The paperless business: Is it already here?

Summary:It's generally accepted that the use of paper in business is on the way out. How's that really coming along?

Denise Amrich

Denise Amrich

Yes, Less

or

Not Yet

Larry Seltzer

Larry Seltzer

Best Argument: Yes, Less

37%
63%

Audience Favored: Not Yet (63%)

The moderator has delivered a final verdict.

Opening Statements

The paperless business is already here

Denise Amrich: Paper has been busted down a rank. It has been demoted from a necessity to a choice. Ebook sales have overtaken printed book sales. They're cheaper to produce, shipping costs are
eliminated, they're available immediately, disintermediation offers more choice, and people are choosing them in droves. Tablet sales are up. Newspapers are shutting down. Paper mills are closing.

Note the actual meaning of the "less" in "paperlessness". It means a smaller amount of, or of lower rank or importance. That is where paper currently stands in many of today's offices.

No one could make a case that we are globally paper-free. Although total elimination of paper is what many people think of when they hear the word paperless, a real paperless environment is one where paper is simply greatly reduced or strategically used.

Just as electronics have gotten smaller, we will be using fewer sheets of paper in the future. We still have plenty of room to grow the space around us, and further reduce the amount of paper we need. But less is already more of a reality than it's ever been before.

A lot of paper still in use for some time to come

Larry Seltzer: I think anyone with any vision knows that the use of paper in business is on the way out. It's just the shape of the digital-to-paper change curve that we disagree on, and the severity of the impediments to the change.

In most conventional businesses there's still a lot of paper in use and there will continue to be for some time. I see 2 major reasons:

  1. Comfort - There are many people who just prefer paper. This must be largely a generational thing and will abate over time.
  2. Interoperability - When you give a piece of paper to someone they can generally read it, but their software may not be able to make sense of your documents.

Of course, this is the sort of thing that has been and will continue to improve, but some of these problems are very difficult to solve. Consider signatures on legal documents.

The Rebuttal

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Are my debaters standing by?

    We'll be starting promptly at 11am ET. 

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Ready to rumble


    Denise Amrich

    I am for Yes, Less

    Looking forward to it


    Larry Seltzer

    I am for Not Yet

  • Great Debate Moderator

    First question: What is your definition of a paperless society?

    Does that mean documents are all digital?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Many of us are already paperless

    As I stated in my opening argument, a paperless society is one in which there is less paper in use because it becomes more devalued and less depended upon. Less paper is not only an environmental goal unto itself, but also a gateway to the convenience of a less paper-encumbered life. People will be motivated to a greater or lesser degree by why a paperless lifestyle is a win for them.

    A paperless life is already a reality and a priority for many of us. We pay our bills online. We've scanned in our most important books, and we know that the cloud holds the ones we might need in the future. We read on our tablets or monitors. If we want to buy and read a book that isn't available in an electronic format, we might even have Amazon send it directly to a book scanning service like 1DollarScan.com and have the
    scanning folks forward us the electronic file.

    Many of us have cleaned our files, shredded and/or scanned our old business documents, and backed them up in at least two locations. Remember how many of us had cell phones way before any of our friends and family did? Now they are everywhere you look. Paperlessness is gaining on us in the same way that mobile technology did. It's a movement. Just as in all movements, not everybody moves at the same time. Early adopters drive the future.

    As geeky as it sounds, I was psyched to do this debate because I am truly passionate about paperlessness.

    Don't get me wrong, I do actually use paper. I use it a lot, but I now use it as a temporary tool. For example, I might keep a paper journal because I enjoy the weight of a pen in my hand and the activity of putting my thoughts to the pages of a notebook. But when that notebook is full, I'm going to take five minutes to snip the wire binding off with wire cutters, neaten the edge with my heavy duty industrial guillotine paper cutter, and use my beloved Fujitsu ScanSnap to scan it into my computer. The spirit will be retained, the bones recycled, and it won't take up valuable space on my shelf for the next quarter of a century. Five minutes now will save me a lifetime of dusting (and sneezing).

    As Arthur C. Clarke said, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. But I've noticed that true technological magic never looks like special effect magic in movies. If you're looking for special effects, you may be missing the fact that paperlessness is already here.

