox's new product lines are "these multifunction machines that do it all, rather than having four different units scattered around the office."

Dan Costello, vice president and regional manager for the staffing agency Kelly Services in Dallas-Fort Worth, says his customers are looking for temporary workers who have skills in electronic media: "Can our people open the e-mail? Can they send; can they receive? Can they create documents? Those documents may not make it to paper, but they're still documents. ... That really hasn't reduced the overall need for staff."

He said handling paper is "less a part of what our customers are asking for from staffing companies. The copy clerks, the file clerks - those types of raw clerical positions - there's still a good bulk of it, but it's not a growing part of our business."

Mr. Costello says the need for file clerks is still "intensive in companies like in mortgage operations, in some banking operations - anything where you're doing loan processing, there's still lots of paperwork. Insurance is still a pretty heavy area for file clerks and those types of people, but you're not seeing as many of those types of requests for staff.

"We are providing people to do staffing for scanning of documents into electronic media. ... But we also continue to staff customers who are going to always be paper-based - those customers who provide billing statements that go out in the mail, that do the inserting and the postage. We're still providing temps for lots of those types of customers."

Some kinds of data may always be more useful on paper.

For example, Mr. Brown says, a phenomenon called co-location makes it more difficult to remember information you've read on a computer screen than in print.

"When you read something in a magazine or newspaper article, you place it in your mind in the context in which you saw it - the position it was on the page, what was opposite, what ad might have been next to it and so on," Mr. Brown explains.

"You don't have that online. E-mail certainly has no context. And it's very hard to read things on the screen, partly because the practically invisible pulsation, which you don't really notice, distracts your eyes," he says.

Revised forecast

So how will your in-box look 25 years down the line?

"I have no idea. I don't think anybody does," Mr. Brown says.

In the end, what may finally bring a reduction in paperwork is the merging of technologies, he says.

"What we're going to see is the continued rapid development of ubiquitous and cheap communications technology, and paper is just going to get in the way. It's going to slow it down.

"People who don't want things slowed down are going to find ways to do without paper."
But we're not there yet.

Ms. Carone of Xerox says, "I think that researchers have found that we are still very tactile people. And while we are overwhelmed with information that we are able to receive electronically, we still have a need to print and hold and read."

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