The shift comes amid a steady decline in paper usage coupled with rise in tablets, mobile devices
Every year, America’s office workers print out or photocopy approximately one trillion pieces of paper. If you add in all the other paper businesses produce, the utility bills and invoices and bank statements and the like, the figure rises to 1.6 trillion. If you stacked all that paper up, it would be 18,000 times as high as Mount Everest. It would reach nearly halfway to the moon.
This is why HP’s acquisition of Samsung Electronics’s printing and copying business last week makes sense. HP, says a company spokesman, has less than 5% of the market for big, high-throughput office copying machines. The company says the acquisition will incorporate Samsung’s technology in new devices, creating a big opportunity for growth.
Yet by all rights, this business shouldn’t exist. Forty years ago, at least, we were promised the paperless office. 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.
The reality is the high-water mark for the total number of pages printed in offices was in 2007, just before the recession, says John Shane, an analyst at InfoTrends, which has tracked the printing and document creation industries for the past 25 years and who compiled the eye-popping figures cited above.
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To say we haven’t gotten the paperless office so far isn’t to say we won’t. It is always dangerous to say “this time it’s different,” but this time it just might be. For the first time in history, there is a steady decline of about 1% to 2% a year in office use of paper. Add in the dip in use during the most recent recession, and as of 2016, we are already 10% below the peak of the number of pages produced by office printing and copying in 2007.
This trend represents inroads made by everything from tech unicorns such as DocuSign Inc., the biggest player in electronic signatures, to the rise of tablets and mobile devices. More important, it represents a change that took much longer than anyone anticipated. It was delayed by the fact that business gets done in vastly more ad hoc and complicated ways than anyone appreciated.
The persistence of paper in the workplace—60% of which isn’t optional printing, says Mr. Shane—represents business processes that change slowly, if at all. It is the small- and medium-size businesses that have been the slowest to get rid of paper—in other words, to fully digitize their workflows.
There is also the fact that paper is awesome. It is the only input and display technology we have that weighs almost nothing, costs pennies, is readable in almost any light, and doesn’t require an internet connection. It is the epitome of portability and durability.
Xerox employs a team of ethnographers to study why people print, says its head of workflow automation, Andy Jones. Their research reveals “There are so many work practices and attitudes that are ingrained in how companies work,” making it surprisingly difficult for older, larger companies to change. And when Mr. Shane asked respondents why they did the 40% of printing that wasn’t absolutely necessary for their job, the most common answer was simply that they “liked paper.”
Still, companies are making genuine progress. Take Bahrns Equipment Inc., of Effingham, Ill. Tara Funneman, who has worked for 27 years in the office of the company, which sells and distributes forklifts and lawn-and-garden equipment, says when she started in 1987, they had only one “really large” computer they used once a month for five to 10 minutes. “We printed one report from Lotus 1-2-3, turned it back off and everything else was done by hand,” she says.
Nowadays, every one of Bahrns’s service technicians carries an iPad or a mobile phone, and uses software made by Reston, Va.-based Canvas Solutions Inc. The device and software together replace what used to be three-part forms filled out with pen on a clipboard, which were often incomplete, inaccurate, or illegible, and were a nightmare to input into the company’s back-office systems. Switching to Canvas three years ago has already eliminated one clerical position at the company, says Ms. Funneman.
Knowledge workers also still print out documents to mark up, edit, learn from, and collaborate on them. But, at least in part, this may be generational. One reason we are closer to the paperless office is new, digital native organizations tend not to use the stuff.
And as cloud-based collaboration tools like Microsoft Office 365 and Google Docs become the norm, the rest of us may find ourselves simply accomplishing these tasks in ways that don’t perfectly map to the way we accomplished them on paper.
History has shown the demise of paper will be gradual. The amount people print in offices may be declining 1% to 2% a year, but it is still a mind-bogglingly large market.
“I think it will take 15-20 years, when the millennials who grew up with digital photos and smartphones take over senior positions in companies, to see the transition to a paperless office,” says Loo Wee Teck, head of consumer electronics at market research firm Euromonitor. “We, the Gen Xers, are the dinosaurs hindering evolution.”