Sheri-McLeish  By Sheri McLeish

As people spend more time consuming information digitally at home and at work, reliance on paper continues to decrease. But how far are we across the Digital Divide? In 1975, George E. Pake, then head of Xerox Corp.’s Palo Alto Research Center, predicted that in 1995 his office would be completely different: “There will be a TV-display terminal with keyboard sitting on his desk. I’ll be able to call up documents from my files on the screen, or by pressing a button. I can get my mail or any messages. I don’t know how much hard copy I’ll want in this world.”

Thirty-five years later Pake’s vision largely came true for iWorkers, who today toggle between laptops, smart phones, and other devices to create, consume, and manage information. But an interesting thing happened along the way. With the initial rise in popularity of email and the Internet in the late 1990s, there was actually a bump in paper usage, not a decrease. People printed out their emails, receipts for e-purchases, documents, presentations – you get the idea. In fact, the World Wildlife Fund reported that some 10,000 sheets of paper are used each year by the average office worker in Western industrialized countries.

The other challenge faced by businesses has been the explosion of content types. Firms today need to support and coordinate multiple inbound and outbound channels. For processes like customer onboarding, paper persists due to lack of integration or reliance on paper by customers, partners, and staff. Today only a quarter of enterprises report that 25-50% of their customers are fully paperless, according to a recent Forrester Information Capture survey. Eighty-seven percent of firms have, are in the process of, or are planning to implement or upgrade information capture technology in their companies. The No. 1 investment area? No surprise here: integrating with enterprise apps.

This ongoing effort to remove paper from processes is driven by good, solid business reasons: For each sheet of paper used there are costs for purchasing, storage, copying, printing, labor, postage, disposal, and recycling. The ROI for capture investments is one of the most straight-forward for a technology investment. Driven by cost savings, increased productivity, and improved access and retention of electronic documents, companies continue to invest steadily in information capture to support business processes like registration, invoicing, and contract management.

Most Content Now Born Digital
But there’s another other huge driver of paper reduction in the enterprise: the iWorker. I know I still have a few piles of paper lingering at the office and more at home, but I haven’t looked at that stuff in years. I use my smart phone for a shopping list; I seem to have a hard time locating pens because I so rarely use them.

And I’m not unique. Forrester believes that well over two-thirds of content created today originates digitally. Consider:

  • In our Forrester Workforce Analysis Survey, Q2 2009, 79% responded that they use word processing tools, and 60% report using word processing daily.
  • Spreadsheets have similar but slightly lower use, with about half of information workers using spreadsheets daily.
  • From the same study iWorkers are shown to be pretty happy with word processing tools – 82% indicate high satisfaction

This high level of satisfaction and ongoing use of tools to work with content in digital form supports the notion that most of the content being handled by iWorkers today is in electronic formats. And this will accelerate as Millennials who were “born digital” make up greater proportions of the workforce.

It’s Getting Easier To Be Green
Paper reduction also fits into the Green mindset. Along with embracing digital authoring tools, iWorkers indicate a strong desire to reduce paper in the workplace (75% strongly agree) and recognize the benefits of digital content such as facilitating quicker distribution and ability to reuse content. Paper-based or whiteboard content from collaborative work sessions increasingly are moving to the digital realm. During a tour of EMC’s storage manufacturing facility last week several of the process efficiencies touted were tied to digitizing information collection, including a widescreen digital whiteboard on the shop floor to replicate a physical whiteboard and an application that provides electronic access to the state of components as they are being tested, a task that previously required the technicians to walk through the test rooms and write down the information to then be inputted.

Custom development to automate and digitize manual processes remains core to ongoing process improvement. But for more informal content development, eventually iWorkers will take for granted originating this content digitally. Today adoption of wikis and blogs is still nascent, with under 10% of information workers using these tools. But as collaborative environments become more accessible via Web-based platforms like the Google Wave, Novell’s Pulse, IBM/Lotus Live, and Microsoft’s SharePoint and Office 2010, it will become even easier to live fully in a digital world of content.

Holdouts Hindered By Real Hurdles
There will be exceptions to the digital rule, however. Content captured via paper forms or that isn’t well supported for electronic input, such as math formulas or diagrams, will persist until better user interfaces make even these uses obsolete on paper. Most iWorkers today are not provisioned a stylus and tablet PC, so doing a first pass on paper or on a whiteboard remains faster even if eventually these drawings need to be captured digitally.

And there will be other holdouts as well: In an interview with NPR earlier this year, one of our era’s most prolific novelists James Patterson admitted he does all of his writing in longhand before turning it over to an assistant to be typeset. But in college classrooms, often the best barometer for what’s to come, more and more professors are allowing laptops and electronic note taking tools to be used in class. And as we look even further ahead, consider that penmanship has taken a backseat to keyboarding in the elementary curriculum at many schools. So for the class of 2025, Forrester predicts that their offices may not be just sans paper, but without a pen too. I guess that puts me ahead of the curve.

What about you? Are you farther along the paperless trail at home or at work? What’s driving paper reduction in your firm? What’s holding you back?