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  • Slow Shift to Paperless Illustrates Challenges Predicting Technology
  • Although we are years into the digital revolution, the completely paperless office has not yet arrived. Yes, the shift from print to online has greatly impacted some industries, like the media sector, for example. Yes, conveniences like email are now widely used instead of print communications. And, yes, so much of what was previously on paper is now online. Despite all this, paper is not yet dead and businesses still use a great deal of it.

    The recent Wall Street Journal article, “The Paperless Office is Closer” by Christopher Mims (September 19, 2016) devotes considerable discussion to paper´s extensive use in America´s offices. It does so regardless of the article´s title, which gives the impression that paperless offices will soon be just about everywhere. Yet, the article does present evidence that paper is on its way down.

    For example, the article states,“To say we haven´t gotten the paperless office so far, isn´t to say we won´t.” It also reports that “we are already 10% below the peak” reached in 2007 and “there is a steady decline of about 1% to 2% a year in office use of paper”. The article also explains that the younger generation of digital natives is less inclined to print documents and that more of them in the workplace, combined with better online tools for collaboration on documents, is moving us closer to the paperless office.

    Nonetheless, the article clearly makes the case that paper is still widely used in today´s businesses. According to the article, print “is still a mind bogglingly large market”. The article points out that about a trillion pieces of paper are printed or photocopied every year, and says “This is why HP Inc.´s acquisition of Samsung Electronics Co.´s printing and copying business last week makes sense.” The article tells of research by Xerox Corp. showing that printing is often done because people like paper.

    I see print´s lingering stronghold as an example of how older technologies remain in use because they still have benefits. For print, the benefit might be ease of use in certain situations, or it might merely be preference, such as the people liking paper that the Xerox research reported. Since both ease of use and preference can be influenced by what we are comfortable doing, these benefits of paper may very well lessen as more baby boomers retire and digital natives comprise a greater proportion of the workforce. Yet, although digital natives are less likely to print, it´s not entirely clear cut that they will go completely paperless. Some studies, for example, have found that even the millennial generation sometimes prefers printed material rather than the digital version.

    So, it can be challenging to predict how quickly technology will advance. Even top experts can have difficulty getting these predictions right. As the Wall Street Journal article about paperless offices points out, “In a 1975 article in BusinessWeek, an analyst at Arthur D. Little Inc., predicted paper would be on its way out by 1980, and nearly dead by 1990.” Clearly, this did not happen.

    Furthermore, I´ll add that some 1970s predictions about the future seemed to put more emphasis on the likelihood of Jetson-like personal flying machines than on the vast changes we have seen with the digital revolution. And, ironically, shortly after writing this, I see that a personal flying machine analogy appears in a recent article discussing the slow rate of adoption of mobile phone payment technology—a technology which, just like the paperless office, is being adopted more slowly than experts predicted.

    The article is “The Future of Cash” by Hal Conick in the September 2016 issue of Marketing News, a publication of the American Marketing Association. The subhead on the article´s cover page includes the statement “Mobile payment has been considered the future of money for nearly a decade.” According to the article, “For the better part of a decade, market analysts thought that the ubiquity of smartphones would mean more mobile payments. The technology…would soon become standard, many experts believed.”

    But, that hasn´t happened. As the article says,“Consumers have shown a lack of enthusiasm toward adoption and use of mobile payments.” In the article, Daniel Horne, associate dean of Providence College´s School of Business, comments on mobile payment´s adoption: ”Even in 2016, Horne says mobile payments are a bit of a quixotic idea, akin to flying cars.” Horne “mentioned a 2007 report that said a third of U.S. spending would be mobile by 2015.” But, in actuality, it´s less than 1%, according to the Marketing News article.

    So, much like for paperless offices, the forecasts for mobile payments were far more optimistic than the actual slow pace at which the technology has been adopted. Thus, predicting the pace of technological change has its challenges. And, those kinds of challenges can impact predictions of how close the paperless office actually is.

    Thus, businesses where paper still plays a role should not necessarily think they must rush to abandon paper, treating it as if it is on the verge of dying. Instead, paper´s role in the business should be based on how paper´s benefits tie in with the company´s strengths and strategy. When and if paper gets ready to die, those benefits are more likely to disappear. Until then, companies should adopt digital technologies as is appropriate, but not necessarily rush to drop paper.

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