    Denise Amrich

    I am for Yes, Less

    Perhaps not that far

    I would say it means a time when all tasks can be performed without paper in the normal course of business. A world where documents are all digital would be one where all archival material was digital, and we're quite a ways off from that. How far off? Let's consult the ship's log:

    Stardate 41153.7 - The first voyage of the Galaxy class U.S.S. Enterprise under the command of Jean-Luc Picard. He orders the crew, at one point, to operate "by printout only." This is scientific proof that paper will never fully go away.

    Larry Seltzer

    I am for Not Yet

  • Great Debate Moderator

    What hurdles remain in terms of going completely to digital documents?


    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    The hurdles are all doable

    Some hurdles include the process and time necessary to get old documents into digital format or outwait the legal period to be able to dump them.  Affordability is a hurdle. Great, fast scanners and scanning services are expensive (but are dropping in price). People and companies need the willingness and ability to pay for those or have another way to access them. They will as they perceive greater value in paperless enterprise.

    Searchability of documents is key, as is having a coherent digital filing or document management system to keep things well organized. Evernote is a great example of such a system. Employees also need to be educated on how to use these resources.

    Businesses need to be able to trust in the safety of their digital data, trust in their privacy, trust that they will be able to get to their data when they need it, trust their backup systems, etc.

    Every time we reduce the number of keystrokes, touch gestures, or seconds it takes to access desired data, we decrease the barriers to paperless. Ubiquity and accessibility of devices like tablets that make it make it easier to be paperless are necessary. It may not be enough to put a tablet in everyone's hands, they may want one in each room or location where they work.

    More widespread legal acceptance of digital signatures would also be helpful.

    Denise Amrich

    I am for Yes, Less

    Here are three hurdles...

    • Many, perhaps most users are very comfortable with paper and less comfortable with digital documents. Especially when dealing with customers, a company may be willing to deal with paper in order to retain the business. Think of how credit card companies nag you to receive electronic bills and pay online, but surely most customers are still writing checks and mailing them in. Analysts at InfoTrends say that their research still shows much push-back from users; people still like to use paper as a backup even sometimes to refer to because they think it is easier to access than electronic, Even in business processes that are becoming more automated, paper is used in some form to help facilitate the process today.
    • Legal documents are frequently on paper, at least at certain stages. There is some movement away from this, such as the ability to e-file court documents, at least in Federal courts, but often what passes for an electronic legal document is a PDF of a scanned page.
    • Much archival material is still on paper and the effort and cost needed to digitize it can be prohibitive.

    Larry Seltzer

    I am for Not Yet

  • Great Debate Moderator

    What do you see as the benefits to paper printing that digital documents lack?


    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Paper is nice

    Paper is easier to scribble on. For example, sometimes trying to type while on the phone is challenging. Paper is easier to destroy forever. It is visible in direct sunlight. It is easy to take with you and may be easier to give to others in person, especially when those people aren't too tech-savvy.

    There is less DRM to contend with. However, disintermediation of content could work for or against decreased use of paper. People like increased choice, but the signal-to-noise ratio is worse with unvetted content. Sometimes people look for paper books a publisher has printed in order to get what they think is a better quality book.

    Some things just aren't available digitally. I'd add a "yet" to that statement, but I'm not convinced all of it will be.

    Paper feels more personal sometimes. My Mom just doesn't like eCards as well as she likes getting a nice greeting card in the mail. Our elders may prefer paper, and we may connect with them better by using it. On the other hand, the ability to increase font size is a real boon to aging eyes and Mom now loves her Kindle.

    Paper is sometimes relaxing in a way that digital documents are not. There can be an emotional connection to it. It can even be luxurious and special. Using it is kinetic in a different way. It's fun to leaf through a magazine. But it's hard to read a newspaper when they've all gone out of print.

    Denise Amrich

    I am for Yes, Less

    Compatibility

    My digital documents aren't always readable by your systems, but my paper is always viewable by your eyes. Some standards like PDF and HTML are ubiquitous, but they're not the solution to everything.

