Companies have already invested heavily in a raft of technologies to transform their business processes across all functions, including: workflow, document management, enterprise content management (ECM), eDiscovery and business process management (BPM) solutions.

Yet, the full return-on-investment on these is still not being realised. While there may be a variety of factors to explain this, one surely has to be that once a signature is required staff have to default to paper: creating a glaring gap in the automated business processes.

We are not just discussing legal documents or major financial transactions, but everyday paperwork such as holiday forms, expense claims, timesheets, contracts, drawings, quality control documents and purchases. All of these processes are slowed down due to the reliance on paper and handwritten, or ‘wet ink’, signatures.

The AIIM research explored further and found that 41% of organisations need signatures on more than half of their documents, and on average, 3.1 days is added to most processes just to collect these physical signatures (22% add more than one week). Highlighting this manual link in the chain, 60% of respondents admit that they frequently print and sign documents and then scan them back in to their DM/ECM system.

Why are businesses operating in this way? Because they need official sign-offs that meet internal and external compliance standards. Also, using paper is the way that it has always been done, but doesn’t it seem strange to invest all that money in automated systems just to have to revert back to printing hard copies – the ‘Middle Ages’ of business technology – in order to get a document signed?

For example, it was recently revealed that the DVLA has “huge numbers of people running a clerical paper processing factory….Every day two articulated trucks filled with letters and paperwork still pull into the DVLA headquarters in Swansea.” Furthermore, the Chancellor of the Exchequer revealed that the Crown Prosecution Service prints one million sheets of paper every day.

This seems a major backward step, given the time, inefficiency and costs associated with printing out documents. It makes much more sense to keep everything digital and in today’s connected society there’s really no excuse any more.

The Growth Of Digital Signatures

The solution lies in digital signatures, which analysts, including Forrester Research, have predicted to be a growth market. The Forrester Wave: e-Signatures Q2 2013 report stated that: “Electronic signatures are gaining momentum due to rapidly evolving consumer technology and the need to reduce transaction costs and the time to close business.

Enterprise architects should include e-signatures as part of an overall ECM and BPM strategy… a foundational technology along with records management, eDiscovery, and other content services.”

Using standards-based technology, digital signatures (as opposed to simple electronic signatures, eg bit-map images) are legally enforceable and fully secure. The signer’s identity and the document’s integrity are maintained regardless of where the document is sent or stored, providing compliance with a raft of international standards and regulations.

For businesses of all kinds, digital signatures are the ‘last mile’ in making the transition to fully paperless processes. That is changing, with some of the more forward-thinking organisations in all kinds of sectors sectors taking advantage of digital signatures, including: consumer goods, pharmaceutical, banking, insurance, utilities, law firms, engineering, life sciences, IT, security, military, healthcare, universities and the public sector in general.

Other benefits include: seamless integration with document/workflow management systems so users don’t have to change the way they currently work; more streamlined processes; signed documents are easier to find in the future; it’s eco-friendly (80.6 million tons of office paper is thrown away each year in the UK which equals approximately 24% of the UK’s total waste); not having to physically store records/documents, rather using on premise or cloud storage, saves space; and reduced costs (see ROI section below).

Due to the portable nature of digital signatures, another plus is reduced time wasted on collecting signatures from remote and external workers: they can sign anywhere, anytime. The AIIM research found over half of businesses need to bring travelling, remote or home-based employees into the signing loop, and 40% need signatures from people outside the organisation.

Return On Investment

Implementing digital signatures need not be another long term IT investment with ambiguous cost-effectiveness and value to the business. On the contrary, it pays for itself in months. The AIIM research found the payback period to be consistently one of the shortest it had seen for any IT investment: 81% of existing digital signature users have seen a payback within one 12-month budget cycle, and one quarter saw ROI in three months or less. The two biggest benefits are saving of staff time and speeding up the approval process. Saving of paper-handling costs comes next, particularly courier charges.

Signatures Help To Meet Paperless Challenges

The drive to go paperless is taking on increasing importance across all kinds of private and public sector organisations, not just the ‘green’ aspect, but the sheer cost savings that can be achieved. A recent think tank Policy Exchange report, entitled Smaller, Better, Faster, Stronger, highlights the huge inefficiencies involved in needing people to sign paperwork across health, legal and transport sectors. Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Health, has already set out an aspiration to make the NHS a paperless organisation by 2018.

Implementing Digital Signatures

When selecting a digital signature vendor ensure that it integrates seamlessly with all major document management solutions such as Microsoft Word, Excel, Adobe PDF, InfoPath, AutoCAD and others. For organisations using SharePoint, look for an integrated solution such as CoSign from ARX. By adding digital signatures to SharePoint means approval-based workflows are kept electronic from start to finish, streamlining processes while saving time and money. In addition, ensure the solution can be integrated with document management/enterprise content management systems such as OpenText, Oracle, Alfresco and

In Summary

There’s a huge pressure on both the private and public sector to replace paper workflows with digital, which improves efficiencies, reduces transaction costs and saves time – closing “the last gap” in transforming business processes. So digital signatures seem a worthy addition to business IT spend priorities. And don’t forget they are kind to trees too.