The paperless office has come and gone, and come back again with a vengeance. I think, like many more concepts than you might imagine, it follows the Gartner Hype Cycle . (There’s a future blog post coming there…)

When the term was coined in the 1960’s a huge hype cycle began, touting massive savings in resources through computing, and paper was the obvious culprit at the time. A generation later, more paper was being printed as the IT industry grew at a rapid pace. The 1990’s brought disillusionment as the technology industry realized it was killing more trees than ever and worse, creating a huge future liability as a potential environmental disaster.

This disaster has started materializing and has grown far greater in scope than just paper with useless reports printed “just in case we need them”. Think of the masses of hardware produced and junked after their 3-year cycle was done – many of them now leaking mercury and other heavy metals in landfills. The three R’s – Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle – were nowhere to be seen in the IT industry until recently. Who can Reuse a ‘386 with a 20 megabyte hard drive? What is the cost of Recycling it? And how exactly can we Reduce when we always need more and more hardware to fit our ever growing fanaticism with huge video and text feeds, as evidenced by social networking giants YouTube, Twitter and Facebook?

Looking at this 5 years ago, it seemed like a rather dreary affair with no light at the end of the tunnel. I believe however that the tide may have recently turned, that a number of fortuitous circumstances have occured that together have given the needed impetus for a real green change.

  • The green movement is picking up steam and evidence of environmental issues is becoming un-challengeable. Former US Vice-President and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Al Gore is no longer an anomaly. There is a problem and few people are seriously denying it anymore
  • The massive computing requirements of current operating systems and software have been growing exponentially based on Moore’s Law and corporate server rooms and pocket books are maxed out: a rationalization had to occur, which in now in full swing through virtualization 
  • The recent economic downturn has made it that much more important to start doing more with less. This has meant improving business processes and the way paper and electronic documents and forms are handled. And guess what, that is a great environmental strategy as well
  • Vendors like Apple are now seeing money in the green movement, recently advertising their “green MacBooks” – it takes just a few thought-leaders like them to start a movement. There is actually money to be made being green if you know how (ask Apple). It’s no longer just about “being nice”, it’s a real business proposition that is good for everyone, including the environmentalists. This final point might ultimately be the one that wins all arguments on this topic.

So I throw down two gauntlets to all readers:

  • What is each of us doing individually to help the environment with respect to our IT habits and needs?
  • What is each of us doing as part of our organizations to promote ecologically sound use software (e.g. Document Management systems, Electronic Forms, and reducing the need to print paper by automating processes) and eco-friendly use of hardware (e.g.pushing for virtualization)?

I won’t say I’m perfect but I can state that if you walk into my office you will find almost no paper around with a rare exception of government paperwork (we’ll deal with them eventually!). I struggle sometimes to find a pen around my desk because I no longer write anything by hand except when I really need to draw out how I think a screen should look in a design meeting. OK, I sign a few manual cheques here and there, but that’s about it.

I’m also proud to say that most others at Intellera follows the same principles. Paper is not abundant, and we have streamlined our hardware architecture to be mostly virtual, saving huge amounts of space and energy. All documents are on line, and with few exceptions, everything is stored on disks and printing needs are limited through good habits using software that makes it easy NOT to need a printout.

One could argue it is easy for us because electronic documents and forms are at the core of our business, it’s what we do every day for our clients and therefore we have the knowledge and opportunity to effect change in methods and attitudes along the way. In fact, it’s harder because knowledge brings with it responsibility. We simply can not accept to be “cobblers whose children have no shoes”.

I like to think I had something to do with this change, and it’s making the world a better place, one document at a time. Let me know how you are doing on this front!