The paperless business: Is it already here?

Moderated by Lawrence Dignan | August 12, 2013 -- 07:00 GMT (00:00 PDT)

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


Not Yet

Larry Seltzer

Larry Seltzer

Best Argument: Yes, Less


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.


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  • No.

    "The paperless business: Is it already here?"


    I wish it were.

    But then there are people I know who love to print EVERYTHING out and hand it to me in person, even if they could easily slap it in an email and send it to me.

    As a big fan of things like Evernote (or OneNote), Dropbox, Gmail, etc on the personal side, and SharePoint, InfoPath, Outlook, etc on the businesss side - I could absolutely sit down and, given enough time, turn almost anything paper based into completely digital. If there's a form out there, I can turn it into a digital workflow.

    Yes, including signatures, because yes I know how to integrate digital signatures into SharePoint, InfoPath, and Outlook.

    I actually used to work with a business that had all the tech to make that possible, and it was great. They're not fully digital yet, but they're making tremendous strides.

    But now I'm working for a business that still uses paper for a lot of stuff, sigh. And it doesn't look like they're going to want to change. And oh, yeah - they use PowerPoint for things that are not presentations, like flyers. Even if they were to get professional publishing tools, they'd have to be trained to use them. Sigh.

    If you're in the right business that is willing to make the jump, then yes, we're looking at paperless in the near future.

    If you're not - then no, it's not here, and in many cases I'm sad to say it's not coming until the "old guard" leaves and is replaced by people who *are* willing to make the jump.

    One thing I so know: It's not here for everybody. And it's probably not going to be for a long, long time.

    I have no hard numbers at the moment - but from what I've personally experienced, it's not going lightning fast. It's plodding along very slowly.
    Reply 1 Vote I'm Undecided
    • Thoughts on opening statements

      "Ebook sales have overtaken printed book sales."

      Well, the comparison to E-books is nice, but I think we're assuming office paperwork here.

      "Note the actual meaning of the 'less' in 'paperlessness'."

      Cute, but we all know that bloggers make for terrible dictionaries.


      — adj
      of, relating to, or denoting a means of communication, record keeping, etc, esp electronic, that does not use paper: the paperless office

      Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition
      2009 © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
      Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009

      "Consider signatures on legal documents."

      What about them? Digital signatures exist. They use technology very similar to cryptography.

      Overall, so far I'd say the debate is basically saying the same thing in slightly different ways.
      Reply Vote I'm Undecided
  • Yes less but....

    It does depend on your size and industry if there has been a real impact. Where I work there is a lot less paper than ten years ago. We also store a lot less record boxes too. Even though many folks bring a printed doc to a meeting it is only temporary for many folks and tossed out afterwards. I know people in legal firms and smaller companies who are still paper intensive even if not quite as much as a decade ago. Our trend will continue but paper will never disappear.
    Reply 1 Vote I'm for Yes, Less
  • No more paper cuts!

    I have struggled to go paperless for over a year.
    The paper in my office represents other people's comfort zones.
    I cannot lose my paper until my peers and direct reports also understand the value and make the commitment.

    The best way to get 100% buy in is to promote the cost savings. Paperless means no more printers and fax machines. No more ink cartridges. No more waste streams for electronics, recycling and landfill fees. No more storage fees (do a cost study on your annual spend on filing cabinets). Best of all... no more paper cuts :-)
    Danny Walker
    Reply Vote I'm for Yes, Less
  • Yes, the ability to go "paperless" has been around for awhile.

    Your e-book example is valid but kind of misses the point. Amazon adopted paperless before the publishers figured it out - and academic publishers are still reticent to embrace paperless technology outside of their own, highly-controlled classroom distribution systems.

    As for business, financial advisors and real estate agents, and businesses of all kinds have stopped sending paper quotes and not simply attach a PDF file to e-mail instead.

    The recipient needs only to print it out and sign it, and they can scan it back in and return it via e-mail. Maybe soon electronic signatures will be widely accepted by everyone but today, the IRS lets you submit "electronic signatures".