    In many ways, paper documents are easier to secure than digital ones. We're pretty good at physical security and a paper document locked in a safe or even just hidden where few know its location is pretty secure. Digital documents are designed to be accessible electronically. While we know how to secure digital documents to a high level in theory, in practice we're not as good at it, and there are many examples of systems being compromised. Someone halfway
    across the world may be able to access it. In the long term people will become more comfortable with following best practices for electronic document security, but for now many are uncomfortable and not without reason.

    Larry Seltzer

    I am for Not Yet

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Page volume?

    The page volume for printers has been roughly flat at about 3 trillion pages the last two years. What would it take for page volume to really fall?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Diminishing returns and increasing benefits

    Using less paper would have to become more desirable to people, either because of something they are trying to create in their lives, or something they are trying to move away from. The rising cost of postage and the weight of paper are reaching a point of diminishing returns. The cost of paper and ink have increased along with fuel prices. Rainforest deforestation is a horrible thing that many people are fighting, especially when it involves printing glossy catalogs advertising things that are increasing our societal and environmental problem of overconsumption.

    There has been a huge drop in the PC marketplace. Tablet folks don't print quite as much. One or more major printer makers going out of business would cause page volume to fall. Innovation is important. Something like Kindle or iPad that transforms yet another segment of our market could lower page volume. Free Wi-Fi everywhere would help, because if people can easily get to their digital documents, they won't need to print as much.

    The bottom-line driven corporate world is pushing for less paper. So is the government. The Affordable Care Act and EHR (Electronic Health Records) will create both an infrastructure and an incentive to use less paper in healthcare settings.

    Facebook and social networking have already had a drastic impact on the USPS.

    Size and weight of tablets can be a driving force, too. Once we can truly read large format books (like cookbooks or college texts) at original size (or larger) in portrait format on a good-sized screen comfortably, it may be mostly over for paper.

    Denise Amrich

    I am for Yes, Less

    A lot of broken printers...

    Better access from mobile devices could be a key factor. For now, mobile access to business documents is primitive. According to InfoTrends, there is still little indication that mobile is being used widely to remove paper out of business processes. Clearly there is a move in that direction in the future for mobile business processes, but it's comparatively rare for businesses to move existing paper based business processes to mobile.

    In all likelihood, page volume will drop, but slowly. People will resist losing paper.

    More abstractly, anything that would increase cost of printing will lower demand for printing. If technology lowers the cost of printing, that will impede the move to digital.

    I'm not sure how the 3 trillion number is calculated, but it may not account for an increased amount of printing by business users at home.

     

    Larry Seltzer

    I am for Not Yet

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Printer companies have noted that digital content can translate into more printing.

    Sure enough, there is a rise in printing from mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones. Do you think this trend will accelerate?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Acceleration may happen before deceleration

    Printing from mobile devices may accelerate as more people acquire tablets. But paper is a temporary tool and doesn't need to be kept forever. There isn't as much of a problem with doing some printing if you recycle frequently.

    It's also a generational thing. Older people with tablets print, perhaps to give things to friends who prefer paper (or don't like, can't afford, or don't see the use for tablets).

    As tablets become less expensive, people will have a tablet in every spot, and if they can access all their content in the cloud on all their tablets, they won't need to print.

    Denise Amrich

    I am for Yes, Less

    If printing costs fall or don't rise...

    ...and if better document reading solutions don't emerge for mobile devices, then yes, people will want to print documents from their mobile devices - assuming they have a printer available.

    Larry Seltzer

    I am for Not Yet

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Do technologies such as E-ink screens and better resolution tablets and smartphones eventually make printing extinct?


    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Printing is an endangered species

    Books were a great user interface in their day. Devices that allow print sizes and light levels to be adjusted are the up-and-coming user interface. As eBook readers and tablets get better and more usable, there will be less incentive to print. A decent, simple remote control for the Kindle sure would help (many users are far-sighted or differently abled).

    Denise Amrich

    I am for Yes, Less

    They'll help, but will fall far short of making printing extinct.

    The Kindle has a beautiful screen for reading books and is very successful, but it's hardly ade paper books obsolete. I may be an instructive example; I used to read books on my Kindle, but the cost advantage over paper books has diminished greatly. If I'm not saving money I'd rather have the paper book.

    Larry Seltzer

    I am for Not Yet

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Printer manufacturers?

