Electronic data produce paper cuts

Paper's not the problem in business processes

Richard Harper is senior researcher of socio-digital systems at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, England, and author of The Myth of the Paperless Office (MIT Press, 2001). He recently spoke with Computerworld's Robert L. Mitchell about paper's evolving role in business.

What is the problem with paper?

I think that in 2006, concerns of paper and paper-lessness seem a bit old-fashioned. We've gotten this message even from the highest levels about paperlessness. Haven't we gotten over that problem? What's wrong with paper? There's nothing wrong with paper. Paper is incredibly cheap and much more user-friendly than most computer technologies.

Where can paper be replaced?

Paper is traditionally used for jobs [for which] it's not necessarily the best use. Between organizations ... paper becomes the default technology. What paper is good at is as a solution for someone else's problem. To do away with paper isn't the problem. It's the fact that the organizations haven't figured out how to communicate electronically.

What's wrong with electronic documents?

Even companies like Microsoft haven't figured out how to make the digital tangible. You would be a fool to rely on digital technology for an insurance policy, for example. Those technologies keep reinventing themselves at such a pace that they don't have a history. The problem of tangibility and persistence hasn't really been solved.

Bottom line: When should you use paper, when not?

If you're changing, if you're searching, if you're gathering, you want digital. If you are understanding, if you are comparing, if you are at the end of your work, you want paper. The important thing is to just get people to be open-minded about the user of paper and digital and not to have little religious stances about it.

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