    Even the post-office will let you buy postage on-line and print it out to affix to your package.

    Internal business operations are a little more problematic but more and more often, people are bringing laptops into meetings and taking notes electronically instead of carrying in a pad of paper.

    In my mind, there is very little reason today for anyone to be generating a lot of paper.
    M Wagner
    Reply Vote I'm for Yes, Less
    • The recipient needs only to print it out and sign it,

      So it's still been printed to paper. I personally don't want to sign anything electronically. I want a hard copy that can't be electronically changed.
      Reply Vote I'm Undecided
  • I would like to add a comment regarding Larry's opening statement

    I agree with his assessment regarding "comfort-level" and that it is generational. The largest single generation is still the Baby-Boomer generation (1946-64). This group began to retire (at 65) in 2011 and will continue to retire until 2029.

    Because of the sheer numbers involved, this will probably be the last generation which is most likely to find "comfort" in their dependence upon paper. Today, smartphones and tablets with note-taking capability are pervasive and will continue to be.

    I know because I am one of those Baby-Boomers and yet, other than constantly having a pad of paper nearby to "scribble on" I print very little - except to "print to PDF" which I do regularly in order to distribute information which will eventually find it's way into an electronic Knowledge Base accessible from any convenience web browser.

    Even at home, most of the paper which comes into my home ends up in the recycling bin. My magazine and paper subscriptions are on-line. My bills still come printed on paper but they are nearly always paid electronically. For the most part, my computer is my file cabinet.

    So YES the "paperless" business IS already here and only those customers who are reticent to accept change (and those aging employees - including university professors) that are holding things back.
    M Wagner
    Reply Vote I'm for Yes, Less
    • Speak for yourself

      As the offspring of a baby boomer & member of Generation X, I tend to straddle the line on this. Yes, in some instances going paperless can be less space- and resource-intensive. But, as an avid reader, my #1 preference when reading (whether it's a good Elizabeth Peters/Tolkien/Jim Butcher/Anne Bishop/David Weber novel or something less fictional) is still paper-based. Plus, while paper can be damaged by water & other liquid/solid items, it's much harder to permanently damage (the same amount of Pepsi, for example, that will only leave a very light tan stain on a book will short out & possibly permanently damage an iPod/tablet/USB drive).
      Reply Vote I'm Undecided
  • Formats ....

    Although I agree that reduced paper is the way to go, I'm not convinced that it will totally eliminate "dead tree" documents.
    Day to day documents are OK digitally, but important documents need to be on a non-volatile and permanent media (paper)
    A safely stored 200 year-old paper document is still readable, while documents stored on 5.25" floppies or Winchester disks ... well, good luck with that.
    Not ready to store important work on media that may no longer be readable in 20 years' time.
    da philster
    Reply 1 Vote I'm for Not Yet
    • Exactly this

      The first documents written on Gutenberg's printing press require exactly two things:
      1.) Sunlight.
      2.) An understanding of the written language in which they are printed.

      Documents from 25 years ago require these things:
      1.) An absence of sunlight.
      2.) An understanding of the written language in which they are printed.
      3.) A reader for the media on which they are stored (5.25" floppies? 8"? 12"? ZIP drive? Jaz Drive?)
      4.) A copy of a program that can read them (AmiPro, anyone? DisplayWrite? Lotus SmartSuite? Does WordPerfect still open documents from WP5.1? Even if yes on both counts, with ZDNet's insistance that "Teh Cloud (tm)" and "Teh Tablet (tm)" are the future, does Google Docs and/or Office365 support it?)
      5.) Battery life of the device containing the document.
      6.) If I believe all the hype about Teh Cloud (tm), then internet access and the lack of an outage of the service provider is also a requirement.
      7.) No DRM.

      There is ABSOLUTELY a strong case for electronic communications replacing much of what has been done with paper in the past. That doesn't mean that paper will ever truly be supplanted, if for no other reason than the fact that it's withstood the test of time, and electronic communication has not.

      Reply 2 Votes I'm Undecided