What Happened to the Paperless Office?

In the late 70’s (if you’re old enough to remember), the vision for the future of businesses was “the paperless office”.  It was the idea that someday we’d all have access to a computer and would have no need to create paper documents (letters, quotes, purchase orders, invoices, etc.).  Keep in mind that this was before the creation of the spreadsheet.  And databases for accounting only existed for larger companies.  And there was no Internet either.

The 70’s was the domain of mainframe computers filling entire rooms with less processing power than are in our Apple or Samsung watches today.  And data entry was via punch cards (look it up).  Mini-computers were arriving from companies like Data General and Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) that were sized for smaller companies.  Computers were physically getting smaller, too. .

Microsoft opened its’ doors in 1975 and then, in 1976, came the Apple-1 from a new company called Apple.  It retailed for USD $666.00.  Apple barely stayed in business in their early days due to their closed ecosystem, which ironically is their strength today.  We all know what computers mean to us today because of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak at Apple and Bill Gates vision of “a computer on every desk”.   That’s far from true today in much Of the world but even they could not have imagined “a computer in every hand” (though they also created that later with the introduction of the iPod for music listening).

So what businesspeople began to believe was that paper would eventually disappear.  When you could type a document into a computer one time, edit it, print it as often as needed without using a photocopier (“Xerox machine”) and then share it, why use a typewriter (remember those?) and paper to print and share and file?

In 1979 the spreadsheet arrived, first from VisiCalc in 1979 for the Apple II, followed by Lotus 1-2-3 in 1983.  Microsoft Excel followed in 1985 for the Mac, for the PC in 1987 and lastly, Borland introduced Quattro also in 1987.  The battle of the spreadsheets was on.

And today (OMG 40+ years later!) the battle has been largely won by Microsoft Excel, with Google Sheets playing tag as a mostly-free offering.

So we have documents and data.  Very different animals.  Capturing data is very different than creating a document of letters and numbers.  Data is represented by discreet bits of information that require specific entry locations, or “fields”, where, for example, the first name is entered into a First Name field and the Last Name is entered into a Last Name field.  The same would apply to the Street Address and so on.  In a spreadsheet , each column would represent each field while each row represents another record with the same fields.

The spreadsheet quickly became the default entry mechanism for capturing and manipulating data.  Nothing compares to the flexibility of a spreadsheet with its ability to add columns and rows as needed, type in any kind of data, use formulas to calculate various pieces of information, and share it quite easily by email or other methods. The learning curve is rapid, because users only need to know how to enter their data and not understand what might be happening behind the scenes.  And with great flexibility comes errors.

The larger issue is that each spreadsheet is one single group of electronic data.  Like a document.  It’s disconnected from other groups of data on other spreadsheets stored in the same folder, whether a paper folder in a filing cabinet or an electronic folder in a computer.  The folder adds no value.      Essentially, it’s electronic paper rather than “paper paper”.  It has no impact on any other data anywhere.  What’s missing is that it can’t relate its data to any other data.

And that’s where a database comes in.  Originally in use only for the larger companies of the world, today we all use databases, whether while browsing Amazon looking at products, or entering data into our accounting system.

When data is held in a database, data bits of information have relationships to other bits of information (hence the term “relational database”).  And “paper” disappears.  Using a database means that everything you enter can be related to all the other data entered, and nothing is disconnected.  It can be analyzed, reported on, exported, totaled, turned into a visual graph and more.  Continuing to use spreadsheets lets you collect the data but it’s difficult to go further than that.

But spreadsheets come with another huge problem.  It’s difficult (not impossible) to control what data is entered and how it is entered.  Managers find that users entered data in the wrong row, in the wrong column, in the sheet for last week rather than this week, and more.  And because a little bit of knowledge is dangerous, some users go so far as to use their minimal knowledge to alter the structure and formulas within the spreadsheet.  And though that can be locked, it’s one of those functions that is often overlooked.

It’s become obvious that spreadsheets need to be largely abolished unless used for individual data collection.  Once you fully understand the power of a database, you will never go back.  Almost every caller to TimeLinx looking to improve their service operations has “get rid of our spreadsheets” as their top priority.  There’s a good reason.

And therein means we haven’t gotten rid of paper.  It’s still all around us in the form of spreadsheets that collect time, expenses, work details and more. And then have to re-type that data into your accounting system for billing.

It’s time to get rid of all that ”paper” with a database system that can take you all the way from your first contact with a prospect, managing an opportunity, providing a quote, delivering and approving the work, and then sending an invoice.  No actual paper anywhere and no re-typing into a database.

Getting rid of paper is an achievable dream.

Check out TimeLinx and we’ll prove it.

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About TimeLinx
TimeLinx delivers innovative project & service management software as a complete solution that perfects the sell-track-manage-support-bill cycle that services organizations must have to delight their customers; TimeLinx brings the cycle together in a single application that offers less frustration, better project management, complete reporting, and improved profitability – all specially designed for Infor and Sage.