When COVID19 hit, digital-first companies adapted much better than companies reliant on analogue tools such as paper. There is a clear message in that. At the same time, there is a difference between “digital-first” and “digital-only”.
Now that many companies are “digital by default”, it may be a good time to review why hard copy documents still have value.
Paper is permanent
Paper may not last forever but it certainly outlasts digital formats by a long way. For example, a historian recently discovered hidden text in a prayer book once belonging to Anne Boleyn. It’s hard to see future historians discovering hidden files on digital storage media 600 years from now.
Firstly, they would need to find a way to read the storage media itself. For an idea of just how challenging that might be, think about trying to read a floppy disk now. Even CD/DVD drives are becoming increasingly rare. They’re not in danger of disappearing yet but they’re certainly not as common as they used to be.
Secondly, they’d need to be able to read the format of the file itself. Like storage technology, file types are also constantly developing. The changes are often subtle (think .doc to .docx). They may not make a difference at first. Over time, however, popular formats may end up being “legacy” formats. If they do, they face losing support from the industry and ultimately disappearing.
Paper is invulnerable to cyberattacks
Paper is certainly not indestructible. It can, of course, be destroyed by fire and water. It can also be physically torn. Likewise, hard copies are certainly not immune to being stolen. In fact, the theft of paper has played a huge role in both real-world history and fiction.
These same threats, however, are also an issue for digital storage media. This means that they also apply to the cloud. Remember, ultimately, the cloud is just regular IT hardware accessed through the internet. Cloud vendors may (often do) implement the very highest levels of physical security. This makes them very hard to attack. There is, however, a significant difference between very hard and impossible.
Hard copy data is, however, very definitely invulnerable to cyberattacks. There are all kinds of reasons why this matters, especially in a world that is becoming increasingly digitized. Theft and destruction are not the only threats facing data-holders today. Manipulation is also an issue.
This isn’t a new issue and paper isn’t immune to it. Again, the manipulation of paper has played a huge role in both real-world history and fiction. It is, however, much harder to manipulate well-stored hard copy documents than digital ones. Quite bluntly, it takes hands-on forgery skills rather than digital-editing skills.
Hard copies can have greater legitimacy
Back in the year 2000, Bill Clinton used a smart card encrypted with his digital signature to sign into law the Electronic Records and Signatures in Commerce Act. This gave electronic contracts the same legal standing as paper ones. He also used a pen and signed a hard copy of the act. This arguably summed up the conundrum of electronic contracts. This is still very much in the process of being resolved.
Electronic signatures and contracts have indisputably come a long way since the year 2000. They may become the way of the future. That future may be closer than people realize. Right now, however, electronic signatures may be fine for lower value contracts. When meaningful sums of money are concerned, however, regular ink signatures are still likely to be the way to go.
Of course, you can then scan the paper documentation. In fact, this is highly recommended. It is, however, also very advisable to keep the original physical copy. This isn’t just “belt and braces”, although that’s certainly a factor. It effectively comes down to one of the basic principles of evidence in both law and science.
Essentially, wherever possible, you want to refer to the raw data, or, in this case, the original signature. If there’s ever a dispute, this is what needs to be assessed. Digital copies are a lot better than nothing but they are not originals. This is exactly why it remains a legal requirement to keep hard copies of certain documents (if they were created on paper).
Scanning documents is worth doing professionally
A scan is only as good as the scanning operation that produced it. This means that it is partly dependent on the quality of scanning technology. It is also partly dependent on the humans operating the scanning technology. Realistically, the efficiency of the latter will depend partly on their training and partly on the time available to them. Both of these will be largely determined by cost.
If you have a large number of documents to be scanned, it is time-consuming (and hence expensive) to check the quality of each scan individually. Instead, you’re far more likely to do spot checks. These are fine as far as they go. They’re a whole lot better than nothing. There is, however, always a risk that you’re going to miss issues with unchecked documents.
You may be prepared to accept this with less valuable documents. It is, however, very risky to rely on unchecked scans of important documents. At the very least, you should hold onto them until you’ve had a human check that the scan is legally acceptable.
If you’re eager to clear space in your workplace, then use an offsite storage facility to store your important paperwork. Ideally, choose one which is set up to store documents safely and has appropriate insurance to indemnify you in case of loss. These facilities tend to be much more affordable than prime work real-estate but are still accessible if you need them.
Hard copies can be destroyed without trace
Once you are finished with your hard copy documents, they can be destroyed without a trace. In fact, you can even get paperwork confirming its destruction. What’s more, it won’t add to the piles of electronic waste. Once the paper has been cross-cut shredded, it can be recycled. Even though the world is going digital, there is still a huge demand for paper. Recycling used paper helps to fulfil it sustainably.