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Whatever happened to the paperless office? It’s closer than you think.

The vision of a paperless office has captivated journalists and businesses for decade. In other words: we’ve been having this discussion for a very long time and while digital predominates now, paper records are still very much a mainstay.

The question arises: What makes the past decade any different?

Early visions vs. reality

The paperless office concept envisioned a workplace where digital documents would replace paper in all its forms (contracts, business documentation, marketing collateral and more).

first protoype of a mouse

The concept emerged following the 1960s, as engineers and commentators discussed how early computers might influence offices. Perhaps the best example of this is the American engineer Douglas Engelbert’s 1968 demonstration of computer technology (“The Mother of all Demos”), where he demonstrated elaborate functionality, such as real-time collaborative editing decades before Google (or even the internet itself!)

Articles like the 1975 Business Week’s “The Office of the Future” captured imaginations by suggesting a rapid transition to digital workflows within the space of a decade. The reality is slightly different. It’s tempting to attribute this to a general inertia among business leaders, but legislation has, until recently, requested largely paper documentation for most things. As just one example, the U.K. government has been researching the feasibility of “making tax digital” for well over a decade now, and an area like

Land Law has even more complications. Digitization doesn’t just rest on tech innovation; it requires the state to play a leading role too.

Despite all this, the past 10 years have brought us closer to the reality of a paperless office than ever. We call this process of organizations increasingly going to the cloud “digital transformation”, and we’re receiving more interest in it than ever. How did this occur, and what’s the future?

Why is the pace of digitalization increasing?

What are the recent developments that have made this all possible? We’ve listed a few of the ones we consider the most important below:

  • Data Protection regulations: The introduction of regulations like Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), China’s Personal Information Protection Law (PIPL), and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) have not only highlighted the importance of secure digital record-keeping but given a very clear legal environment for how a completely digital environment for information and records should be organized and audited.
  • Cloud Storage innovations: Cloud based storage solutions provide scalable and secure options for storing digital documents, such as services like AWS, Google Cloud, and Microsoft Azure. This is the “trust” element of the equation, organizations have assurance that annual server uptime is so stable, it can be measured in decimals like 364.9999.
  • Digital Signature legislation: Acts such as the E-SIGN Act and UETA have legitimized digital signatures, further enabling digital processes in legal and contractual domains. Leading law firm, Clifford Chance, described this as a significant step towards “paperless international trade”.
  • Hybrid working: Hybrid working becoming commonplace now requires organizations to provide, quick, seamless remote access to information and records even when an employee is working from home. Even in fields like healthcare, specialists now expect relevant records to be just a click away. It could be argued the pandemic acted as a proof-of-concept for how viable paperless offices, indeed has an excellent article on how the pandemic accelerated such trends here.
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI): Dealt with in more detail below, AI is the elephant in the room when it comes to digital transformation and “going paperless”.

AI and document management

AI (and its cousin, Machine Learning) are, according to many business analysts, quickly developing along a steep S-curve of investment and innovation. The applications for offices may not be immediately obvious to laymen, but they are many, and they’re going to help migrate even more manual, physical-record oriented tasks to the cloud.

What exactly does an “AI-powered office” do though? One of the most important applications is in document analysis, scanning and processing, so think things like:

  • Enhanced Optical Character Recognition (OCR): Machine learning significantly improves OCR technology, enabling the extraction of text from imagery, and even poorly handwritten notes.
  • Document classification: AI can categorize documents by their content, context and even sentiment. This “auto-tagging” function of AI-powered document analysis massively reduces the manual labor required to manage records. This is particularly useful in fields like law.
  • Information retrieval and discoverability: This is one of the most powerful applications of AI in the office: Using Natural Language Processing (NLP) to improve the “searchability” of documents through human-like queries. For example, think asking a company archive a question like “can you list in order all our data privacy obligations from all the contracts we’ve signed in the past ten years?” Now compare this to how long it would take to search for this information keyword by keyword.
  • Data extraction and analysis: AI can be used to extract specific information from documents such as names, dates, financial figures and more. It can be used in tandem with human-like queries to make data extraction from large datasets, even if they’re in scanned document format, vastly simpler.
  • Compliance and Risk Management: AI can help make organizations more compliant by using the above applications to automatically flag sensitive or confidential information, as well as automating retention and deletion schedules in a smart way.

We published a short white paper on how exactly generative and analytical AI such as ChatGPT are going to shape the future of Information Management last year, which provides a more in-depth look at how AI is shaping Information Management practices.

Is there an environmental impact of “going paperless”

server farm with blue neon light

Since the paperless office was first mooted many decades ago, it has been given environmental credentials, typically because it “saves paper”. Our understanding of the environment has since become significantly more holistic (paper after all comes from a renewable resource) and sophisticated.

The growth of consumer electronics and the internet has led to new concerns. The energy consumption of data centers in particular poses a challenge to sustainable business practices, as just one illustration, global data-center energy consumption is expected to reach the total energy consumption of the country of Japan by 2026. AI is expected to drive a substantial part of this demand, as it is an incredibly resource intensive on servers, in the words of sustainability consultants Robeco: “The AI revolution will require nothing short of a complete re-engineering of the data center infrastructure from the inside out to accommodate for the much higher energy needs of new AI technology.”

But…. there will always be a role for paper

Despite the fact the future bodes well for a completely digital environment, certain industries like legal, healthcare, and government may never fully abandon physical documents due to regulatory, legal, or practical requirements.

In these cases, a hybrid model that combines digital and paper-based processes offers a pragmatic approach, balancing efficiency with necessity. This is something we are increasingly seeing as records management professionals.

In summary, the paperless digital transformation is characterized by opportunities and challenges. For businesses exploring this transition, the expertise of Crown Records Management in document management systems is invaluable: our experience goes back decades in helping organizations of all sizes across the world tackle everything from simple box storage to paperless digital strategy.

Get in touch with us today to talk about starting your digital journey.

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