Sometimes my better ideas come from my mildly sarcastic one-liners…

A couple of weeks ago I was in a workshop with a group of people when someone said that they were working on a project to promote “Paperless Meetings” within their organisation.

“You should be striving for meetingless papers” I quipped.

It’s been a recurring theme since…


For many years now, when I have talked about phases of “digital transformation” I’ve referred to the consumer experience of the music industry.

When I was a kid, music was analogue. Music was bought in physical shops in either vinyl or cassette formats.

In the early 80s we had the first phase of digital music – the move to compact disc. The physical became digital rather than analogue.

In the 90s and 00s we had the second phase of digital – the rise of online purchasing. Amazon made the shop experience digital.

In the 00s the third phase of digital arrived – iTunes converted distribution from physical to digital. But we still bought singles and albums.

In the 10s, the fourth phase of digital, streaming, has seen the consumption of music become entirely digital and with subscriptions and advertising-funded models, actually taking advantage of what the end-to-end digital music experience could offer free of the constraints and costs of the physical world.

Now let’s look at the average office.

We digitized the typewriter in the 1970s with the arrival of the word processor. In the 80s, spreadsheets arrived, digitizing the accounting techniques of the Venetians. Acetates and 35mm slides became Harvard Graphics and Powerpoint in the 90s, whilst the memo became the email.

And apart from a few folk printing a bit less,  in most big corporations the world hasn’t really moved on. Oh, we’ve got more ubiquitous web conferencing these days, providing a crap meeting experience across geographies.


And that is kind of what has been evolving in conversations about Meetingless Papers. That “Papers” are an analogy for the stuff of debate and decision making and are no more tied to physical paper than the “chair of a meeting” has four legs and a raffia bottom.

For all of the talk about how business has changed, the nature of how knowledge work manifests within organisations, with all of the documents and emails bouncing around between meetings that nobody thinks are productive feels little different to the world I saw when I started working 25 years ago.

And yet our mobile first, app-driven life outside of work has transformed. We don’t send attachments in emails from a PC any more. But work really hasn’t progressed past phase one of digital transformation, phase 2 at most.

Solutions? Some experiments. Here are a few ideas which I’m contemplating with a few clients:

  • Mobile-only days. We can survive outside of work without a PC. And DOING EXCEL IS NOT ACTUALLY DOING WORK. This will drive out both what crucial business services are currently mobile in-able, and also how you can adapt to find new ways of working using only mobile platforms.
  • Decision-free meetings. Free up face to face meeting time to be for discussion and exploration of ideas. Take decisions online.
  • We work unbound online… along with “work unbound” (where you get people who don’t work together to work in the same physical space for a day – how about bringing together people who don’t work together to spend a day “virtually” together, either through an open video call or open text forum.
  • Virtual coffee breaks. I’m off for a coffee – who wants to join me online? (Tea also available).

6 thoughts on “Meetingless papers

  1. Great article!

    I wish more people understood the value of “Papers”. They seem to have an air of the public schoolboy about them tho’, especially in government digital departments.

    Writing stuff down not only helps you share it more succinctly with others, it also help you straighten out your own thoughts first so that you don’t end up having endless conversations about irrelevant things that would have just evaporated with 10 minutes concentrated focus.

    It’s also easier to make a decision from a well written paper than a discussion because it’s easier to have confidence that you know what and who you’re signing up for.

    As an aside, the wordprocessor not only digitised the typewriter, it changed the whole organisational model around an executive and their secretary. Now the executive had to be a good writer as well as an expert at the mechanism of letters rather than an expert at the business who dictated his thoughts to someone who made them sound good in words.

    Spreadsheets are also really interesting from a market size perspective. The PC revolution happened around them and, at the time, everyone thought the entire market was just a handful of finance people who currently used the paper based version and wanted quicker arithmetic. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to missed the fact that it turned out to be a general tool with a market several orders of magnitude larger.

  2. I had the fortune to work somewhere that had implemented ‘virtual watercoolers’. Each office had a water cooler with a permanent VC link to the other offices coolers.

    I’ve no idea how successful it was, likely not, but the idea always stuck, you could grab a drink and have a chat with someone in the US about what you’re working on.

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