In one of my favorite movies “Brazil” by Terry Gilliam a man gets suffocated by paper. “Brazil” is a quite bizarre adaptation of the novel “1984” by George Orwell with a lot of ideas how not only society but also technology could evolve much differently than we all expect. And it is set in a awfully bureaucratic and dull future. The scene comes as some sort of a surprise in the middle of the film and is not really related to the plot. A man walks on the street and a piece of paper starts to stick on him, then a second, a third. He starts to fight but more paper comes flying and in the end he is buried under a heap of forms, applications, invoices etc.
I am not sure what the author wants to express with this scene but it always has struck me as a remarkable visionary view of what can happen to an organization that does not manage their paper flood in time. We know that paper is a valuable carrier of information and probably the best for conveying information from one individual to another. It is cheap, can be inscribed and read without any devices, has no compatibility issues and is considered to be relatively safe for long term storage and against fraud.
No doubt – paper has its right in personal communication. But what happens when paper of many individuals hits an organization. This is called C2B (Customer to Business) communication in modern “new speak”. In this case paper can suffocate an organization that is too successful.
I once visited a big company and heard an amazing story of what really can happen if you grow too fast without taking previsions in time. This company is in the financial business and became very successful due to their business model. In consequence more and more paper started to flow in from customers who wanted to do business with this institution. The company was not prepared for the success.
Here is what they told me what happened: Paper came flowing in all the time. Tons of paper. Paper was piled in the corridors between the cubicles. They were not able to process it in time. Then the fire police came in and requested immediate changes. Meanwhile the trucks that brought in the paper got tickets because they could not be unloaded in time and blocked the road.
This company nearly got suffocated. They decided to introduce imaging and automatic recognition. They implemented capture software in all of their organization. Today they work in a clean environment with clear processes and are able to process 3 times the volume they could not process when they started with the same staff. They were able to solve the problem with modern technology before being paralyzed.
What can be learned from this experience? Paper needs to be eliminated if it enters a big corporation. Paper based processes do not scale with your growth. While it is a good medium for individuals and will stay for a long time – in a company that relies on cooperation and processes it is the worst you can have. Truncate paper as soon as possible and you will avoid the destiny of the poor guy from the film.
Still I admire how Terry Gilliam could have foreseen that back in 1985 when he published his film.