I RECENTLY COMPLETED a feasibility study for a client. At the conclusion of the project, I spent a few hours of my time at work sorting the project’s A4 lever arch folders into piles so they could be transferred into cardboard boxes, which would then be transferred to our head office before being transferred to a storage facility for a few years. As I lifted another box onto my desk (and me with a bad back!), I stopped and cast my mind back 20 years or so. Why was I even doing this?
As a younger man, I can remember being excited at the prospect of working in a paperless office. We wouldn’t need bookshelves, recycle bins or folders in the workplace.
The plan was to eliminate paper. Recycling was ‘king’. We would produce documents electronically and digitally transmit them to each other. We would read reports on laptops ‘on screen’. No need to print, no need for envelopes or compliment slips. No need to produce cardboard files and painstakingly stick labels on the side. So what went wrong?
In the construction industry, competitive tenders are part and parcel of what we do. Consultants and contractors are continuously submitting tenders to demonstrate their ability, show how competitive and efficient they are, and how creative they can be in the presentation of the (bulky) bid. But, I still raise an eyebrow when the project sponsor asks the tenderers (as an example) to: “Please submit three hard copies (A4) of the tender and an electronic copy.”
Who needs the hard copy in this day and age? Is this driven by company lawyers; the need to fill bookcases; ‘old school’ managers who want to read a hard copy on the train ride home; or even the printing and archive storage industries?
In competitive tenders we sometimes include CVs, yet LinkedIn is now a widely recognised way to display one’s professional qualifications and work history. While we explain our company and its services to the sponsor, couldn’t we just provide a link to our website?
If an argument for the use of paper is because of legal concerns (“we need signatures, contracts signed on each page,” etc) I don’t buy it. Surely, the security technology is in place for some form of legal commitment to be mutually recognised? After all, if I can conduct all my personal financial affairs and manage complex transactions without physically going into a bank, the security and legal aspects must surely already be addressed?
Ironically, although my bank no longer sends me paper statements it (bizarrely) will not let me notify them of a change of address without filling in a paper form with a pen and posting it to them. The reason they give is ‘security’, yet I can transfer money and make online payments electronically.
In thinking more about the bulky and costly competitive tenders process – why can’t we: Submit electronic copies only; present competitive tenders in the form of a video (via a secure YouTube link accessed by password and appropriate firewall controls); and be interviewed via teleconference rather than in person?
There are many established, highly used and effective forms of communication that can be accessed from pretty much anywhere in the 24/7 global market places. We have smartphones, smart TVs, smart wristwatches, tablets, laptops, Kindles, netbooks and desktops. People are reading novels, newspapers, reports, magazines and numerous documents without getting ink on their fingers. Okay, so the internet crashes every now and then, phone reception is not always perfect, and devices run out of charge at the most inconvenient time. But is your local postal service or courier any better (or cost effective)?
Perhaps the true transition to the paperless office is just taking longer than expected? Perhaps it may take another working generation? My children, who are both high school students, each use personal iPads on a daily basis as a compulsory classroom tool. They get detention if they forget their devices. Meantime, they still bring numerous paper permission slips home for me to sign.
I know the technology is already here to go paperless. It just needs the willpower.