Digital Documentation vs. Paper Documentation – A Study in Organizational Document Management
In today’s whirlwind business environment having a firm grasp on accurate reporting plays a pivotal role in successful operations and growth. If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed by the frustrations of using traditional paper forms to try and keep up with the pace of business today, you’re not alone.
In fact, according to the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance, one office worker uses an average of 10,000 sheets of paper each year. If you’re a manager with ten workers under your supervision, you might have as many as 100,000 documents to review in a single year alone. That’s 274 documents per day, seven days per week, 24 hours per day. That’s much paperwork.
Imagine you have to review and create reports to showcase trends and other information gleaned from the review process. Is it any wonder that managers tend to be more stressed? It’s not like the good old days.
Image: By Charles Clyde Ebbets – Washington Post, " One of the most iconic photos of American workers is not what it seems " Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=117685551
Paperwork and documentation have evolved over the years. The safer our facilities get, the more paperwork we need. Compared to the old days, we’re swimming in paperwork. But is there a solution on the horizon, or is it here already?
The shift from paper to digital documentation is much more than just a smart move; it’s an absolute game changer. Businesses and organizations can streamline processes, improve accuracy, and have instant access to critical data by transitioning to digital. However, like any significant change, the transition comes with its challenges.
In this article, we’re going to do a deep dive into paperwork and review how paperwork has evolved over the years. Furthermore, we’ll compare traditional paperwork methodology with today’s cutting-edge technology to reveal a glimpse into the future of paperwork at work. Moreover, we’ll look at some clever ways you can get a head start right now. Let’s dive in.
Understanding Paper Documentation
The paper has been around for a long time. The word ‘paper’ actually derives from papyrus, a plant-based early form of paper made and used by the Egyptians. However, in the Eastern Han period in China, the first known documented case of paper mass production occurred.
Paper made its way out of China in the 8th century, spreading to the Islamic world, and by the 11th century had made its way to Europe. Further refinement was documented later in the 13th century with water wheel-driven paper mills in Spain.
Of course, the paper we use today is of the most modern design, using wood-based processes. However, when we consider the age of the invention, which is paper, we may want to consider letting it go the way of the dinosaur.
Let’s take a look at modern paper and reveal some of the pros and cons of its continued use.
Pros and Cons of Paper Documentation
We’ve done the math and the research. Here’s a breakdown of the pros and cons of using paper documentation methods today in an organization.
|Familiarity with older personnel
|Requires physical storage
|No technological dependence
|Some prefer physicality
|Risk of damage or loss
|Power source independent
|Costs can add up over time
|Total lack of security
It wouldn’t be fair to look at the pros and cons of paper use merely. Next, we will examine the other arguments for and against digital documentation as a stable and beneficial replacement for paper-based systems.
Understanding Digital Documentation
To understand digital documentation, we must define how people and businesses create, complete, and manage digital documentation, as all processes differ from traditional paper-based documentation practices.
Digital documentation uses a digital form or ‘document’ on a powered device such as a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or desktop computer. These digital forms and templates are the same as those found in the more conventional paper-based documentation processes, with one significant difference – the forms reside within the framework of a computer’s operating system as opposed to existing as physical papers in the real world. You might think of digital documentation as the virtual equivalent of paperwork.
The Emergence and Evolution of Digital Documentation
In its modern form, digital documentation primarily arose in the late 20th century. Its growth was in alignment with the use of personal computers and the rise of the internet. However, the concept goes back much further, to the 1960s and the invention of hypertext by Ted Nelson in 1963. Since those early days, computers have drastically changed, and so has the way we view, use, and build computers and computing hardware like smartphones.
The 80s and 90s saw the most significant leaps forward in digital documentation, though, with the advent of the word processor – a clever bit of software that would soon sign the death warrant of the now infamous typewriter. Further to the word processor, the growth of the world wide web in the 90s really hammered the nail in the proverbial coffin of traditional paperwork.
Government in the United States helped to further the use of digital documentation in June of 2000 by signing the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act. It’s hard to believe that organizations are still swimming in paperwork two decades later, while others are operating lean and mean in paperless environments. However, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. Let’s dive deeper into the advantages and disadvantages of modern digital documentation systems and practices.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Digital Documentation
If you compare the advantages to the disadvantages, you’ll see that the advantages clearly outweigh the disadvantages.
|Advantages of Digital Documentation
|Disadvantages of Digital Documentation
|Efficiency is exponentially increased compared to paper
|Technological dependence on machines
|Cost-effective compared to printing paper documents
|A tough learning curve for some
|No physical footprint (no printers, no filing cabinets)
|Data loss risk due to corrupt files, faulty hardware, or other reasons.
|Security is much easier to control with digital documentation
|Security threats due to hacking risk
|Accessibility is massively improved in cloud-based system architectures
|Some antiquated government programs may require paper documents.
|Search and report efficiency considerably improves with digital platforms generating results in seconds.
|Environmentally friendly – digital documentation can use solar or other environmentally sustainable power sources.
The Shift from Paper to Digital
Time is money. You know it’s the way the world works. We all sell our time for money in one way or another. However, the digital shift from paper to digital can save you a lot of both time and money. Let’s look at a typical scenario to explain how powerful shifting from paper to digital documentation is.
