The paperless office is still a dream.

While there are plenty of possible reasons, the most likely involve a combination of technology and management — and, some claim, the failure of even organizations with enterprise content management (ECM) in place to adopt an e-signature strategy.

The problem is not a lack of available e-signature solutions, but the failure of C-Suite executives, including Chief Information Officers, to deploy or develop IT strategies that include digital signatures because of security and legal concerns.

Fear of the New

Many enterprises still harbor fears that digitally signed documents are open to abuse by third-parties or lack legal standing in the case of later disputes between the signers of a document. And while there may have been some justification for this even five years ago, times have changed, according to new research from Adobe.

Adobe conducted an online survey of 1,658 managers and professionals, including many in the legal profession, between Sept. 22 and Oct. 7 for its e-signature business, EchoSign. The findings confirm much of the previously published AIIM Industry Watch research on ECM, which blames the slow evolution of the paperless office on resistant and disorganized leadership.

Mark Grilli, vice president of product marketing for Adobe EchoSign, told CMSWire that the e-signature market is growing slower than it should. "Despite the fact that e-signatures have been legal and enforceable in the United States since the passage of the E-Sign Act of 2000, there is still a lack of understanding among many potential users. We still have a lot of education to do,” he said.

Fortunately, he said, most companies are no longer asking about the technology itself. "They're trying to figure out how can they deploy e-signatures within their business, often as part of a companywide digital transformation," he said.

The adoption of both the federal E-Sign Act — officially the Electronic Signatures in Global and the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA) in most US states establish that electronic records and signatures carry the same weight and legal effect as traditional paper documents and handwritten signatures.

In fact, in 2010, on the 10th anniversary of the E-Sign Act, lawmakers designated June 30 as National E-Sign Day to reaffirm their commitment to "facilitating interstate and foreign commerce in an increasingly digital world."

So What's the Problem?

While many people have embraced digital behaviors at work and at home, the Adobe research found that digitally authenticating business documents is one of the remaining holdouts preventing the creation of a truly digital or paperless workplace.

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This is true even though vast majority of those surveyed (86 percent) see themselves and their work environments (83 percent) as digital. However, 45 percent said they would like to be even more digital than they are now.

Electronic signatures lag way behind other forms of digital authentication. Almost everyone, for instance, (92 percent) have made a credit card purchase online.

But 82 percent of those surveyed understand e-signatures are legally binding — and a majority  (64 percent) said they would sign everything electronically if it meant they didn’t have to remember their passwords. When asked to rank what is most secure, managers and professionals place electronic signatures and online payment systems second only to biometrics.

Learning Opportunities

These two sets of findings appear to be contradictory. If a majority of managers believe e-signatures are as secure as online credit card transactions, why are people more willing to shop online than close a business deal with electronic signature?

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According to the research, the single biggest obstacle is the fear that others won’t accept them. Managers and professionals have shown they understand the benefits and are ready to make the leap to electronic signatures, but are held back by corporate bureaucracy.

Even so 77 percent of those surveyed want to e-sign contracts and keep business moving, citing speed (46 percent), simplification (29 percent) and efficiencies  (29 percent) as drivers.

Changing Work

Grilli said the workforce is changing and so are our documents.

"People are no longer stuck to a cubical from 9 to 5 and workers are more mobile now than ever. As we become more mobile and flexible, we need our work — documents, contracts, invoices, bills of sale, to be more mobile too with e-sign options for important documents wherever we are and from whatever device we choose,” he said. "Customers want seamless and secure integration, preventing users from having to switch between interfaces, providing a smooth experience.”

E-signatures represent the last step in process of moving from paper to digital in enterprises where the other content management pieces are in place. "We need to end the radical inefficiency of receiving something digitally only to print it out, sign it, scan it and email it back. It is like splitting time between 2015 and 1995 and it is very inefficient,” he added.

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Adobe has managed to get a number of enterprises to adopt e-signatures, including KLM Airlines, St. Charles Health System and Rackspace, among others. However, the bigger challenge than getting new customers on board is changing the culture around electronic signatures. 

Title image from The New York Public Library, Art and Picture Collection.