How the End of Paper Makes Documents More Meaningful


I once went to a leadership conference with the top 50 executives of a company I worked for. The CEO gathered these 50 people in a room, and said, “We’re going to do an appreciation exercise. I’m giving each of you three greeting cards. I want you to write thank-you notes to three of the people in this room, about something they’ve done that you appreciate. And then we’re going to hand-deliver our notes.”

In this big group of 50 top execs, I wasn’t expecting to receive any cards. But I did get one— from the CEO himself. It contained a simple note: “I want to congratulate you on the wins you’ve had this quarter. They make a big difference to our company. Thank you.” I kept that handwritten note in my desk for more than a decade. It meant far more to me than a plastic plaque, or even a bonus. It showed that the CEO genuinely cared about my work.

Some things just need to be handwritten on paper.

Personal info on a medical form, however, is not one of those things.

We all draw distinctions between what needs to be documented on paper and what can be handled digitally. But many companies draw those distinctions in ways that no longer line up with our day-to-day reality—requiring ink on paper when an e-signature would be faster and more reliable.

But perspectives are changing. The age of paperwork is coming to an end.

The power of paper

Although I don’t do it as often as I’d like, I still love to send hand-written thank-you letters and birthday cards. The emotional meaning of a response can get lost when we only send a thank-you email—but a handwritten note carries major impact, both for the giver and the recipient. It says, “I spent time thinking about you today.”

In fact, psychological studies keep finding that the act of writing helps focus our thoughts, even when we’re only communicating with ourselves. One 2014 study found that students who take notes by hand gain a clearer conceptual grasp of the material they’re studying, and remember more of what they write than students who take notes on a laptop. And a 2012 study found that when you put your weight loss goals on paper, your likelihood of achieving them gets a boost.

Even doodling brings some important psychological benefits. One 2009 study found that people who doodle during meetings have 29 percent higher recall of the topics discussed than their non-doodling counterparts do. The simple act of putting pen to paper, even to draw meaningless shapes, seems to bring the rest of the mind into sharp focus.

But our feelings about paper run far deeper than this. Ink on paper symbolizes significance, workmanship, the culmination of a long process. That symbolism has been with us since the days of ancient Egyptian papyrus, and we still feel it whenever we’re drafting a document to be handed down for generations—a marriage certificate; a birth certificate; a will. As a society and a culture, we’ve agreed that these milestones of our lives deserve to be recorded on paper. And they probably should be.

When we move outside the above categories, though, it’s safe to say that nobody likes filling out paper forms. Filling out paper documents is time-consuming, prone to error, and wasteful on personal and societal levels. So why do so many companies remain attached to doing things this way?

The digital distinction

What is it we like about the written contract? We know where the information is, physically. If somebody else loses their copy, even decades later, we can go to that locked drawer and pull ours out. When we sign a marriage certificate, we want to hold the proof in our hands. And yet, when we fill our driving license paperwork or a job application, most of us would much rather just tick off some boxes on a screen and be done with it.

In other words, as individuals and as a society, we are in a transitional stage of thinking about our documents. We all draw a distinction between “info that’s okay to store digitally” and “info that needs to be recorded on paper,” and we all draw that line in different places.

This offers some insight into why companies resist the transition to digital documents. It’s not because they fail to see the value of digital technology. It’s because their senior management draws the “digital/paper” distinction far more conservatively than most of us do.

When I talk with senior leadership at law firms and other risk-averse organizations, I hear a lot of worry about the idea of shifting to 100-percent digital documents. I hear things like, “I’m not sure it’s really legal. I’m not sure I want to take that risk. My legal department is really uncomfortable with it. We’re probably not going to do anything right away.”

Most of these leaders recognize e-signatures as a technology that makes a lot of sense, once they understand that it’s legal and secure. But even then, they often fail to see its urgency. I often hear them say, “I’ve got 25 priorities in line in front of this. It might be a great thing to do— I’ve just got a lot of other stuff that’s prioritized much higher.”

Five years ago, that might have been a defensible line to take. But the worlds of business and technology have changed a lot in the last five years, and those who delay are already starting to fall behind. If you’re going to keep up, then your shift from paper to digital needs to happen now.

Adapting priorities

Remember the early days of word processors, back in the mid-eighties? We’d all grown up writing documents longhand, or on typewriters—and something about that tiny black-and-green screen made it hard to translate our thoughts into words. I still remember writing reports longhand, then typing them into the computer and printing them out—because that was how my brain was used to working. It took years before I could seamlessly translate my thoughts into lines of text on a screen. But now, like just about everyone else, I do it every day without thinking twice. Our psychology adapted to fit the new reality.

In the same way, digital documents already are the reality for most enterprises. In today’s Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) world, various drafts and versions of the same document are often scattered across a galaxy of different devices and servers. Some organizations are adapting to this reality. But many still aren’t.

We at Adobe recently surveyed over 300 legal professionals across the U.S., and learned that the vast majority have trouble doing their jobs because of their leaders’ resistance to digital documents. We found that a full 50 percent of legal professionals still store legal documentation on paper in filing cabinets; more than half of respondents have had to wait 24 hours or more for someone to physically sign a document before they could submit it; and 20 percent have missed an important revenue deadline because they had to wait for a handwritten signature.

What’s more, a full 95 percent of these same legal professionals use digital documents and e-signatures in their personal lives, to accept packages, digitally sign for their credit card purchase, or fill out forms. But their leaders remain resistant to the reality they’re already living in.

The age of paperwork isn’t about to end—it’s already ending, all around us. New secure technologies are setting us free from unnecessary paperwork. But as long as risk-averse leaders keep drawing the digital distinction in ways that are 20 years out of date, their organizations will continue to fall behind.

Switching to digital documents, on the other hand, lets us reserve paper and pen for the documents that really matter. In a world of up-and-coming millennials where handwriting is increasingly rare and often not even taught in school, we can invest our time and ink in crafting cards and letters for the people we really care about. Which means that the less we rely on paper, the more meaningful our handwritten words will become.


Posted on 12-07-2015


  • By John Levy - 6:51 AM on December 8, 2015   Reply

    Great article Jon, really well said.

  • By Ray Watson - 11:15 AM on December 24, 2015   Reply

    I downloaded a trial of Acrobat Pro DC and I am finding that there seems to be a lot of things I am not being able to do that I could do in Pro X. I work with pdf portfolios, and there stands a lot to be desired in editing the layout.

    • By Document Cloud Team - 8:53 AM on December 29, 2015   Reply

      Hi Ray,

      PDF Portfolios have substantially changed in Acrobat DC because they are longer tied to the Flash Player.


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