By The Numbers Example
Acme Company has 4 locations and service personnel who travel out to various locations. Let’s say they have 280 staff, with 70 at each location. Each location pays a lease of $1200, and each has a ‘printer room’ with a rental commercial printer/scanner/fax machine which rents for $65 per month per machine. Each printer room has a set of shelving that stores paper recycling bins, spare printer cartridges, and spare printing paper. Further in each room is a series of 3 filing cabinets that store current and previous years’ paperwork. The percentage of floor space each printer room takes up is 20% of the office space. Furthermore, paper costs $80 per box, and ink is $160 per location per month. Each location goes through 2 boxes of paper per month and one set of ink cartridges (4 in total, black, yellow, blue, and red)
If we consider the above scenario, the cost of paperwork is approximated below:
- Floorspace = $960
- Printer Rental = $260
- Paper = $640
- Ink = $640
- Total before adding labor = $2,500
- Assuming that each staff member takes only 5 hours per month to do paperwork, that’s 1400 labor hours just for personnel to complete paperwork. Add the incidentals like taking time to wait for printing, physically delivering paperwork, and other incidentals, and you can see how the cost quickly escalates. For argument’s sake, let’s say that the average hourly pay for the 5 hours of monthly paperwork is $50/hour.
- Approximate Labor Cost = $70,000
Let’s say that Acme decided to turn the printer room into a training room and convert it to paperless. If 280 staff switch to a digital documentation solution like 1st Reporting, let’s say at the cost of $10/user, then the company pays $2,800 per month. Now, if we subtract the extra hours no longer required for paperwork, let’s say the efficiency of digital documentation cuts the paperwork’s overall completion time by 20%. That brings our labor cost down to $56,000.
Total savings for Acme = $13,700/month
That’s a significant amount of savings, and it doesn’t consider what the now vacant printer room floor space might be used for. If your business suddenly had an extra room, could you use it to move your business forward even more?
Comparative Analysis: Paper vs. Digital Documentation
We’ve looked at a typical cost scenario for a typical company, and the numbers speak for themselves. However, what other ways can paper and digital documentation showcase their true differences and potential? Let’s take a look at some of the more essential factors.
Probably the most obvious difference when you start to use a mobile digital documentation solution like 1st Reporting is the obvious difference in document accessibility. With a digital platform like 1st, you can assign user roles, groups, notification lists, and even assignment lists. In other words, you control who can access which data. It’s easier to have key control over specific files in physical form and much more straightforward.
Storing physical documents in filing cabinets means you need a)lockable cabinets and b)key control. Anyone with access to a filing cabinet can read sensitive documents. In a digital documentation platform like 1st, security is paramount with digital security and access control. No keys are required.
I already discussed a simple scenario where a typical company saved a fortune each month. I really understated the cost of labor too. Just think of how long it might take to find a report that’s been misfiled. What time does it take for personnel to retrieve paperwork each month? I bet it’s a lot higher than you would like to admit.
We’re all seeing it – more forest fires, droughts, and polar ice melting each year. Whether you believe in climate change or think it’s a natural cycle makes little difference to the reality – that the world is changing, and we can do something about it. Generating energy by sustainable means is growing, and with it is the ability to power digital documentation without the need for cutting down trees for paper or burning fossil fuels.
Moving on from a climate debate, let’s look at landfills that we all know to wreak havoc on local ecosystems. According to the sources, paper accounts for 26% of total waste at landfills. Its production is also hard on water supplies and contributes to water and air pollution.
The Future of Documentation
The future of documentation is, without a doubt, digital. There is no way that an organization would want to switch back to paper, that is, natural disasters notwithstanding. I like data, so let’s look at what the numbers say, shall we?
In 1990, there were 12 million people worldwide subscribed to mobile telephones. Compare that to thirty years later; in 2020, there were 5.924 billion smartphone users. The future is clear; the future is digital.
Emerging Trends and Technologies in Digital Documentation
Predictive Text Generation
You might think it’s a way in the future, but the truth is that we already have predictive text generation. Most text programs that work with documents have some form of text generation based on predictive algorithms. The better technology gets, and the better natural language processing gets, the better that predictive text is going to be.
What’s the big deal with predictive text generation relating to digital documentation for companies and organizations? Well, consider that example I spoke of earlier and the cost of completing documents. If predictive text generation can speed up the process, then labor costs decrease. Furthermore, organizations can redirect saved time to more profitable or useful pursuits.
Another technology that’s here to stay and growing is the use of cloud computing. The move towards cloud-based document management systems is a trend that continues to grow. These platforms allow for easy collaboration, offer robust security measures, and make documents accessible from virtually anywhere.
Digital document automation is where things really take a turn toward the future. Document automation can mean dynamically creating documents based on automated processes. For example, you have field crews who must perform a vehicle inspection before their shift. Automation could automatically create a work order ticket for repair if a safety concern is noted.
Integrations With Other Software
When you start using software for other purposes, you don’t want to have a hundred different software platforms to suit each task. If you’re using a platform like 1st Reporting, you can use it for any number of custom documentation tasks and within different areas of your organization. Furthermore, better platforms like 1st Reporting will integrate into your favorite other systems like Microsoft Teams®.
Today you learned that we can save a lot of time and labor by migrating to digital documentation platforms like 1st Reporting. Although a significant change, we showed how digital systems can dramatically increase efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and security in businesses. The article took us through a brief history of both types of documentation, pointing out that despite the familiarity of paper systems, they pose challenges like storage requirements and adverse environmental impacts.
We highlighted how transformative digital solutions could be, using a scenario where a typical company could cut down its costs significantly by going digital.
Finally, we discussed future digital documentation trends, such as predictive text generation and cloud computing. Clearly, digital seems to be the way forward for businesses, municipalities, organizations, and everyone in between.