The amount of paper we use at work may finally have started to fall, but it’s not doing so at any great rate. Why is that?

By Darren Cassidy, managing director, Xerox U.K.

The idea of a paperless office has existed for nearly 40 years, yet during that time the practice of printing has risen.

With the advent of new technology, the amount of paper we use at work may finally have started to fall, but it’s not doing so at any great rate. So, why aren’t we meeting the paperless goals proposed decades ago?

Darren Cassidy, Managing Director, Xerox U.K.

Darren Cassidy, Managing Director, Xerox U.K.

Exploring the main reasons that people print, can point to the barriers that prevent office workers from taking up fully digital processes. Is it possible for organizations to reduce printing by removing the barriers – either completely or at least partially? Or, are the barriers insurmountable?

Barriers do exist, and paper has a few affordances that are genuinely difficult to replicate digitally with current or near-future technology. Yet most of what we like about paper we can replicate digitally – if the will exists to create new enterprise solutions.

The disruptive innovation of mobile and cloud technologies provide an opportunity to change behavior in today’s workplace. But convincing people to transform their paper-based processes requires engaging properly with employees about change and ensuring that new processes are as easy and intuitive as possible.

Why Do We Print?

Whether through necessity, preference or a combination of both, people in the workplace today print documents in order to:

Read — Until recently there were good reasons that people might prefer reading documents on paper than on screen; portability, readability and annotation. The tablet changes the game. We need to take advantage of device proliferation to make document availability much more instantaneous and intuitive.

Imagine a world in which, just as the ‘print’ button is ubiquitous, so is the ‘read’ button.  Imagine if, from the user’s perspective, tapping that button makes the selected document instantaneously available to every device owned by the user, and readable within their preferred reading app.

Annotate — In an ideal world, where on-screen annotating is a universal capability that is as easy and convenient as possible, will any tendencies remain to annotate on paper? It’s likely there will be some, but only for very specific situations.

Digital annotation will become the norm when digital scribing techniques become very similar to writing in that they barely interfere with the act of reading.

Sign — Even in an industry such as banking that has very high levels of electronic transactions, signature capture is still heavily paper-based, as an InfoTrends study found. For example, more than 70 percent of respondents said they still rely on paper for capturing signatures for loans and savings/investments.

Electronic authorization takes root when organizations fully digitize all of their business processes that involve signing and authorization and make the e-signing process simple for users.

Share — Digital has long been the preferred avenue for sharing. But the physical attributes of a printed page can make content really stand out, particularly as digital sharing becomes more and more prominent.

Save — The technology to help us store documents digitally is maturing rapidly. We’re already seeing industrial-scale scanners with intelligent character recognition and electronic systems for applying indexing and metadata for subsequent retrieval.

The potential upshots of mining, literally, tons of paper data into electronic systems are enormous. This is the promise of ‘Big Document Data,’ and it’s perhaps the single biggest driver of changing print behavior within your organization.

Digital Disruption — As is becoming clear in any workplace, the consumerization of information technology – including the meteoric rise of smartphone and tablet technology, and the world of apps and cloud-based services – has introduced new capabilities, behaviors and attitudes to our lives.

It’s still early days for these disruptive innovations: Worldwide, smartphone shipments first exceeded PCs only at the end of 2011. The modern tablet, which is the best readily available technology for replicating paper-like experiences, barely existed before the launch of the iPad in 2010 so the market is still very much in its infancy.

The tidal wave of change has only just begun to be felt. But the trend of people using multiple devices, and expecting a high level of computing functionality when away from a wired workstation, will become much more strongly embedded.

For example, IDC predicts that 37 percent of the worldwide workforce will be mobile by 2015 and Gartner predicts that by 2014, 90 percent of organizations will support corporate applications on personal devices.

Moving From Paper to A digital World

The disruptive innovation of mobile technologies invites the shift of document usage from paper-based to electronic. While paper has a few affordances that are difficult to replicate digitally with current or near-future technology, most of what we like about paper can now be achieved digitally.

Examine the way employees handle specific, daily tasks, and reengineer them so that the steps can be achieved electronically. The key is to make the processes as easy and convenient as possible, for both knowledge workers and those less technology-literate.

The behaviors of reading, annotating, sharing, authorizing, saving – are common to anyone who uses documents a lot in their work, and certainly to knowledge workers. But equally they will manifest in specific ways in just about every step in a structured business process that touches people.

A human resources process, or a product lifecycle management process, for example, will require people to read, comment on, add to, organize, make decisions about, distribute, authorize and save specific types of document as specific points in the process.

Organizations that take on the less-paper challenge have much to gain. Certainly change has risks and can be disruptive, even painful. But there’s a reason people have looked forward to the less-paper office for so many decades: The promise of a more efficient, productive, collaborative and sustainable world of work.

(This was excerpted from an article that was originally published in the February 2014 edition of CIO Today UK.)