How to make sure your team read and sign documents without using paper.

The notion of a paperless office has been around for years. Yet, even in the era of collaborative technologies (such as SharePoint), mobile devices and information overload, we still don’t seem able to stop signing paper.

The process of reading and signing our important documents (policies or specifications) is often still intrinsically tied to wet inked signatures. 

The reasons behind this may have little to do with a lack of technology; rather, it can often be due to our not knowing about the existence of some great shortcuts available to help document or policy owners replace the 'old' ways with the 'new'.

It can also be very much a case of familiarity and previous experience driving the agenda on process whereas a more modern solution can work wonders.  In this blog I will examine the "wet inked signature" process as an example and then continue by highlighting easy to grasp shortcuts to help refresh the read and sign paper cycle in your office as well as the wider paper based process we use daily.

Wet inked signatures needed!

Historically, when any agreement has reached a consensus, an original document containing the agreement required an inked signature from all parties. This is what is known as a "wet signature"; it provides confirmation of the personal involvement of the signatory.

As such, people still continue to believe that wet signatures are legally required despite technological advances. In most cases electronic signatures are in fact sufficient to convey with certainty that a company or individual agrees to be bound to a particular contract.

This is a certainty that SharePoint (as a collaborative platform) and DocRead (as a policy management add-on) can provide. SharePoint provides both authentication and authorization mechanisms (via Active Directory). As such, almost any action within SharePoint captures the time stamp and the account of the logged in individual. In this example, DocRead builds on this auditing capacity by extending SharePoint’s Ribbon architecture via a three tabbed Task Information Panel.

In the image above, the reading requirements tab is where confirmation and acceptance of any requirement is stored.

Paperless is within everyone's reach

Moving away from formal/legal documents, we continue to use paper printouts for every-day tasks. Note taking, filling out forms and collating information all are often handwritten on paper. People often overlook the options that their current technology stacks offer.

SharePoint provides powerful and varied ways to store and manage information, far more than a paper based system. SharePoint document libraries offer more utility than just being a repository. They allow you to set up customizable views, to filter and sort information as needs demand and to add metadata.

For more advanced users, workflows and information policies are of even greater utility.  For specialised and bespoke forms, InfoPath, a forms creation tool that works well with SharePoint, can be used as an appropriate alternative to physical documents. A forms author can create forms for specific purposes and store these within SharePoint.

Lastly, for impromptu note taking, OneNote is very useful. This application acts like a virtual jotting pad, workers can create quick lists, take web cuttings, images and so on. Used in conjunction with SharePoint, these notes can be compiled between different team members and made visible to more than one individual. With mobile versions now available, these notes can even be used on the go and be synced across devices.

Changing process is a concern

Company culture can be a barrier to going paper free. Colleagues may be tempted to think that they needn’t change working practices that have served them well so far. Convincing staff otherwise can potentially be a hard sell.

Using paper and print-outs, colleagues know that they have full control of both their information and working practices. They’ll also have the security of knowing that they are in possession of the physical "Hard copies".

Changing this culture can be tricky. It requires either that someone mandates change or for a champion of change to stand up and commit towards a more paper-free environment.

This is where upper management leading by example can be very powerful. Should they be seen to use tablets, laptops and so on more than they do a stack of paper, others in the company will take note and potentially follow their lead. This effect can be increased if the paper free model is seen to improve how efficiently these early adopters manage their workload.

A question of cost

All change is expensive right? Won’t we have to get in lots of new equipment, licensing and training consultants? Not necessarily.

The truth is that in instances where going paper free is perceived as too expensive, the individual components are usually already in place. The basic out-of-the-box version of SharePoint is packed with enough tools and functionality to achieve this goal.

Furthermore, almost all companies have enterprise license agreements that entitle them to fill suites of Microsoft Office and the applications required to replace paper and paper processes.

Is yours a digital future?

We’ve looked at several reasons why organizations may use paper and printouts in this post. All of these could be categorized as either perceptual or cultural. The value given to “wet inked signatures” in particular has become driver for keeping physical copies of documents.

Another driver for inertia may be a lack of understanding about the availability of helpful products, as well as a rigidity of internal practices.  It’s really easy to see why paper offices continue to thrive along with the desire to sign paper.

Our DocRead tool can help replicate the certainty of a signature by utilizing an existing SharePoint deployment and noting each user’s requirements. Not only can DocRead help to monitor colleague engagement with information, it can help get the right content to the right people and contribute greatly to organizational deadlines. Combined with SharePoint’s considerable and expansive tool kit, these tools can help make the journey into a digital office a positive and enjoyable experience over one viewed with negativity and fear.

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