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The Paperless Office – Will It Ever Exist?

In many ways, computers might never replicate the simplicity of pen and paper.

For years, I’ve read about and heard about the “paperless office.” Right. You should see my desk. Not only is it not paperless, it’s papered with paper. So what happened to the paperless office? Does anyone really think it will come about? And what is to come in the next few years in office technology to change this?

Steps Toward A Paperless Office

The fact is that some companies have made great strides- internally-toward the paperless office. There are case studies that pepper the literature regarding companies that can pull up electronically filed invoices, purchase orders, etc., from any workstation on their computer system. The problem comes when I need to see a copy of what they have on their screen. Then, they have to commit it to paper, or to fax.

Now I know that it’s theoretically possible to do without a manual fax machine. It is possible and relatively easy to receive faxes centrally into a computer system. Software and hardware to do that has been out for several years. The problem comes when someone wants to “write something” on a fax they received and “send it back.”

Now, I, being a techno-nerd, know how to “write something” on an electronic document by using image editing software. The average user needs training on another software package to do this, and will rightly complain that it takes longer to do it that way. There is software out there that is trying to change all this and make it easy to do common tasks like filing, faxing, etc., but most businesses won’t be in the market for it anytime soon.

Furthermore, electronically stored faxes and other documents take up a lot of space, and lots of computer space (terabytes-thousands of gigabytes) would be required to store the contents of the average business’ file cabinets. The average computer system advertised in the newspaper on Sunday morning has about 40GB of computer space (hard drive), and the very largest hard drives are around half a terabyte (500GB).

Further Down The Road

Most business gurus agree that we are moving into the age of communication. Communication services are becoming faster and cheaper. We checked the cost of a point-to-point T-1 line (a fast line for data communications from the telephone company) for a client 24 months ago. It cost $2,000 to install and $1,800 per month to maintain. Today that line is $400 to install (sometimes free) and $212 per month to maintain. This makes it feasible to connect business locations together at high speed that weren’t economically feasible before.

The Internet, for all the hype, is just another communication vehicle. With it, I can transmit e-mail, images, etc., across the country or around the world for the cost of an Internet connection. As more and more businesses tap into this, the electronic office becomes possible. If I know that my vendor stores copies of invoices for the last 10 years on their computer that is available to me over the Internet, why should I store them? Why indeed? It will take years for businesses to come to the point at which they are willing to place this kind of faith in computers. Even I want my paper copy (although I could get it from the computer).

What Are We Missing?

I have maintained for years that we are missing a proper paradigm. That is, once the information looks the same and allows the same function on the computer as it does on paper, we will be willing to abandon our paper and work electronically.

Consider a doctor’s office. Many offices purchase scheduling software for their computer systems. Few wind up using it. Why? Because it’s still easier to look for white space on a book than to look up an appointment time with the computer. “When would you like to come in?” the nurse asks. “I dunno, when is she have available?” White space is easy to find by flipping pages. Most computer scheduling software doesn’t have an equivalent.

My point is this: When the computer can duplicate what we do with paper and pen, the computer will take over, and we will have a paperless office. Well, at least I think so.

Bob Palmer is the President of Data Guidance Group Inc., a full-service consulting firm in Memphis, Tenn.

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