Paper: Still the Net Best Thing

A treatise on the myth of the paperless office provides insight into the challenges of taking paper out of the supply chain and offers a lesson for those who would seek to apply technology to well-established processes within their organizations.

[From iSource Business, December 2002/January 2003] The next time you wander into the office early, take a stroll amongst the desks or cubicles of your company's supply chain practitioners and do quick assessment of the extent to which your enterprise has gone "paperless." Chances are, buyers and sourcing professionals will have clusters of supplier files stacked in and around their desks (or neatly hanging in a nearby filing cabinet), logistics professionals will have reams of shipping manifests stacked in orderly piles and operations planners will have hardcopies of critical production schedules standing by as backups to computer files.

If, after your brief tour, you conclude that your enterprise has a long way to go before it reaches paperless paradise, take heart: In their recent book The Myth of the Paperless Office, social scientists Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H.R. Harper conclude not only that information technology has not driven paper out of enterprises' processes but also that paper continues to perform a vital and necessary function in helping organizations manage information. Their findings offer valuable insight for executives seeking to apply IT to well-established processes within their organizations.

The "Affordances" of Paper

Organizations have been using paper to document their activities since an official in China's imperial court first figured out how to produce cloth paper in 105 A.D. However, in recent years organizations have come to view paper as a constraint on information sharing and a drag on efficiency. "The knowledge is all locked up in these filing cabinets," commented one information technology manager with whom Sellen and Harper spoke, and technology consultancy Gartner reported in a 2001 study, "Knowledge workers now use 20 to 30 percent of their working hours managing document-based information outside automated systems." Moreover, the use of paper has a price: Gartner estimated that documents cost about $20 each to file, while retrieving a misfiled document costs about $120.

One might expect, therefore, that companies would seek to re-engineer their processes to minimize their use of paper or to achieve the goal of the paperless office. Yet paper consumption statistics indicate just the opposite has happened. Sellen and Harper cite statistics showing that U.S. consumption of the paper grade most commonly used in office paper increased by more than 14 percent from 1995 through 2000. Today, the Worldwatch Institute has estimated that personal computer usage alone results in the consumption of about 115 billion sheets of paper every year. Why hasn't paper gone the way of the abacus, the typewriter and the computer punch card?

Sellen and Harper contend that paper persists because it continues to support certain processes better than any other medium or technology. Paper, with its flexibility, portability and other convenient attributes (including, perhaps, its shredability), has a singular set of "affordances," that is, physical properties that allow it to be used in ways that computer hardware and software cannot. They cite several examples to illustrate their point, including the way that paper allows economists in the International Monetary Fund to collaborate on drafting reports, air traffic controllers to track flights and police officers to collect information about a crime. But the most useful example for our purposes involves the buyers in the U.K. headquarters of a major chocolate producer.

"Documents Do Not Speak for Themselves"

The company in question, which Sellen and Harper did not name, was looking to install a document management system (DMS) to help employees better share knowledge. A DMS offers the ability to make documents available electronically to a much larger audience since anyone, including suppliers or customers, potentially could be granted access to files online. Such a system also would offer certain built-in efficiencies: electronic files take up considerably less space than paper files, for example, and colleagues can share documents with one another online, without having to physically copy, fax, e-mail or otherwise send them to each other. In the company's supplier department, managers wanted to trim down the number of supplier files contained within the department's shared filing cabinets and also put in place standardized processes that would promote the sharing of the information contained within the files, such as the use of standard supplier information forms.

The researchers began by determining the types and quantity of documents that the employees themselves would want to put into a DMS. Surprisingly  and not encouragingly for DMS advocates at the company  a sample of staff found that of all the paperwork they had in and around their desks, they would only be willing to trust about 7 percent to the DMS. In fact, the employees offered more than four times that amount, or 31 percent, to be discarded, while they elected to keep 38 percent at their desk, put 17 percent in onsite storage and send the remaining 7 percent to offsite storage.

In digging deeper into the reasons for the lack of enthusiasm for the DMS, Sellen and Harper found that the supplier files did not lend themselves to being converted into electronic form or to being standardized. First, buyers employed a number of methods for sorting the documentation within the files, arranging papers in chronological order or by the type of document, for example. Second, the files included any number of non-standardized documents, such as brochures, photographic materials and other information provided by the suppliers, as well as e-mails, letters and a host of documents that included handwritten notes taken during meetings. Importantly, some of these notes focused on supplier performance issues that buyers did not want the suppliers to see.

The researchers also discovered that the way the buyers used the files made implementing a DMS problematic. Although ostensibly the department as a whole "owned" the supplier files, in reality individual buyers were in charge of each file and, therefore, the company's relationship with a given supplier. Buyers used the contents of the files to reinforce their position as "experts" on the relationships with "their" suppliers, and much of the truly pertinent information about a particular supplier remained in the head of the buyer rather than documented within the files. The only time the files were actually "shared" was when a buyer was going to be out of the office, in which case the buyer would walk through the file with a colleague. Without this type of preliminary introduction, the colleague covering for the buyer might have difficulty understanding the nuances of the company-supplier relationship since only the controlling buyer could point out which of the documents within the file were relevant to the current state of that relationship. As the researchers note, "the documents do not speak for themselves."

