Okay, let’s just get this out of the way right at the beginning:
What are we doing here? I’m writing, and you’re reading, a guide on paperwork!
This has to be some kind of a mistake or cruel joke, right? Or maybe this is one of those screens that come up when you press the “boss button” to make it look like you were doing something important instead of goofing off.
Nope. This is the real deal. But don’t worry, I’m in it with you. Yes, we’re going to explore paperwork and why it’s so painful -- but we’re also going to have some fun along the way exploring the digital future of paperwork.
Who knows, maybe I’ll even throw in a cute cat video somewhere along the way, so keep your eyes open for that! (Spoiler alert: I really did add one. It’s up to you to find it).
Well, let’s get to it.
Paperwork is a catch-all term for the forms, contracts, reports, and other paper-based documents used in business settings to move a particular process forward.
Paperwork is synonymous with inefficient and outdated customer experiences. This is primarily due to its pervasive nature throughout industries that are known for lengthy bureaucratic processes - such as government services, insurance, and banking - that rely heavily on paper documents and forms; often required in duplicate. It is, however, still an effective way of capturing information that needs to be reviewed or processed by multiple other parties.Fun fact: Do you know who invited paper? It was Cai Lun, in 105 AD. I don’t know when that’ll be useful to know, but when it is, you can thank me.
I’m not going to lie, this is by far the hardest section to write.
Clearly, paperwork has had tremendous value throughout every industry and was the dominant instrument for moving processes forward for hundreds of years. Over the past 20 years or so, however, with a focus on process improvement and the digitization of almost every industry, it’s increasingly difficult to sing the praises of paperwork.
Having said that, there are still numerous and historic ways that paperwork is beneficial.
Paper forms, for example, offer a quick, analog way of capturing consistent information from customers. In industries that rely on advisors and channel sales, like wealth management and insurance, paper forms offer an easy way for non-internal employees to engage with corporate services without the requirement of technology integration. Paper is also “always on”, meaning processes built around paperwork can continue operating in remote/rural environments and do not have the risk of outages or downtime.
Paperwork is currently also mandated and audited in several industries to ensure proper care, consideration, and consent is captured before the initiation of potentially problematic processes.
Using paperwork can also make collaboration easy in many situations. Contracts can be marked up, and forms can be brought home for review or sent via mail or fax for multiple signatures or approvals. It’s also easy to make a copy of a paper form for storage and record keeping; both for the business and for the customer.
Finally, although the numbers are declining, there is also a percentage of people who simply prefer paper. People like paper for reading, for reviewing and for writing on. The physical aspect provides (a perhaps false) confidence. This also includes citing paper as more tangible evidence of an event (e.g. a signed contract) than digital.
Ah, the cost of paperwork. There have been many studies over the past few decades examining the direct and indirect cost of paperwork on businesses.
On the direct side, there are obvious costs of managing the paper itself. Printing and faxing paper was estimated by a recent Aragon Research study at 1-2% of revenues for all businesses, while some Insurance companies spend far more – up to a billion dollars a year to print policies and contracts.
So, for the sake of this guide, let’s say you and I founded a mid-sized company that’s doing about $100 million in revenue every year. Congratulations, by the way, our business is thriving!
(Side note: Mid-sized businesses are classified at any business that’s doing more than $50 million but less than $1 billion. That’s kind of a big range, … and frankly, I think if you’re doing over 500 million per year, I’m going to have a hard time calling you a mid-sized business. But, I digress)
So, at $100 million per year, our company is likely already spending between $1 - $2 million in paper printing (and faxing) every year. That’s pretty significant already, but stay with me, it’s about to get a lot worse.
When you factor in even broader uses - creating, managing, distributing, and storing documents - the estimate increases to a whopping 15% of revenues!
Did you catch that? Our costs just jumped all the way to $15 million dollars… This is getting out of control.
Add to that the fact that some experts suggest that up to 45% of all printed documents are never used and eventually discarded, it’s easy to see why organizations are desperate to make the move to digital.
