SpiderOak

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I’ve mentioned Dropbox in the past.  It is very handy and simple to use, but if you need something with more power, consider SpiderOak. SpiderOak does what DropBox does at about half the cost and with a great deal more flexibility.  Instead of being confined to only syncing a single folder, SpiderOak lets you backup or sync any number of folders or filetypes.  This means you can do things like sync the music from two computers while syncing your documents with a third and backing up all of your important files to the server storage.

For a paperless office, SpiderOak seems ideal because you can give everyone the same directory that will stay in sync regardless of where they are physically.  A copy of the folder is stored locally, but any changes are pushed up or pulled down from the cloud storage.

The only real downside of SpiderOak vs. DropBox is that SpiderOak has a slightly steeper learning curve due to all the additional features it contains.  It isn’t really any harder to use, you just have a lot more options instead of the DropBox approach where everything works automatically but you can’t really customize anything. JungleDisk, Mozy and Box.net are some other options with similar features that might be worth looking at.

Electronic Signatures

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A lot of effort in the paperless industry is in trying to digitize existing paper. This is really a backwards approach. It is important for getting all the existing paper, signed documents and other things into a digital form, but it is holding us back from really moving to paperless systems that save time.

One of the biggest examples of this is the slow adoption of electronic signatures. If we could switch most business transactions over to using electronic signatures it would have a much greater impact on our ability to go paperless than anything that is likely to come out of the current research into making better scanners. That is because technology like digital signatures, stops the creation of paper at its source rather than simply trying to digitize it after it has been created.

Personally, I think the holdup is the fact that people have an easier time understanding physical technologies (paper, scanners, etc.) than digital technologies like electronic signatures. It is easy to understand how a scanner works. You put the paper in and it makes an electronic copy. However, it is much more difficult to understand how encryption and digital signatures work. This type of understanding requires some math skills and quite a bit of abstract mental ability.

Unfortunately it is harder to get people to adopt technology that they don’t understand. I’m not saying that everyone one needs to understand the details of radiation to use a microwave, but there is still a basic understanding at some level about how it works. If we want to see better adoption of electronic signatures and other types of public key infrastructure technology we need to start by educating people about how the technology works.

This isn’t going to be an easy task. As mentioned, it can be difficult to understand exactly how things things work and there aren’t a lot of great ways to map the technology to things that people understand. Still it is worth a try and if we can get people familiar with how electronic signatures work, we stand a much greater chance of it being adopted.

The best place to really try to push for education is in high schools and colleges. If we can teach the up and coming generation about how the technology works before they join the work force, they will be in an excellent position to use it. They are already very tech savvy so learning an addition technology would probably come more naturally and easier than it would for people who have a harder time using computers.

Tools for going paperless

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Here are a few tools that are very useful for people wanting to switch to a paperless work environment.

Dropbox

Dropbox is a simple backup and syncing solution that can be ideal for a paperless setup.  It makes it easy to keep your document synced across multiple computers and has some very handy sharing capabilities built in.  It is very simple and you get a reasonable amount of space for free.  You can pay for more storage space.  Checkout this dropbox review for more information.

Evernote

Evernote is a handy note taking application that also lets you sync across multiple computers.  The free version is well suited for capturing the type of information that would normally be put on sticky notes.  The paid version seems a bit more aimed at people who want to store PDFs with indexing and searching capabilities. (Evernote review)

DevonThink

DevonThink offers some of the capabilities of Evernote but with more of an emphasis on organizing your data.  One of its strong points is the way it lets you quickly put documents in the right folder by analyzing their words and presenting you with a list of likely storage locations based on where you have filed similar documents in the past. (DevonThink classification feature video.)

Stop Incoming Paper

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When we think of going paperless, scanners are often the first thing that comes to mind.  While scanners are important, we really need to focus on getting rid of paper in the first place.  If the flow of paper into our lives can be reduced it has a much greater environmental gain than simply scanning paper and throwing it out (or even trying to recycle it).

Here are a few tips for getting rid of incoming paper:

  • Sign up for online statements.
  • Get off mailing lists.
  • Cancel magazine subscriptions.
  • Switch to online versions of newspapers.
  • Switch to electronic billing.
  • Use direct deposit.

The point is that incoming paper is the best place to have significant gains in your paper reduction strategy.

Paper Will Always Be Around

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Paper isn’t going away any time soon.  Even as we get better technology that can replace paper, there are somethings that will always work better on paper.  Some advantages of paper:

  1. It is cheap. Paper is great in environments where a digital device might get stolen or broken.
  2. Doesn’t require electricity. If I was stuck in the woods with a survival guide, I’d rather have a paperback than a Kindle.
  3. High resolution. Nothing really comes close to the DPI of a piece of paper.

The real benefit of going paperless is going to come from moving paper based workflows to digital workflows. So much of what is on paper today gets processed, approved, reviewed and eventually entered back into a computer. Much of this type of paper doesn’t need to be created in the first place.  Paperless processes are a better target than just getting rid of paper.

Paperless Transition

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Society is at a transition.  The technology is quickly coming available to become paperless.  E-ink, digital signatures, encryption, high capacity storage and many other components are all dropping in price and increasing in capabilities. We are to the point that the hurdles to going paperless are more cultural than technical.

This represents a significant shift from the previous situation.  In the past, there were technical hurdles toward adopting paperless technology.  More recently the technology was too expensive to be widely used. This isn’t the case any more.  In fact, much of the necessary technology is already in place–even if it isn’t being used very effectively.

The cultural shift to a paperless society is going to be difficult.  People are much more dependent upon paper than they realize as evidenced by the emotional turmoil  most people go through in trying to move their personal paper repositories to a digital environment. It may turn out that a new generation is required to really accept the mental concepts of being paperless. A generation that grew up with digital technology is much more likely to have very few cultural barriers to avoiding paper entirely.  The generation that stops buying prints of their senior pictures will probably be the generation that ushers us into a true paperless world.