Paper is process cancer

Help trapped on paperIn a blog today, Theo Priestley asks the question, “Are we that afraid of the customer to create a paperless society?” How is it possible that we’re still talking about that in 2013? As crazy as it seems, paper is stubbornly hanging on across vast swaths of industry, including government, healthcare and even overnight shipping. If it can survive in a cross-country dash of planes, trains and automobiles that only lives for 24 hours, it can live anywhere.

In a recent conversation, a coworker said, “Yes, I printed your email off to read later.” What?

Just last year at the HIMSS Conference (Healthcare), I heard a passionate defense of faxing medical records as secure and fast. Huh?

Paper is process cancer

Paper and its use is not simply old school. That wouldn’t be a problem. Paper is far worse…it is an efficiency killer. Paper hurts us in four key ways:

  • Data opaqueness – It holds data in a format that can’t be searched or electronically indexed, stored or recalled
  • Physicality – Instead of moving across silos and being unaware of geography, paper is utterly silo’d and geography dependent
  • Bulk – Paper takes up space and is easily damaged or destroyed
  • Real-time barrier – As the world moves very quickly toward real-time, paper is an enormous wall to scale. If you don’t have it in data now, how quickly do you think you’ll be able to react to it when the time comes?

These four problems aren’t benign and in themselves create more paper. If your organization is using paper for any part of its processes, it may be time to rethink the bigger picture. You’ll find that the move to digital business will in itself create better process, better customer service, and open new opportunities for revenue.

With so much moving to real-time interaction, what choice do you have?

Paper to Real-time



Categories: Innovation, Process Management

Author:Jeanne Roué-Taylor

I'm fascinated by disruptive technology and its impact on our world. I manage sales operations for an excellent startup with a unique team of highly experienced data scientists.

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6 Comments on “Paper is process cancer”

  1. March 18, 2013 at 4:38 am #

    Only in general do I agree that “paper is process cancer.” In a more detailed view I am sure there are processes where paper makes good sense because it serves rather than drives the process.Usability by key users in certain high-value use cases might crop up,as much as we might want to kill it.

    • March 18, 2013 at 6:57 am #

      Thanks, Dennis. But is paper that serves process even a good idea when it could be digital, governed and searched?

  2. March 21, 2013 at 7:14 am #

    As the article points out there are a lot of limitations of using paper. One of the biggest issues I have seen is version control. Are the blueprints you are using the most current? I saw many times in product development areas where people were using outdated documents. That being said I use paper all the time when doing process work. I scribble, make notes and draw lines. It helps me think. Now I am of an older generation so this digital world isn’t the one that I was born into so I may have a stronger connection to paper. For me, paper is a cancer because it ‘has to be handled’ so many times. I know there are those who say you only have to touch it once but that isn’t my reality.

  3. March 21, 2013 at 1:55 pm #

    So right Jeanne. There is still an anal and often technophobic attachment to paper, more prevalent in some industries than others.

    Apart from the paperless office, which has been coming ‘real soon now’ for so many years, we’re now due for the Internet enabled telecommuting revolution, which will see us moving back out of cities again, in the same way that the industrial revolution caused us to move in.

  4. March 25, 2013 at 9:04 pm #

    It is important to understand the source and use of paper. For years people have been counting the days until paper ended and profit models were irrelevant and nations could spend whatever they wanted…some things persist however in spite of what people forecast. The future of Big Data, Cloud, Social and Mobile have been foretold for quite some time and yet people still use paper…why?

    Paper is generated from out of date enterprise technology that is subject to all of the efficiency killers you listed. Additionally, the paper-based process is lacking data essential to competitive advantage if not regulatory or compliance survival. The actual process lacks the logic required to make the most use of the data collected or missing. And finally, the lack of visibility and control it affords are deficient. Now multiply this gap by the number of employees, vendors and customers still using paper in any ‘supply chain’. Moore’s Law of the network applies equally to the degradation of a disconnected network.

    Instead of waiting around from some future release of ERP that solves the deficiency while paying exorbinant sums to maintain the status quo ($6754 per employee per year according to recent industry figures), freeze the source of that paper. Don’t modify, integrate, replace or upgrade. There must be solutions out there that can deliver proven business value in efficiency, accuracy, visibility, control and collaboration in a timescale (now) and value proposition (self funded) that make business happen. We’ve delivered it ourselves. However, until the shackles are placed on the legacy systems as the source of the paper; paper will persist.


  1. Are we that afraid of the customer to create a paperless society ? | IT :: redux - March 15, 2013

    […] Read another viewpoint on this subject at Successful Workplace: Paper is Process Cancer […]

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