Some of that actually happened. Companies can send invoices and pay employees and suppliers electronically. Software programs have replaced accounting ledgers and checkbook registers. And does anyone really miss trying to read carbon copies? But despite these successes, paper seemingly became even more entrenched. In their book, The Myth of the Paperless Office, Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper cite a telling number: The use of e-mail causes an average 40 percent increase in paper consumption.

Earlier this year, a study by the Canadian subsidiary of the Lexmark printer company detailed the paper-hungry habits of workers in two Ontario cities. Employees at large companies printed 50 pages a day, while their counterparts at small companies printed 35 pages a day. Some 40 percent of all employees printed at least 60 percent of the information they received electronically.

"Part of the problem was that companies saw this technology as an end to itself, and not as a tool to reach a specific goal," says consultant Arthur St. Onge, whose company has worked with Border's, Heinz, Sears, and the United States Postal Service. "Instead of saying, let's eliminate paper to do this or that, they just said, let's eliminate paper. But technology is never an end to itself."

MAKING IT WORK
But if the paperless office is a myth, the paperless business is not. In dull, boring, routine-driven worlds - such as insurance companies, government bureaucracies, and the supply chain, where the goal is to move one widget from here to there - paperless operation has made far greater strides.

In Springfield, Ohio, contractors bidding on a $166 million school construction job had to be paperless. The Social Security Administration is studying whether it's possible to transform all its files to electronic form. Even more impressive is National Semiconductor's 94,000-square-foot Singapore facility, built and operated by UPS Logistics Group. It uses a paperless system that features hand-held devices equipped with scanners that are so sophisticated they can guide employees through the warehouse from item to item.