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%)

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.


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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