Implementing a document management system to promote better information sharing among buyers made little sense in this light since, as Sellen and Harper conclude, "The belief that a DMS would enable these files to be shared more effectively went against the plain fact that these files were not a tool or resource for collaboration."

Hot, Warm and Cold Files

The two researchers go on to note that buyers frequently would scan the files and all the included notes and documentation prior to meetings with suppliers as a way of refreshing their memory on the current state of the relationship. Then they would take the files with them to the meetings, possibly resulting in the addition of new documents or notes to a file. Buyers also kept "hot" files  those concerning current active relationships  on their desktops so that they could quickly answer questions from internal customers at the company, thereby reinforcing their position as experts on a given supplier. "Warm" files  those with which a buyer had recently dealt or for which some action was imminent, or for key suppliers with whom the buyer had frequent contact  were kept close at hand, too, although perhaps in a personal filing cabinet or in a "to-do" pile off to the side of the desk. For both these hot and warm files, even the most feature-rich DMS seemed unsuited.

Where a document management system did seem applicable was in the case of so-called "cold" files, those that applied to defunct suppliers, for example. These documents needed to be preserved on a "just-in-case" basis, in the event of litigation or a query from an internal customer, even though the buyer who owned the file might have left the company, depriving the file's contents of much of their context and, therefore, their utility. A DMS with adequate indexing capabilities would be well suited to storing these documents and allowing access to them when necessary.

The Paper Is the Process

Based on their research, Sellen and Harper came to believe that the managers at the chocolate company had misunderstood how their buyers were using the supplier files and consequently overestimated the potential benefits from implementing a DMS to promote collaboration on the files. In addition, the two authors assert: "Transforming the paper supplier files into digital form would mean radically transforming the work practices that depended on them. Because the buyers' work practices had evolved around the use of paper, these changes would not only be disruptive, but would undermine critical aspects of the buyers' work." Thus, what the company needed was not the radical re-engineering of processes that would accompany the blanket use of a DMS to store all documentation, but rather the more limited application of a particular type of document system (one with rich indexing and look-up functionality) to a subset of the documents, along with the preservation of buyers' existing processes.

The authors subsequently offer some guidance for companies looking to streamline processes by implementing a DMS, but they conclude that paper is most likely here to stay. "The paperless office is a myth," they write, "not because people fail to achieve their goals, but because they know too well that their goals cannot be achieved without paper." By extension, that conclusion provides an interesting lesson for any enterprise in this age when information technology seems so often to be the point rather than just one component of a larger process. Be certain that you understand the true nature of an existing process and the value that a legacy technology brings to the process before trying to apply a new system  lest that shiny new system wind up in the wastebasket alongside a crumpled piece of lowly paper.

SIDEBAR: "The Paper Catalog May Never Die"

The resiliency of paper  and the processes with which paper is entwined  is in evidence in the number of product catalogs typically found on a supply chain requisitioner's desk. Just ask Wayne Lajoie, director of direct marketing for component supplier Newark Electronics. Newark has been working over the past several years to offer its customers access to ever-richer content over the Web and on CD-ROMs, and the company has seen increasing use of those media. Nevertheless, Lajoie says, "for the most part, the standby is still our 2,000-page paper catalog."

Part of the reason for this is likely plain habit. Buyers are simply accustomed to reaching across their desks, opening up a catalog to bookmarked pages and placing their order by phone or fax. Indeed, Lajoie notes that industry trends seem to indicate that younger people are more inclined to use the Web, while older buyers tend to be more familiar with the paper catalog, suggesting that any move toward a Web-based purchasing system will be, at least to some extent, a generational change in addition to being a behavioral change.

Each of the channels has its advantages, of course. Design engineers, for example, need detailed technical information to the level of the finite attributes of products so they might prefer working through Newark's Web site to access data sheets and other rich product information. Buyers of maintenance, repair and operations items, on the other hand, might find more value in a paper catalog so that they can finger through the pages and find exactly what they need. However, Newark has uncovered a trend toward using both media interactively. For example, customers will use the catalog for research before placing an order on the Web, or they will find an item on the Web and then search like items in the catalog.

For a company such as Newark, the key issue is maintaining relationships with customers through all necessary channels. But overall, Newark has found that the paper catalog remains the preferred channel, and the distributor continues to see increases in the number of requests it receives for its catalogs. Of course, the company clearly has an interest in keeping its catalogs on buyers' desktops as a way of remaining top-of-mind with their customer base. To that end, Newark redesigned its paper catalog this year, adding a more robust index and tabs to help users find information faster.

"What we're really finding out is that the paper catalog is not becoming extinct anytime soon," Lajoie says. "It's likely to always be a valuable tool."