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The Paperless Workplace Mon 04 Aug 08

Paperless_office_thaths_2One of the great unfulfilled promises of technology is the paperless office.  Computers were to rid us of all that clutter and paper shuffling.  To be sure we have seen a significant reduction in paper but it is certainly not the nirvana we were led to expect. 

When was the last time you got a real inter-office memo on paper?  It's been a long time hasn't it?  Email has made the inter-office memo extinct.  However there are days when I look at the number of emails in my inbox and can't help but wonder if this is a good thing or not.

A recent post by tech consultant Vinnie Mirchandani, outlining about his attempts to go paperless, illustrates that going paperless is certainly not easy--nor is it for the faint-hearted. As Mirchandani illustrates, there are just some situations when having paper is the right solution.

The biggest advantage paper has is the usability factor.  I can quickly scan the entire page, add notes to it, highlight important sections, hand it across the table and say "take a look at this", or fold it and put in my pocket and take it with me.  Oh I know there are technological answers to all of these but now of them are as easy as the old methods. 

The reality is that although technology promised a paperless world most of the technology effort was directed elsewhere.   Technology just wasn't that focused on usability. 

We have a monitor tethered to a computer and interface via a keyboard and mouse and we've had that arrangement for a long time.   Voice recognition and touch screens have continued to evolve and improve but these alone aren't enough to solve the paperless usability issue.

Instead of usability the emphasis in computer technology has been in two areas.  First, the focus was on efficiently and inexpensively increasing computer power and that has been done very successfully. 

The second area of emphasis is in improving the capability of computer applications and again we've very successful.  We now have the ability to do utterly amazing things with computers and we can do them quickly and inexpensively.

There are however some signs that give me hope as I now see more emphasis being placed on usability. 

  • the iPhone's multi-touch interface is an interesting departure from the traditional approach of physical keyboards and may change the way we think about interfacing with technology.  It shows that users will accept this and that it can be deployed in a commercially viable way. 
  • Not too long ago Amazon.com has launched the Kindle as a "reading device" which goes a long way toward improving usability (a good overview on video).  It offers portability, readability and the ability to annotate documents but you cannot see more than one document at a time and it is currently only usable for purchased content .
  • the Wii game system offer a innovative technology interface as it interprets your body movements as inputs to the system.   It demonstrates the commercial viability of the underlying technology but still has yet to find an application beyond the game system.
  • Microsoft's Center for Information Work (video) and surface computing (video) offer new ways to interface with your computer and offer a full digital view of your desktop that allows you to move and view virtual documents similar to the way you handle physical documents.  Portability beyond the desktop is still an issue however and these are not yet commercially viable products.

The key item in all of these is more about how we interact with the technology, i.e. usability, rather than the data or application we use.  None of these technologies alone will make us more paperless but they do offer new and exciting possibilities. 

They are in various stages of their lifecycle and application.  The great thing about technology is that it continually evolves and adapts.  Technology morphs and combines with other technologies in ways that were never imagined when first developed. 

It will be interesting to see to whether or not their evolutionary paths lead to even more reduction in the use of paper in the workplace. 

I'm not naive enough to believe that we will ever be absolutely paperless but further reductions just might be possible.  Let's keep our fingers crossed!

[Update August 4, 2008  "Windwalker" posted a comment on Forbes.com with a correction to my statement regarding Kindle only being able to be used for purchased content.  His comment and my response are posted in the comment section below.]

"paperless office" photo by thaths

This article is also posted on Forbes.com.  Feel free to join in the discussion either on this site or at Forbes.com

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