The “Myth” of the Paperless Office

The paperless office has been a dream for some people that has never quite come to fruition. Over the past 2 or 3 decades, computer hardware and software has steadily progressed and with it, the PR firms’ pronouncements of the end of paper. According to Wikipedia, the term “paperless office” was a slogan created to describe the office of the future around the time of the first video display terminals in the mid 1960’s. In 1975, an article in Business Week predicted that increasing and improving automation technologies would herald the paperless office.

And yet, paper lives on. As printing and photocopying technology improved, paper usage in the U.S. actually doubled between 1980 and 2000. The myth of the paperless office, it seemed, was exactly that. Since the start of the millennium, however, paper usage has started a slow decline. Paper producing capacity has declined in Virginia, and other southern US states in recent years. In 2010, International Paper closed (and then repurposed) a large pulp producing plant in Franklin, VA. In September of 2013 they closed an even bigger plant in Alabama. The trend toward digital documents has finally started to affect paper.

Some people attribute the change to younger generations being more comfortable reading documents on screens. It could also be attributed to the proliferation of high-speed internet, increasing use of laptops, and highly capable mobile devices.

Document management systems have also been improving steadily at the same time. Processing power, storage capacities, and software systems have all improved dramatically. Document scanning, perhaps the most important aspect of the move to electronic document management, has benefited dramatically from improvements in hardware and software systems.

Today, document scanning can be done cheaper, faster, and more accurately. This has been driven, in large part, to improvements in scanning hardware that allows higher-resolution scans to be made while also increasing the speed of those scans. Like the vast improvement in digital cameras over the past 15 years, scanners have benefitted from many of the same improvements – faster sensors, higher megapixel counts, etc.

In addition to the aforementioned hardware improvements, optical character recognition (OCR) software has likewise improved. OCR is used to process images produced from scanning a document and make the text within it searchable, editable, etc. In short, OCR makes scanned documents truly useful. Over the past decade or two, the capabilities of OCR software has greatly improved, aided by general computing improvements. Today’s OCR software is much more robust and resilient to imperfect original documents. This means that fewer errors are introduced, which in turn, requires less manual double-checking which leads to lower costs and faster turnaround.

The upshot of all this improvement is that document scanning, once a very expensive process, can be done cheaper and faster than ever. This enables companies to scan and convert massive amounts of physical documents to electronic versions (which, incidentally, are cheaper to store than the physical versions). This improved capability makes the transition to a less paper-based (if not paperless) office more affordable than ever. Perhaps the myth of the paperless office is a myth whose time has come.

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