Remember the paperless office? It turned out to be about as practical as the paperless rest room, but it was the hot prediction circa 1985. First sketched out three decades ago by University of Illinois professor Wilfred Lancaster, the idea was that computers would eliminate paper documents completely. That sounded good to lots of deep thinkers - but they were wrong. Sure, computers got rid of some paper. But now they generate more than ever.
At last week's Symposium/ITxpo conference in Orlando, three Gartner Group analysts rolled out their own paperless predictions.
One claimed that by 2003, 70 per cent of all business relationships will be within open e-marketplaces, wiping out traditional order and invoice systems. He also said that today's cherished IT skills will be "meaningless" - his word - in 10 years, and that soon most IT people will belong to job-search co-ops and will peddle their work as free agents.
Another analyst predicted that by 2005, interagency competition will wipe out one-third of the US government, and the Web will make it possible for voters to enact laws directly.
A third said that by 2005, some companies will report earnings-per-share on a daily basis, and all corporate problems will be "identified and solved in real time", thanks to a new "chief monitoring officer" with real-time access to all corporate data.
Are they right? Are they nuts? We get these visions of the future thrown at us all the time - from analysts, pundits, vendors, consultants and jet-lagged CEOs. They all sound good - but how do we know who's right and who's a few sheets short of a ream?
Reality-checking predictions is easier than it looks. Start with a few unavoidable requirements for any change: there's got to be a big enough market for it, small enough resistance and someone actively pushing to make it happen. The 'small enough resistance' piece is crucial - enough foot dragging and active opposition will kill almost any change.
Now let's test those Gartner predictions. Will most corporate IT people you know dump their jobs by 2005 to join job-search co-ops and work as freelancers? Will hordes of well-connected government bureaucrats sit idly by while their power and jobs are eliminated? Will companies want to expose income information on a daily basis, making it easy for competitors to figure out what deals fell through?
Not sounding so likely, eh?
Another easy sanity test: usually change can't require throwing human nature and historical reality out the window.
Will all corporate problems be solved in real time by a chief monitoring officer? Get real - people hide information now, and they won't stop when Big Brother becomes an official corporate title. Will we really dump all our business partners in favour of open e-marketplaces by 2003? Yeah, right - only if CEOs quit playing golf together and hiring each other's kids straight out of business school.
Will today's IT skills be meaningless by 2010? Only if mainframes, PCs, the Internet and everything we use today dries up and blows away in 10 years.
And by then, we'll surely have a whole new stack of paperless predictions.
* Frank Hayes has covered IT for more than 20 years. His e-mail address is email@example.com or, for publication, firstname.lastname@example.org