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Writing Off the Paperless Office

New book shows that there's a bright future for paper as we keep on printing

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November 2001

We may be living in the digital age but the long-awaited paperless office is no nearer now than it was 30 years ago.

Our use of computers, email and the World Wide Web hasn't consigned paper to the waste bin of office history.

Quite the reverse in fact according to a new book, The Myth of the Paperless Office (MIT Press), by research scientist Abigail Sellen of Hewlett-Packard Laboratories Bristol and Richard Harper, Director of the Digital World Research Centre at Surrey University.

They explain that digital technologies lead more often than not to an increase in the amount of printing we do. Case studies have shown that use of the Web and email can cause a rise in paper consumption of up to 40 per cent.

Sellen is one of two HP scientists who have recently published books with MIT Press. In October, MIT released The Laws of the Web: Patterns in the Ecology of Information by Bernardo Huberman, an HP Fellow and director of the Information Dynamics Lab.

In The Myth of the Paperless Office, Sellen says that paper will continue to play an important role in our lives. Far from being outmoded, paper is the perfect medium for many key work activities and so complements digital tools.

"Paper certainly isn't going away," Sellen says. "Rather than pursuing the idea of the paperless office, we should be finding creative new ways to use paper and electronic documents together, to get the best out of both technologies."

As the authors point out, if you want to know which people in a company are getting down to real knowledge work, look for the desks covered with paper, then check their wastebaskets -- they should be full.

Sellen and Harper began their investigation of the use of paper in the office five years ago. They were amazed that there was so little research looking at why people continue to use paper in the digital age. The data that did exist was mostly just trend analyses of projected paper use.

So they started their own in-depth study of the work that people do and the way they do it, focusing on more than 10 organizations, including a police force, an air traffic control suite, a hospital and a chocolate manufacturing company.

At one of organizations, the International Monetary Fund in Washington, the authors found that employees use paper for 85 percent of their activities even though they have the latest digital tools to hand.

Our use of digital technology may continue to grow, but "one thing is for sure," says Harper, "the future is bright for paper."

by Julian Richards

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