    If digital documents replace printed ones, what do you think happens to printer manufacturers?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Buggy whip makers beware

    Printer manufacturers need to get ahead of this question if they want to survive. Future thinking is necessary. Kodak didn't think enough moves ahead when it came to the emerging digital camera business it had to contend with. The same is true of newspapers. It's important to think outside an existing business model and plan for where things are going. On the flip side, Apple was once a failing company, and look at them today! They innovated.

    Printers will always be needed, but they might need to change in some cool way, perhaps because they consider and creatively accommodate the needs of people focused on paperlessness. Another way to appeal to modern concerns is to be genuinely environmentally friendly and sustainable. Ink is incredibly carcinogenic. Healthier ink would be
    huge selling point if properly priced and marketed.

    The printers that are easiest to hook up and use with tablets and mobile devices will win over the dinosaurs. Be the substitute solution, not the dinosaur.

    Denise Amrich

    I am for Yes, Less

    Some are better-equipped than others

    Companies like Xerox have always thought of themselves as document companies, and whether you print it out or manage it digitally they want to sell you hardware like scanners or printers, and software to operate them. When their printing customers move to digital, they want to be the easiest solution.


    Pretty much all of the printer companies are also in imaging to some degree, with scanners and cameras. Separate from software, scanners are commodities and the digital camera market will largely be killed off by phones, so these companies have a problem in the long term.

    Larry Seltzer

    I am for Not Yet

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Ink prices?

    Do you think the price of ink and the move to digital documents are related in any way?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    There are many factors

    It really depends on how much you print. If you compare the price of ink to the price of ereaders and tablets it might be a good deal, a bad deal, or a break-even deal. People might be able to use the price of ink as a way to convince their bosses, their spouses, or themselves that they should get a tablet! 

    Find a couple of these factors, and you hit a sweet spot where you have a pretty compelling case for moving away from actual ink and towards digital.

    Denise Amrich

    I am for Yes, Less

    Certainly the cost of each drives demand for the other.

    Higher ink/toner (or, for that matter, paper) cost incentivizes digital documents and vice-versa. Decreasing cost of storage and other factors for digital documents incentivizes them as well, although the marginal cost of a digital document is effectively zero already.

    Larry Seltzer

    I am for Not Yet

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Are workers selective enough in what they print?


    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Depends on the worker and the company

    I think that selectivity depends on the individual worker, the type of work, and the corporate culture that either supports or discourages printing and recycling. It's also about how convenient and doable the company makes paperlessness. Is lip service given to paperless ideals, while recycling bins aren't provided? Are good document management systems in place that make it pleasant and desirable to forego paper use? Is training on these systems provided and reinforced?

    People don't want to do things when they are hard or unpleasant. The trick is to make it more desirable and enjoyable to use paperless systems than it is to print things out.

    Also, I don't think that forcing people not to print what they need is helpful. People should print what they need and recycle when they're done. Paper pileup should be actively discouraged as a health and fire hazard. Perhaps regular paper audits and dumpster days could be celebrated corporate events, and awards could be given for cool paper decreasing concepts that people come up with and share.

    Denise Amrich

    I am for Yes, Less

    There's a lot of value judgment in this...

    The answer has to be 'some yes, some no'. Modern networking software makes it pretty easy to tell who is printing how much and set policies, if the company wants to go that far.

    Larry Seltzer

    I am for Not Yet

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Emerging markets?

    IDC says that India and China will lead the world in printed pages by 2015. Do you expect emerging markets to move to digital documents at a more rapid clip than the U.S.?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Jumping the digital divide

    India and China have huge populations that have been working towards moving into the middle class since about the 1990s. Although many of their middle class citizens have computer and mobile technology, it's still a fraction of their overall population.

    Therefore, these countries are are a still a bit entrenched in 20th century middle class ideals and methodology because of when and how they started this push. They are going through a paper-intensive phase because of sheer numbers and lack of access to computers for the poorer citizens. It's almost like they're trying to be the US in the 1980s.

    However, I wouldn't underestimate either India or China in terms of future paperlessness, though, because they are really big on finding efficiencies and putting them to use. And they're not afraid of using whatever elbow grease or policy directives are necessary to make it happen. Once paper becomes less efficient and inexpensive to them and they find a better way, it's destined to crash, and crash hard.

