Will paper ever be rendered obsolete?

Futurology is a dangerous game but I wanted to put down some thoughts about the future of the office and more broadly the way we work. Of course history is littered with examples of bad guesses – the paperless office just one of them. Because despite the move to digital paper remains fundamental to businesses. But why is that?

Convenience – paper doesn’t need batteries, it doesn’t run out of power, it has a high contrast and is readable in any lighting conditions

Simplicity – There’s no file conversion issues. I print it, then you read it in exactly the same format as I intended it to be in

Effectiveness – It’s entirely mobile – you can take it from the printer and hand it to someone. And it’s a great back-up if computers fail; there’s a very good reason why TV news journalists read the news with scripts to hand. Just in case the autocue dies!

Security – Paper gives us a sense of security because it’s something in our possession. But it is, of course, an entirely false sense of security.

Human nature – we print often because we can, not because we need to. And the biggest offences of over-printing happen within teams, not between teams.

So will paper ever be rendered obsolete? Not for a very long time, if ever. And I’m looking at a timescale of decades.

Displays remain too expensive, and too unwieldy. Even the lightest of tablets is like a lead weight versus a piece of paper. File formats are still too byzantine and unpredicable. And even the simplest of file management systems is far more complicated that hitting print, and handing a document to someone.

So what will change? Offices WILL become less obsessed with paper because many of the hurdles above will get smaller, even if they aren’t eradicated all together.

Online collaboation and communications tools are still maturing but they don’t yet have the ubiquity, simplicity and necessary invisibility to make printing unneccesary. There’s no log in required when giving someone a piece of paper – it’s the most invisible form of information access there is.

But the inexorable growth of smartphones and tablets will mean our access to information becomes increasingly simple – especially as wireless networks continue to develop in terms of speed and access. The cloud will get more sophisticated and “aware” – everytime I share a document, revise a document, receive a revised document. I don’t want to have to track changes and delivery receipt myself – I want a smart backend system to do that.

And that requires a sophisticated cloud storage backend, as well as a highly complex understanding of human networks and relationships. At the moment collaboration tools rely on a central repository of information, or a single “master” document – either on a server or in the cloud as the key catalogue of document management.

If I change a document it’s saved back to the collaboration tool’s shared area, and those changes can be seen by people based on some simple permission rules, as well as tracking changes across versions.

What we’re moving too is a client/server cloud model where those things happen at both ends of the network invisibly – so if I change a shared document on my device it’s changed in the cloud automatically and the right people see those changes, but I’m still able to accessall the versions of that document along the chain, and so are my colleagues, on any device I’m working on.

It’s not 10 people sharing one document, it’s potentially hundreds of versions of that document shared by 10 people who have access to the most up to date version at all times on any device, in any location.

And that document could have a dizzying impact on so many aspects of my business – my invoicing system, my calendar, my department’s calendar, my research and notes. Those changes should cascade automatically from that one change to the document, and in the other direction. ie a change to my calendar is reflected in all the relevant documents and project plans.

In fact, the success of businesses could in some way be defined by who has the smartest information management and collaboration tools. Imagine how much more agile my business would be if a single change to a document by one staff member had the desired result on every other piece of relevant information inside my company’s network.

It’s, in essence, a vision of a turbo-charged CRM that works across devices, across networks and across company divisions.

It means the end of tools like e-mail as we know it – e-mail has served an important role, and will continue to play an important role. But I predict the death of attachments.

These single instance documents being squirted around the world will make way for the sharing of links. And at the end of these links are smart documents, smart tools which are always up to date, always accessible, and connected to every other document and tool in my organisation.

One of the things that will undoubtedly change is our sense of the office as a physical space. And I’m not simply talking about teleworking, or home working. Innovations like London’s TechHub are beginning to show what’s possible.

A shared space for companies to co-site it’s taking the start-up DNA of the technology world and applying it to a physical location. I don’t think offices as a workspace will end – as human beings we thrive when working together in a physical space – but I think our understanding of who needs to be office-bound, and when, will change.

Our principal reason for sitting in offices together derives from an industrial age where production was tied to physical location. That’s since changed as the things we most often produce are services, not physical objects.

The consumerisation of IT and the increasing access to incredibly fast domestic broadband connections means many people can work more productively with their own technology in their own homes, or mobile. The one thing that won’t change about the office? That feeling on a Monday morning as you head to work/log in for the first time!

Matthew Stibbe is writer-in-chief at Articulate Marketing. He is also an avid blogger, closet geek and HP fanatic.