This article was updated on July 6, 2018.
Electronic documentation is quickly becoming the de facto standard for many companies. But what about smaller businesses? Is it worth converting all records to digital and putting paper in the past tense, or are there still compelling reasons to keep physical copies?
The Electronic Advantage
There are several benefits to choosing digital over paper documents for small and midsized businesses. First is freedom of space: By converting your existing paper records to electronic copies, you can eliminate the need for entire rooms — or facilities — dedicated to storing and preserving these documents. Next is the fact that most documents are now digital by default: Few vendors or customers still prefer paper to more secure, traceable electronic records. It's also possible to edit electronic documents and keep multiple versions on-hand, along with creating digital replicas in case of a disaster. Doing the same with paper records is both time-consuming, costly and in many cases, impractical. The last big benefit? Search. Properly tagged and filed electronic documents are easily searchable; it can sometimes take hours or days to locate a single paper record.
In some cases, paper persists simply because smaller companies don't know what else to do. Companies may already have the infrastructure and equipment necessary for current paper processes, and they may be unwilling or unable to invest in new technology. In the health care industry, meanwhile, there's pushback against the use of electronic health records (EHR). It is difficult to keep systems compliant with government regulations, and many physicians and front-line staff aren't given the training needed to make best use of EHRs. And as noted by the Smithsonian Institute, there's value in paper because physical signatures are still considered proof of agreement or testimony. In addition, paper documents are always accessible, because they don't require a special reader or format; if electronic files aren't properly updated to reflect current technology standards, they may become outdated and obsolete.
Stay or Go?
So what's your best bet as a small business: Convert all documents or wait for the market to sort itself out? As noted by Entrepreneur, the key to effective digital transformation for SMBs is embracing "fundamental change in your business that adds value to the customer experience." As a result, the best choice for small business often comes down to not fighting the flow.
Bottom line? Electronic documentation is most likely the end game, but slow and steady may win the paper chase. Please keep in mind that there may be legal implications of going paperless, so it's best to check with your lawyer about any legal requirements for going paperless or getting an electronic signature.