Are Paper Documents Killing Small Business Collaboration?

By Pedro Hernandez | Posted March 10, 2016

Today's smartphones, tablets, 2-in-1s and ever-slimmer notebook PCs make it easier than ever for businesses to adopt digital workflows. Yet, businesses still cling to paper.

"The rallying cry for going paperless has existed for a long time," Sam Thorpe, director of product at Nitro, a provider of Portable Document Format (PDF) software, told Small Business Computing. The reality is that many workers' desks still remain blanketed with printed documents, emails, and agreements.

Thorpe's company, in partnership with the PDF Association, recently surveyed 1,200 professionals. Thirty-one percent of respondents said they use a printer, copier, or scanner 10 or more times a day—and 25 percent said they use one such device at least once a day. A scant one percent said they never had to print, copy, or scan during the average workday.

Even incorporating electronic documents into an organization's workflow is no guarantee that employees will lay off the printer toner. When dealing with PDF files, printing was second only to reading as one of the top actions workers take, Nitro found.

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Small Business Collaboration: Digital Versus Paper

Businesses are missing out on the benefits of digital processes and small business collaboration platforms, Thorpe said. Physical, paper-based processes are comparatively slow and can incur high costs in terms of supplies and lost productivity. Essentially, they are "subject to the friction of the physical world."

Simply retrieving information from paper documents can slam the brakes on an otherwise productive day. Paper suffers from an "inherent lack of visibility, traceability, searchability, or discoverability," Thorpe said.

Part of the reason business workers default to paper is a lack of training. "Digital processes are something that we're not taught," Thorpe said. Companies expect employees to pick it up as they go along, but without proper guidance and tools, they fall short of achieving the benefits that paperless workflows provide.

Thorpe offers three small business tips to help you streamline your document collaboration processes, boost productivity, and turn paper into a rare sight at your office.

Digitize Small Business Collaboration

This is a vital first step. Thorpe suggests looking into "cloud systems that allow you to collaborate and share files securely." The ability to sync and share documents from practically anywhere can open up new markets and opportunities for small businesses he said.

"Business is increasingly conducted globally," he said. Collaborating on the cloud can make whole oceans and time zones that separate far-flung colleagues and partners disappear.

Keeping documents on the cloud or in local file storage systems can also solve a host of information accessibility and security concerns. "As long as it remains digitized, it's searchable and discoverable," Thorpe said. Audit trails can solve a range of compliance issues for businesses that operate in regulated industries.

Sign on to E-Signatures

Accepting e-signatures radically increases the speed of business. According to Thorpe, they can lead to "an 80 percent reduction in turnaround time" in deals, product deliveries, or service contracts.

Frankly, customers today are more than willing to part with their John Hancock digitally. "There's a tremendous amount of pull [from consumers]," said Thorpe, noting that removing friction—in this case paper—from the sales process can help increase customer loyalty.

Finally, e-signatures can help combat fraud. "It's more secure," he added. "Someone can forge my physical signature, but it's more difficult to forge my IP [address] or cell phone."

Deploy PDF Editors…Not Just Readers

It seems that practically all major business software suites can handle PDFs. Few, however, let people do much more than view or print them.

Thorpe noted that people save "73 million new PDF files to Google Drive every day," and that 60 percent of non-image attachments processed by the Microsoft Exchange email platform are PDFs. Yet only five to 10 percent of employees at most businesses have a PDF editor. The majority of PDF documents wind up in a collaborative dead-end or they get sent to a printer, "where data goes to die."

The ability to convert PDFs back to editable formats opens up opportunities to annotate, optimize, or remove content. Repeat the process a few times, and a proposal or marketing campaign sails through the approval process without leaving stacks of paper in its wake.

The Financial Benefit of a Digital Workflow

These are all sensible suggestions, but what might motivate a small business owner to initiate this kind of change in the workplace?

"All humans operate on incentive," said Thorpe. He makes the financial case for adopting collaborative, digital document processes, starting with payroll. "Employees lose 11.2 hours a week on document-related challenges," Thorpe said.

Pedro Hernandez is a contributor to the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals. Previously, he served as a managing editor for the Internet.com network of IT-related websites and as the Green IT curator for GigaOM Pro. Follow him on Twitter @ecoINSITE

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