Originally created 07/12/98

Paper still prominent



Paper -- it's the staff of office life, the glue of human communications.

Chances are, your desk at work brims with it, your mailbox overflows and your file cabinets bulge.

From business cards to Post-it notes, it's hard to imagine working without smooth, cool paper.

But wait. Wasn't the computer age heralded as the coming of the paper-free era? Weren't e-mails and videoconferencing hookups going to make poky mailings and cumbersome reports archaic?

That time is still far off at most workplaces. If anything, we're swimming in more paper during the computer age than any other time in history.

Yet a few companies are beginning to sideline paper. Cost savings are scant since paper is cheap, and environmental concerns aren't dominant.

Rather, certain that electronic is better, these paper-free pioneers are testing the waters of a whole new way to work.

"Paper is the pony express, it's worse than the pony express," asserts Michael Radcliff, chief information officer at Toledo, Ohio-based Owens Corning. "It can take an eternity to communicate or make a decision via paper."

Owens Corning, a maker of building materials and glass composites, is probably the major U.S. company most wedded to the concept of the paper-free office. And Mike Radcliff is one of its most devout converts.

He gleefully shows a visitor an office nearly devoid of paper -- where file drawers rattle and a bare desk sports little more than a laptop, telephone and coffee mug.

"We use paper as a convenience item, not as a way of doing business," says Mr. Radcliff, waving a three-ring notebook where he keeps his "work-in-progress" -- papers that are used, perhaps filed electronically, and then thrown out.

The company believes that communicating almost entirely electronically will speed decision-making and customer dealings -- boosting productivity by 1 percent a year.

Walk around the company's bright new headquarters and you'll see other signs of the paper-free effort: videoconference rooms with special "softboard" screens where a lecturer's handwritten notes are automatically transmitted to any connected laptop; a scarcity of printers and copiers. Paper calendars and Post-its are discouraged. Next to go: all paper forms.

Still, the company's attack on paper hasn't been easy. "Some are dragging their feet a little bit," says spokeswoman Kelli Wilkerson, admitting that she's a "little afraid" of the softboards.

A year ago, the company began urging its 1,200 headquarters employees to leave electronic telephone messages for each other, instead of using the ubiquitous pink paper "While You Were Out" forms. But the company is still buying the paper version -- for now.

Other companies -- Alcoa, AT&T, Mitsubishi Electric and BankAmerica Corp. -- that are leading the way toward an electronic workplace are also finding that it's tough prying workers from their paper.

As part of its "Paper-wise" campaign, Alcoa has offered dozens of seminars and tutoring sessions to coax employees into using their computers more to store information and communicate with each other.