Is There Paper in the Future – or a Future in Paper?

I was watching “Continuum” the other night on the Syfy network. Syfy, by the way, is a terrible name for a network. “Continuum,” though, is a good name for a show about time travel.

In the episode I was watching, one of the travelers from the year 2077 told one of the inhabitants of the year 2013, “There is no paper in the future. Or more accurately, there is no future in paper.”

Wow. That was deep.

Science fiction has been predicting the paperless society for, well, almost as long as there’s been science fiction. It seems one of the most futuristic things we can imagine is a world without paper.

From fiction to fact, though, is another story. The transition to a paperless society has been ongoing and complex – and it’s far from complete. Some companies, however, are a lot further along in the process.

Recently, The Imaging Channel hosted an event titled “Streamline Your Document Workflow: Learn How to Save Time and Money With Managed Print Solutions.” We’ve hosted a few of these events over the last year or so – regional events targeted toward end users looking for exactly the type of information the title states. There’s a fascinating mix of attendees at these events, from government IT people to AP managers at small architectural firms, from CIOs responsible for large educational environments to those representing small nonprofits. But the goal is always the same: Make things simpler, easier to find and more manageable.

There is always one common concern as well: letting go of paper. Without fail, at least one audience member will address this concern in a question to one of the speakers: “What do I do with my important paperwork? Do I have to get rid of everything? What about security?” And the issue isn’t necessarily with transforming information captured on paper into digital format and entering it into an electronic content management system; it’s with letting go of the originals.

At the event I attended, Bill Smith, senior vice president and CIO of engineering firm Johnson, Mirmiran & Thompson, outlined how his company implemented an enterprise content management program. The project was conceived in 2007 and initiated in 2008, so it hasn’t been an instantaneous transition.

It has, however, been a successful one. Smith reports that in the first year of using OnBase, the company’s chosen ECM software, 7,000 documents were added. Over three years, more than 132,000 were added. That includes client and vendor invoices, purchase orders, contracts, HR documents, W-9 forms and more. Smith offers testimonials from numerous employees who rave about increased productivity, time savings and better efficiency.

I wondered, though, is the transition truly paperless? Or are papers being stored away “just in case”?

Nope. According to Smith, once paper is scanned into OnBase, it is destroyed. No paper is retained.

Does that mean you won’t find a single piece of paper at JMT? Of course not. I’m sure if you looked around in the year 2077, you’d find paper too. (And of course there are rules and regulations, depending on the industry, that regulate the retention of paper records.) It just means that the most efficient means are being used to achieve the most efficient ends. (It’s also important to note that various industries have regulations governing the maintenance of paper records. Know before you shred.)

There will always be those who are loathe to give up their hard copies. That’s OK. No one is going to pry the paper from their hands. But as content consumption continues to evolve, we’ll end up with a society that is much more comfortable with digital content and more willing to let go of the hard copy. It’s less a matter of not generating prints and more a matter of not storing them. We won’t necessarily live in a future without paper – just one that’s not overrun by it.

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