dreams of the paper-free office
PHOTO: Sebastien Wiertz

Earlier this month I delivered the keynote at the Document Strategy Forum in Anaheim, Calif. My topic? The Death of the Document.

Ever since AIIM proclaimed “paper free in ‘93,” we’ve been hearing about the end of the document: no more paper, only a blessed nirvana where we can work with digital data, unfettered by the constraints of the way things have always been done. Cut to today, and we joke about “paper free in 2003, '23, '33 ....” Which is to say that, despite the massive amounts of brainpower expended on the paper document problem, in many cases, we seem no closer to realizing the paper-free dream than we were in the early 1990s.

The very premise behind the "death of the document" predictions and the effort to eliminate paper seems misplaced. The issue isn’t documents versus data or paper versus electronic, but rather what’s the most effective way to gather and present data to end users — whether customers, employees, or other parties (regulators, external partners, etc.)?

To dig into this, let’s first look into how we might define a document. Then, let’s use that definition exercise to ask whether documents might be a perennial part of how we conduct business successfully, even if their relative dominance declines in comparison to other modes, such as apps and IoT sensors. Finally, let’s sketch what a future with documents and (dare I say it) paper looks like.

What’s a Document?

This is an important question for our current context. People involved in forms design, transactional customer communications, etc., need to be deliberate about their work to justify spend on resources, software, hardware and professional services. These practitioners have been grappling for many years with how to define exactly what a document is. Yet despite this effort, I haven’t seen a definition that settles the issue.

Taking the question up a level beyond these more tactical concerns, I propose we view a document as the following:

  1. A container that holds data, but that isn’t a structured database (rows and columns).
  2. A container that, whether paper or electronic, is a way to gather or present data, but is not a structured database application or interface.

Now let’s take it a step further and think about what all businesses, in every industry, of every size, do with data: they gather it and manage it to get work done.

If we agree with this, then documents (whether paper or electronic) are one modality among many that an organization has available to gather and manage data. Web forms, fillable PDFs, IoT sensors, apps, data streams and more can be used in addition to documents.

Although trying to reach a more nuanced definition of a document has value for some end users, adopting this broader definition frees us up to think about data in general.

Related Article: Information Deserves a Spot on Your Balance Sheets

It’s Not About the Container, It’s About the End User

The most important advantage of adopting this more expansive and general definition of a document is that it allows us 1) to consider documents as one modality among many for gathering and presenting information and 2) to focus on the needs of the end user and choose the mode of information gathering and presentation accordingly.

Looked at this way, the question becomes what mode of gathering and presenting data will be most valuable to end users while creating the least friction to our organization?

To adopt this perspective, you need to ask yourself what method of gathering and presenting data is best for the customer for a given business process (e.g., mortgage origination). There likely won’t be a single best answer, but rather a number of options (paper, app, data stream, etc.). The next question is of these options, which presents the least friction for us as an organization? And then finally, can we afford to implement the option that addresses both considerations?

If we truly shift our focus onto the modality best suited for gathering and presenting data, then we have to admit that documents (and even paper) will always be a part of how we do business. A land man in the open expanses of west Texas trying to get a lease agreement from a farmer will, for the foreseeable future, be working with paper. And that’s okay. The cost, effort and risk of failure in trying to get these farmers to adopt a digital-first approach to leases isn’t worth the effort: paper is the best option.

No matter the answer you reach, the process of asking and answering these questions will help your organization focus more narrowly on end user needs (a universally good thing), rather than on trying to define documents versus content versus data, etc., in an overly academic way.

Related Article: How Document Management and Content Management Differ

Debates Are Great, But Keep Focused on the Goal

It's important we continue to debate how to define a document, whether to eliminate paper, and similar points. But don't let the debates cause us to lose sight of the bigger picture: we’re successful as a business based mostly on how well we gather and present data. Given the ever-widening array of options for doing so, documents and paper are decreasing in importance. Yet there will always be a place for them in our efforts to better serve end users in an economical way. So let’s worry less about the end of documents and worry more about how to gather and present data in a way that is affordable and serves our end users.