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Opinion Piece: Taking a step closer to the paperless office with electronic signatures

Opinion Piece: Taking a step closer to the paperless office with electronic signatures

The paperless office is a goal many organisations have been striving towards for a decade or more, with the aim of enhancing efficiency, saving money and improving green credentials. However, one of the biggest challenges in the quest to reduce paper usage is the on-going requirement to use ‘wet ink’ signatures on everything from contracts to official documents. These documents must be printed and physically signed, and often also need to be scanned to a digital format, mailed or emailed, re-printed and then signed by one or more other parties. This process may need to be repeated several times, wasting significant time and resources. Electronic signature systems are the ideal solution to this challenge, enabling documents to be signed in a digital format by all concerned parties, and only printed once if necessary for record keeping.

In a world where the vast majority of workflows have become automated, paper-based processes represent a significant stumbling block. A 2012 report from AIIM entitled ‘Digital Signatures - Making the Business Case’ highlights exactly how problematic the legacy practice of wet ink signatures has become. A total of 58% of responding organisations from all over the globe indicated that authorisation signatures are considered essential. However, the need for employees to sign with pen and paper causes major process interruptions and delays.

More than half of documents require travelling, remote or home-based employees to sign, and 40% require signatures from outside the organisation. For 44% of organisations, half or more of their processes are interrupted by the need to collect physical signatures. Of these organisations, on average 42% of processes are interrupted by this requirement. An average of 3.1 days is added to processes as a result of the requirement for collecting physical signatures, while 22% of responding organisations indicated that it adds a week or more. The 3.1 days is a worldwide average in South Africa especially in several segments on which the level of bureaucracy is high comparing to other countries. For example, Government and Utilities as users are able to see simple processes that are delayed for weeks just because the need to sign.”

In addition, respondents indicated that a total of 48% of process-related documents were printed for the express purpose of collecting signatures. For more than a quarter (26%), this figure represents more than 80% of printed process documents. Further to the problem of delays, 60% of respondents indicated that they frequently print and sign documents only to scan them back into their content management systems. A third of respondents regularly print, sign and courier documents, while 32% create three or more copies of each process document.

Almost two-thirds (64%) also print, sign and manually file documents. This statistic is backed up by the 2014 Metrofile Information and Records Management Trends Index. This report indicates that 90% of local businesses are still storing original paper documents. Furthermore, only 9% of businesses surveyed confirmed that they are planning to move away from paper-based document storage.

From the figures above it is clear that signature dependent processes create significant costs for many South African organisations in many areas. The costs required to print multiple copies, pay for courier services and create sufficient document storage facilities all add up to sizeable sums. However, these costs only add to the wasted time and reduced productivity due to such inefficient, out-dated practices.

Automating signature-dependent processes addresses all of these issues, while also significantly decreasing the use of paper in the office and ensuring that a digital copy is always available. Furthermore, these solutions allow for the validation of signatures and verification of documents in the future so as to ensure trust, integrity, control and security throughout the organization’s business and IT environment.

Electronic signature solutions offer a viable and legally applicable solution which offers a number of benefits for South Africa organisations of all sizes across all industries. First, the ability to significantly reduce signature-related costs such as printing, posting, faxing, couriering and storing documents. Second, staff efficiency and productivity is measurably improved as transactions are completed faster with no delay in waiting for other people, whether employees, partners or customers, to sign the documents.

Third, electronic signatures improve security and assist with compliance of legislation such as the Electronic Communications and Transactions (ECT) Act  for legal, audit and electronic archiving purposes. This process is focused on verifying signer identity and document integrity, issues that are becoming increasingly important as regulations become more onerous in many countries and industries.

Fourth, electronic signatures enable organisations to decrease their environmental impact by reducing the amount of paper sent to landfill sites, decreasing greenhouse gases, and addressing other environmental concerns. Finally, electronic signatures also take South African organisations one step closer to reaching the desired state of a paperless office, by removing one of the biggest stumbling blocks in achieving this goal.

Based on the above, it’s not surprising that introducing electronic signatures into an organisation is typically a quick win scenario with a short time to ROI (Return on Investment). The AIIM survey mentioned above showed that 81% of existing electronic signature users achieved a payback period of a year or less, while a quarter saw ROI within three months or less. The biggest benefits indicated by survey respondents were saving of staff time and speeding up approval process, while savings in paper handling costs, especially courier charges, were also significant. 


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