Okay, wait. We’re paying $15 million for our paper-based processes and you’re telling me that 45% might be ending up in the trash! Did you know about this? That’s like $7.5 million just gone. THIS. MUST. STOP.
Are you with me so far? Well, hang on to your hat because -- not to pile on -- we’re actually not done with the cost of paperwork.
The direct costs are only a small piece of the picture. Regardless of how you evaluate the indirect costs, the numbers continue to climb and, quite frankly, start to look truly absurd.
Paper processes almost always take longer to complete then digital. If your business is operating with paperwork systems, you will be incurring lost time for all levels of staff, from your admin team through to senior managers. And that’s just when they are working with the paperwork. Additional time will be lost searching for the correct documentation or recreating complete documents that ultimately go unfound.
Plus, there’s a little secret that almost no organization will admit to: When employees hate paperwork, they will do everything possible to avoid it. Talk to an insurance broker or financial advisor (off the record) and they’ll almost all tell you that at one time or another, they have forged a signature or filled missing fields because they simply didn’t want to have to start a paper process over again with their customer.
Another major issue with tt is that there is absolutely no validation of the information that’s recorded. Even if there was validation, the information needs to be re-keyed into electronic systems which once again introduces risk and the possibility of errors and/or back-office rejections.
Paper-based processes just don’t meet the modern consumer's expectation of service. If customers are looking for a new credit card and have the choice between a bank that has a digital application and one that requires them to visit the branch to fill out forms, which one do you think will be performing better?
For those customers that do go with the paper-based bank, how long will they be sitting with an advisor watching them fill the documents or while they walk through what’s required? Time is valuable and any employer would certainly prefer their advisor make better use of their time; servicing new clients or helping identify even more products that would be beneficial.
Paperwork has once again cost time and money.
I can’t take it anymore! I need something to take my mind off of all of this waste. Oh, I know. How about this:
In the end, the cost of paperwork has become too large, and the issues it’s causing organizations too significant, that nearly every industry is at some stage of digitizing how they collect information.
Making the move towards the digitization of your paper-based processes may seem daunting at the first, but according to research from aiim, most organizations see a full return on their digital transformation (DTM) efforts within the 1st year. From a recent study:
59% of organizations achieved a payback in less than 12 months from their paper-free projects, including 26% in 6 months or less. 84% achieved payback in less than 18 months.
Having said that, the move isn’t without risk and effort.
Like any transformation project, moving away from paper requires organization-wide buy-in, planning, and execution. It’s not going to happen overnight.
To help you get started, we've put together this initial list of digitization tools that offer a glimpse into your future. Depending on your industry, processes, and needs, finding a software solution - and investing in their training - might just be the jump-start you need.
There are many ways in which an organization can begin tackling their paperwork problems. For simplicity, we’ve categorized the tools and approaches into generic categories.
At the end of the day though, no one solution is going to magically remove your woes. Transitioning away from paperwork and towards more efficient processes requires self-evaluation, resources, implementation, and experimentation. In other words, the technology below can be a catalyst or act in support of your change, but you also need a process improvement plan.
eForms offer a direct path from your current paper-based state to a more digital approach. Typical eForms replicate the existing processes as a mirror-image of your paper forms but offer much faster and more accurate completion.
If you’re going digital, you’re going to have to find a way to replace wet signatures. Luckily, there are a number of eSignature providers ready to help.
If you’re looking to go all-in and manage digital processes across a large enterprise, this may be the way to go.
One category that brings together data collection, eSignature, workflow, and digital delivery/storage is Smart Forms.
A Smart Form platform is a complete solution that allows the rapid creation of complex processes including the decision on what documents should be filled, how they are executed and where they are delivered. This is a growing industry with only one dedicated pleaser today, FormHero (yes, us). But don’t just take our word for it, that wouldn’t be fair. We fully encourage you to explore all options, including Smart Forms.
There isn’t a silver bullet but approached thoughtfully, you can combine any number of these solutions and approaches to create a true and complete path forward towards the elimination (or at least reduction) of your paperwork burden.