    Some nations like Rwanda may actually jump the digital divide. It's a way third world countries can get into the global marketplace without a huge barrier of entry. In many ways, countries who got a late start may bypass 20th century middle class technology and hook up directly to our wireless connected world without the sort of middle stage India and China are experiencing. Wireless-first strategies are helping bootstrap emerging countries onto the global stage without the need to build a costly wired infrastructure.

    Denise Amrich

    I am for Yes, Less

    Tough question!

    If you assume that cost factors are more pressing in emerging markets then the answer would be yes. It may also be that there is a higher value placed on access to documents being accessible in circumstances without power or Internet bandwidth, which would argue for more paper. I think it really depends on local conditions.

    Larry Seltzer

    I am for Not Yet

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Generation gap?

    Do you think age and generation has anything to do with printing? In other words, will printing die off along with the older generations?

     

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Talkin' bout my generation

    Age and generation are definitely tied in with printing. Printing won't die off, but some of the emotional charge will be released and that will help it ease away.

    Aging boomers will want forms of printed matter that they can easily read (maybe even without reading glasses), which will drive tablet sales higher.

    Younger people are part of the rent vs. own generation. They are willing to let the cloud store things for them. They don't want to be encumbered by as many physical possessions. Portability is a big concern because they often want to live where the action is, and they want to be free to move a lot. City living means smaller spaces.

    Another driving factor is that paperlessness increases as population increases and squarefootage of living space necessarily decreases.

    Denise Amrich

    I am for Yes, Less

    Absolutely it will

    Kids growing up now are used to dealing with digital media and don't find it weird or compare it in the same way to paper. This is the biggest reason why the move to digital documents is inevitable and ongoing, but long-term.

    Larry Seltzer

    I am for Not Yet

  • Great Debate Moderator

    That's it! Good debate, folks!

    Readers: Check back tomorrow for our debaters' closing arguments, and again Thursday for my final verdict.


    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

Closing Statements

Paper is a choice now

Denise Amrich

In his first answer, my opponent said that he would define a paperless society as "one in which all tasks can be performed without paper in the normal course of business". I still maintain that we are already there, because many of us actually pretty much can perform most all our business tasks without paper. Whether we do or not is a matter of choice at this point, and if we do choose to use paper we use it temporarily and we recycle it. And it's just going to get better from here, as more people see how advantageous and pleasant it is to live with less paper.

As Larry so kindly pointed out, the "marginal cost of a digital document is effectively zero already". Businesses like to cut costs; people really like "free." As free becomes easier and easier to use (we’re already seeing better document reading solutions on mobile devices which make things easier to keep digital than to print out), more individuals and companies will join the paperless pioneers in the less paper-encumbered world that already exists as a reality for early adopters of this worthy ideal.

A generational change

Larry Seltzer


The major factors for whether and how specific companies and specific users dealing with specific tasks shift from the use of paper for those tasks to making them purely electronic is largely determined both by cost and comfort level.

I don't see the cost issues swinging all that wildly against paper in near future, at least to a greater degree than they have in recent years, so people who don't want to give up on paper will be able to keep it without being taken to the cleaners. The cost of converting a paper process may very well not be worth it. On the other hand, if it costs you enough to use paper, you'll put up with an uncomfortable electronic experience.

And as new software systems and business processes - and new people - enter service, they will be much more likely to avoid paper. It's a generational change.

The building blocks are in place

Lawrence Dignan

This debate over the paperless society and whether we're there yet could replay annually just to gauge progress. In the end, both Denise Amrich and Larry Seltzer are right depending on time frame. We'll be printing for years to come, but Amrich made better points that the building blocks for a paperless movement are in place today. The win goes to Amrich.

Topics: Great Debate

About

Larry Dignan is Editor in Chief of ZDNet and SmartPlanet as well as Editorial Director of ZDNet's sister site TechRepublic. He was most recently Executive Editor of News and Blogs at ZDNet. Prior to that he was executive news editor at eWeek and news editor at Baseline. He also served as the East Coast news editor and finance editor at CN... Full Bio

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