Paperless Society

Is a Paperless Society Possible?

Many years ago we were promised the paperless office. A computerised environment where everything is at our finger tips, filed, indexed, tabulated and cross-correlated, all available and searchable at the touch of a button.

Despite promises, vaunted technology solutions and desperately fervent attempts at the person, team and organizational levels, this goal still seems remarkably elusive. If you are like most project managers that I know, you are surveying the ever-growing mountain of reports, forms and budget documentation threatening to engulf your cubicle in a biblical tsunami of letter-size proportions and snorting in derision at the very idea.

So what happened to the vision? Speaking for myself, I like to think that I manage pretty well in a paperless manner, most of the time. I read reports on an iPad. I reference materials I am writing about online or using soft-copies. I usually have no less than a dozen different applications and a couple of dozen documents open at any given time, and I am a veritable master at switching between them at will. I have written reports, articles, books and an entire doctoral thesis with nearly zero paper to show for it. Left to my own devices, I am a lean, mean digital machine.

And yet, therein lies the entire heart of the problem: I am very rarely, except for solitary projects, left to my own devices. And every time I encounter other people, paper appears to mediate the interaction. Go to a meeting, facilitate a discussion, attend a conference or conduct a workshop, and paper appears. Lots and lots and lots of paper.

Projects are also a notorious breeding ground for paper. Status meetings, working sessions, requirements facilitations, design documentation, budgets, schedules and more keep laser printers comfortably at normal operating temperatures on a sustained basis. And yet, it was exactly this sort of transactional documentation that was supposed to be supplanted in Frederick Wilfrid Lancaster's dream of a paperless office, all the way back in 1978.

Our failure to embrace the paperless revolution partly comes down to personal working preferences. There are people (a lot of them) who genuinely like working on paper. I know people that are not comfortable reading anything of length or import unless it's on paper. Others are fine reading it, but want a paper record that they can reference back to, stored in actual manila file folders in actual metal file drawers. Many of my acquaintance cannot edit a document unless they can mark it up with a red felt-tipped pen. And there are at least five people I can think of by name who, if they are reading this article, have printed it off to do so.

Partly, this is a generational thing, and I suspect that the preferences for paper will evolve as new generations come into the workforce. The baby boomers are, with notable exceptions, pretty hardcore paper users. Generation X represented the cusp of the transition to a digital world, and appetite for innovation pretty much determines where one falls on the digital vs. paper divide. For Generation Y and the current generation of millennials, there is a definite comfort with the online world that doesn't require (as much) physical paper to reinforce. Future generations will likely be that much more predisposed and comfortable to working in a fully digital environment.

One of the largest barriers to projects going paperless, however, is that our records management policies haven't really caught up. Archiving, document storage and records management have never been terribly top of mind when sexy occupations are being discussed, but they are incredibly important nonetheless. And for a surprising number of organizations, their records management policies dictate that there is only one acceptable storage media for long-term document retention: paper.

The consequences for project managers and project teams is that long hours are spent printing out documentation (and yes, emails) for records management purposes. Practically, this means that most project managers run two file systems: an online one, often just a shared drive on the network; and the “official” paper one . Keeping these systems in synch is a task of epic proportions, and it is rare, if ever, that they actually are. Most project managers that I am aware of mentally consider the electronic files their “true” project records, even if corporate policy says otherwise.

Asking why records are still expected to be committed to paper is an important question. And the answer is a relatively simple one: it lasts. It takes work, effort and very expensive climate control systems, but paper records are among the most enduring storage media we know. We still have paper records from hundreds and even thousands of years. Alkaline paper has a life expectancy of as much as 1,000 years. By comparison, magnetic storage media has a lifespan of no more than 20 years, and optical media like CDs and BluRay discs (depending on the format) may last as little as 5 to no more than 20 years.

The concept of cloud storage means that files are now redundantly stored on high-reliability equipment with extensive backups (at least, that's what the marketing material promises). This goes a long way to addressing the longevity problems, as long as the storage and servers get properly maintained, even if it doesn't go quite so far with respect to managing security and privacy.

My personal estimate is that, sadly, we are probably a good two decades away from a world where paper is genuinely considered to be anachronistic, and possibly more. That's not to say that we won't get more paperless over time, and that early adopters won't achieve this reality sooner. But as a society, we are probably not going to operate in an environment where paperless is the norm for some time yet. When we get there, though, I do hope it looks a lot like Jarvis, Tony Stark's computer on Iron Man. That would represent a pretty awesome paperless dream

Source: Mark Mullary,

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