The anachronism of initialing documents in the digital age
The definition of anachronism is a person or thing that is placed in a time period or circumstances where it does not fit. Transfer of actions or rules from paper-based to digital operations, without considering the potential of digital, is an anachronism.
The analytics provider IDC has conducted a survey the challenges and opportunities of digital infrastructure and summarized the key effects of the digital transformation of banks in 2020.. As expected, the banks reported a rise in profits, faster market penetration, better customer satisfaction, improved operational efficiency and lower costs. Although the study targeted the banking sector, similar benefits of digital transformation are also reported by companies in other industries. What catches the eye is not so much the reported effects of digital transformation but a rather low number of organizations that can actually report a digital success story with a happy ending. The answer to the question why this is the case lies mainly in the way organizations adopt and implement changes or in the flexibilty and agility of their corporate culture.
Source: IDC, The Challenges and Opportunities of a Digital Banking Infrastructure, July 2021
The role of adding initials to electronically verified and digitally signed documents
Initialing of documents is a perfect example of business customs that are still in use although their role is diminishing. Initials placed on various pages of a document used to indicate that the reader had verified the content and approved the document. They were also intended as a way to prevent the content of the document from being altered before the final signing. Whatever the reason, modern tools for document management and business process management have made initialing redundant. Content modifications are clearly recorded in document versions, reviewer comments and history logs, the document approval history provides a complete audit trail, and the risk of unauthorized content modifications has been practically eliminated through a series of effective mechanisms designed to preserve the document's integrity and authenticity.
So why is it still considered necessary to use a visual mark to indicate that the document has been reviewed and is fit to be signed? A similar question that arises is: what is the point of inserting a copied image of a signature below the signor's name in a digitally signed document, although it carries no evidentiary value and the validity of the e-signature can easily be determined using simple tools? Well, obviously we have not fully adopted digital signatures yet. Buried somewhere deep within us lurks a fear that something might go wrong, and the visual power of initials (and signatures) seems to help relieve this discomfort. This is, of course, their only value.
Insistence on maintaining established patterns weakens business agility
The fear of change is not a good companion in the VUCA world, where response to change is prioritized over strict adherence to the plan. Today, success belongs to companies that are willing and able to learn from their past actions and quickly transfer lessons learned to practice. With every repetition, these organizations are getting better and better and the gap between them and the companies that are fearful of change and therefore unable to learn anything new just keeps growing.
Bill George from Harvard Business School stresses that implementation of change requires a clear vision, in-depth understanding of the organization's responsibilities and capabilities, courage, and adaptability of organizational culture. To succeed, an organization needs to have all of the above. Otherwise, the change will most probably not achieve its desired effect. If you are still not convinced, let us take a look at the organizations that have digitized their processes and procedures as they had always been, and now they are complaining that digitization has only brought additional costs and problems. Although they demonstrated courage and adaptability, their vision was obviously lacking or they simply did not have enough courage to make the real change, which is to remove the anachronisms hidden in their processes and practices and optimize their business operations to be better suited to the needs and expectations of customers in the Digital Age.
Poor customer experience resulting from untapped digital potential
It is clear that effective and straightforward digital customer operations are becoming a key competitive advantage. In order to ensure excellent customer experience, we need to unlock the full potential of the digital and upgrade the optimization and digitalization of business processes with IT system connectivity, comprehensive data management and exchange, user-friendly e-signatures, and secure e-storage of documents, to only name a few main components of digital operations.
Only 17% of companies in Slovenia have a business strategy for the digital transformation of company's operations.
Source: SURS, 2021
While striving to tap into our potential, we should not forget about compliance. Even though the apparent (!) agility of digital operations and compliance might seem to be on opposing sides, we should bear in mind that customer trust, in particular during deployment of new digital business models, is based on compliance.
Empty promises of digital transformation or just a fear of change?
The key to unlocking the transformative potential of digitalization lies in the optimization of business practices and offerings to be aligned with the new digital reality. The road to that goal is paved with challenges but we should not let fear get the better of us, or else we are risking a business collapse.
Finally, and most importantly: actions that were reasonable or only possible in the world of paper documents can easily be done differently in the digital environment, so they are more efficient and more user-friendly. This applies to internal digitalization, where the focus is on resolving the information chaos, improving operational efficiency and ensuring digital compliance, as well as to external digitalization, which is focused on continuous improvement of customer experience and adapting business processes to the challenges of digital transformation. And no initials, please!
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