Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Computers and Office Supplies: Connecting the Dots

Reports from Staples and Dell confirm trends already hinted at by their competitors. Businesses are spending less on computers and less on office supplies.

There is a connection to be drawn here, I believe: it’s a sign of the decline of paper documents, particularly the more ephemeral documents used from day to day for collaboration within a business. Traditional office supplies such as paper clips, highlighters, file folders, and binders are used mainly on computer-generated paper documents. The number and extent of those documents are declining. You’ll get complaints, for example, if you hand out 15 pages of documents at a 30-minute meeting. It’s a turnaround from a decade ago, when if you didn’t have a stack of handouts people might suspect that you hadn’t really prepared for the meeting.

People scoffed five years ago when Citibank took the color laser printers out of its offices to save money on toner, but now other businesses are doing the same thing. The real documents, after all, are on the computer screen and shared over the network. Paper documents are often just placeholders and summaries for discussion purposes, and in these situations, color, formatting, and length don’t count for much.

When paper documents become less important, computers also become less important. That’s because preparing paper documents is one of the most demanding things we ask computers to do. Compare the cost and complexity of word processing software to that of email software and you’ll what I mean. Both prepare documents, but a word processing program has to make a document look good on paper, so it costs 10 times as much and is 10 times as hard to use. In a similar way, the need to routinely connect to a printer (and potentially a scanner) adds complexity to a computer system. With less reliance on paper documents, today’s computers may not need to be replaced by newer ones, at least not so quickly.

Businesses aren’t sacrificing by creating fewer and smaller paper documents. Like everyone, they are just trying to save time. After all, “paperwork” long ago became synonymous with “a frustrating waste of time,” so why wouldn’t a business look for ways to get work done with less paperwork? And if this trend has now become large enough to become visible in the financial reports, it’s fair to guess that it will carry forward for a few more years.