The paper plot

Enterprises around the world are increasingly concerned with the cost of printing massive volumes of paper every year at the cost of countless forests and a host of irreplaceable natural resources. Piers Ford asks why we can't shake our addiction to printing.

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By  Piers Fod Published  September 14, 2008

Enterprises around the world are increasingly concerned with the cost of printing massive volumes of paper every year at the cost of countless forests and a host of irreplaceable natural resources. Piers Ford asks why we can't shake our addiction to printing.

Whatever happened to the paperless office? Like a mirage forever on the horizon, it has been promised as the natural consequence of an increasingly computerised world for more than four decades.

Yet according to imaging analyst Lyra Research, we printed 15 trillion pages around the world in 2007. And that will rise to 53 trillion by 2010.

Often there is some comfort in printing emails and keeping files of documents stored at arm's length or in cupboards. In reality however, the documentation piles up, becomes unstructured and loses value.

Despite the advent of technology designed to manage and encourage the digitisation of enterprise content, it seems we just can't let go of paper.

"The prospect of the paperless office was received wisdom back in the 1960s, and continued to influence development including Xerox systems in the 1970s," comments Dan Smith, office marketing manager at Xerox's developing markets operation.

"But much of it ignored the cultural attachment that people have to paper. We are simply comfortable with the medium. And there are biological reasons as well: refresh rates on screen don't allow you to take in so much, for example. The storage and manipulation of information frequently requires people to print it on paper, and there are many regulatory reasons why it has to be stored both in paper and electronically," he adds.

Smith says paper still has a lot going for it, both as a medium for storage and for collaboration, and businesses must develop strategies that allow for its co-existence alongside digital media rather than necessarily pursuing the impossible dream of a paperless world.

"Coopers & Lybrand estimates that 90% of the world's corporate memory is stored in paper form. And a typical enterprise spends a significant amount on managing those documents - at Xerox we spend 3-5% of our revenue on it! And that is why the paperless office has not come to pass," he says.

In many ways, the idealised view of a world in which information could somehow be pinned down and structured in an orderly way by document management systems, with huge legacy paper archives digitised and stored in secure, easily accessible electronic repositories, has now given way to a more realistic - and infinitely more complex - vision in which best practice has a vital role to play.

"In today's working world, no-one is spared from the constant flow of communication, whether it be electronic or printed," says Michael Green, regional manager for the Middle East at document management vendor Pitney Bowes Group 1 Software.

He continues: "We are bombarded by messages and often, there is some comfort in printing emails and keeping great big files of documents stored at arm's length or in cupboards. In reality however, the documentation continues to pile up and as this happens, increasingly becomes unstructured, difficult to handle and subsequently, loses its overall value.

"This is where enterprise document management and archiving solutions play a vital role in any organisation, large or small. As well as the obvious risk mitigation from fire, theft or loss, there are a number of operational and customer services benefits to implementing an effective document management strategy," adds Green.

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