The paperless office: what went wrong?

In 1975 Business Week magazine ran an article which (for the first time) used the phrase “the paperless office”.

35 years on, the phrase is still well known, but no one seriously expects the concept to happen.  At least not in our lifetime.  So what went wrong?

The problem with the notion of the “paperless office” was simply that it was a notion.  It was supposed to be a route to cost-savings and efficiency, but in the end turned out to be anything but that.  Digital data, we now know, creates as many problems as it solves.

True, these days we can look things up in a trice, and make notes on our PC or Apple, and yet most of us still jot things down with pen and note pad.  And most institutions (from legal practices to garages) feel that relying entirely on a computer system to hold valuable data (from legal contracts to sales invoices) is not actually the most reliable way to go.

Worse, anyone and his son can walk out of an office with 100,000 pages of information on a memory stick stuffed into a pocket.  Try walking out with 100,000 pages of printed information and someone is likely to look up from a desk and utter the immortal words, “I’m not sure you should be taking that out of the office.”

So, there’s security, and there’s reliability.  (Put your 100,000 pages in a safe dry store and it is likely to stay there ready for you to refer to it when needed five years later.  Put it on a PC and that might not be the case.)

And apart from that, there’s the issue of how we interact with the information we have written down.  Information on paper is much easier to handle than a computer monitor.  Paper is there.  You can read it, notate it, take it on the train to use, make notes, drop it into your pocket, take it out again, draw charts and mind maps, walk into a colleague’s office and show him/her…

Paper is easy, and it doesn’t give you the eyestrain that a monitor can.

Which is why we still use paper, why we hold information on paper, and when we come to store information that could be needed in five years time, we put it on paper and put the paper (not a computer system) in storage.

(Although I must say the notion of putting a computer system in storage and then coming back and trying to remember how the thing works ten years on would be rather amusing.)

Of late Amazon have been trying to have it both ways – selling us real live books and their Kindle reader.  Maybe it will work, and will catch on, but somehow despite all the extra weight, I rather like taking my six novels with me for the annual two weeks in the sun.  And I quite like having the novel next to the bed, even if most nights I fall asleep before getting half way down the page.

But that’s a side issue.  The key question is, is it safe to store vital documents for years on a computer system alone?  And the answer is no – which is why we have storage facilities for paper.  And why we exist.

There’s more on our storage services at

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