The paperless office continues to elude us

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Since the dawn of personal computers there have been predictions of an all-digital future where paper was little but a distant memory. Decades later, it seems like we’ve made progress toward the “paperless office,” but the Utopian vision is still a long way off.

Adobe, which bought digital signature company Echosign in 2011, conducted a study to find out how things are progressing on the road to our all-digital documents future. The study is based on data gathered from an online survey among 1051 U.S. managers who draft, send or sign contracts and agreements at small, medium and large companies.

The report, "Paper: An endangered species?" uncovers some interesting results. Just over half of the respondents, 51 percent, believe that digital workflow makes filing and managing documents easier, and 61 percent say that working digitally cuts costs. Nearly a third even feel that digital workflow gives them an edge and helps them win business.

Fair enough. Looking at the infographic from Adobe, those numbers are leaning in the right direction—albeit not as strongly as I would expect after decades of the promise of a paperless office. Then, we get to contracts. The survey results are almost unanimous (98

Adobe infographic highlights results from study.

percent) that actual contracts or legal documents are still done using paper—even though nearly three fourths think life would be easier if contracts were done digitally.

As a freelance analyst and consultant I can vouch for the fact that most companies still rely on paper. I’ve been on both sides of paper-vs.-digital divide, and I can say from experience that digital contracts are much more efficient.percent) that actual contracts or legal documents are still done using paper, even though nearly three fourths think life would be easier if contracts were done digitally.

Typically, when I agree to work with a client, I send over some draft language to use as a contract. The client then fills in any missing details, and sends the document back—generally in the form of a PDF file. I then must print the PDF file so I can sign it, and scan the signed document so I can return it to the client. Then, the client must print my signed version, and sign it themselves so they can scan it and return the completed contract to me. It’s a tedious process that wastes paper on both ends.

I have also worked with clients that employ a digital signature tool. I received an email with a link to "sign" the document. I signed the contract digitally, and we were done and ready to do business. No muss, no fuss, and no wasted paper.

Banks are one of the worst offenders. When I bought my car, and when I bought my house there were reams of paper used. They even wanted to use some archaic thing called a fax machine (look it up on Wikipedia). I initialed and signed enough paper to take down a small forest just to complete the transactions.

Paperless office? We’re making slow progress toward that goal, but we’re a long way from achieving the Utopian pipe dream.

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