Guest post by Scott Blau, WW Director of Document Capture, IBM ECM
In the 1960s, America was riven by “the generation gap:” elders who supported government and traditional family relations vs. the boomer generation of rebels in culture and politics. With the challenges of the 1970s the split started to loose relevance, until in the 1980s the boomers were getting older and more like their parents. The generation gap just faded. Or was it just replaced by a newer gap?
In a recent conversation with a bank CIO, I learned that the bank has a paper problem, but not the one I expected. The bank had installed a scanning system to capture paper documents and turn them into images, yet had been unable to realize the dream of a “paperless office.” With a little research the CIO and his team discovered something that many organizations are now facing: there is a new generation gap, and it is all wrapped up in paper.
Although the bank has a stated policy that discourages printing documents, some loan officers continued to copy each and every loan package (even mortgage applications of 200 or more pages) for their own reference. That in spite of the fact that the loan package is next sent for central scanning and then pushed on an internal portal for reference with handy indexing by document type.
Why were some of the most experienced – and productive – loan officers doing this? At first, the bank thought that the loan officers were simply being careful – ‘I’d better make a copy just in case the document is lost during transit.” But even after the bank installed scanning software in every branch, they were still making personal copies.
After he described this puzzling trend, I told the banker that he didn’t have a technology problem; he had a dependency problem, much like alcoholism or drug addiction in his company. Only in this case, people have become addicted to paper. Forget that an electronic document has been declared just as legal as a paper document. Forget that an electronic document can be retrieved much more quickly than a paper document; that you can copy it and paste it; keep it handy on your desktop, and even annotate it and share it in seconds with a colleague halfway across the country. The problem is you can’t hold it.
Even more interesting though, is the fact that paper addiction seems to be generational. The older and more mature loan officers were the offenders. There is a cut-off – somewhere around 1984 when the post-WWII generation gap supposedly disappeared – after which anyone born has no use for paper documents. The newer generation that has grown up with computers in school - using calculators instead of slide rules, and using word processors instead of typewriters - and their relationship to a sheet of paper is different from the previous generation.
The previous generation, which I fall into, required reams of paper to get through a school day. We grew up writing term papers in either in long hand on carefully typing, and re-typing, them. We calculated algebra equations on scratch pads. When we started our professional lives, there were secretaries in typing pools, clerks whose job it was to wheel around the office delivering interoffice mail, and miles of aisles in the basement filled with file folders.
We got so used to being able to hold a document in our hands that we became dependent on it, like a 3 year old cuddling a teddy bear in bed. And now many in my generation can’t do without it.
So I suggested to the banker that she could either wait 20 years for the young generation to replace the aging paper addicts – and who knows what the next generation gap may bring – or begin an awareness campaign around the advantages of electronic documents over paper and wean people off their dependency. But the irony was not lost that – after 25 years of hearing about the paperless office, that, here it is, finally within reach, and the last obstacle is simply people being unwilling to give up the comfort of holding a document in their hands.