Fax me your signed, sealed document...

Faxed documents and telephone voice prompts are at the heart of the thorniest bureaucracies, despite plenty of better alternatives...

bicycle messengers


Entire business sectors continue to base their business processes around impenetrable telephone interactions that both require you to click through endless sequences of voice prompts and then listen to annoying music loops. Assuming you ever get through to speak to a human and successfully navigate their mysterious process sequences, all to often faxed documents are required to consummate whatever the deal is you've just spent an agonizing period of your life interacting around.

No one appears to enjoy any of these highly inefficient ways of getting things done, yet these conservative processes remain at the heart of vast numbers of our daily transactions, both as customers of large business entities and at the heart of business to business deals.

The legal profession are arguably the culprits behind the enduring use of these document focused transactions, and in many cases transmission of paperwork has to be performed with facsimile machines in order to consumate the deal. Insurance and medical bureaucracies can be notorious for blizzards of paperwork, and the transition to fax from snail mail for urgent communication was still considered daring in some quarters late in the last century.

There are plenty of enlightened lawyers who work with wikis and other collaborative tools within their practices, but the crushing bureaucracy large business entities typically run at scale into hurts their performance because of this foundation of document based transactions and security. Virtually all types of interactions between constituents are slowed as a result, with the ability to find information made harder.

Enterprise Content Management systems are a band aid to improve old ways of collaborating and communicating but are based on the outdated paradigms of documents, postage and filing I've written about here many times before. Whether banks of filing cabinets or their digital equivalants, they quickly fill to overflowing with organization and finding stuff getting slowly harder and harder.

I'm sitting next to my steel filing cabinets in my office as I write this and am acutely aware this problem isn't going to go away, but can and needs to be contained. In many cultures hand writing of characters is expected during transactions - Asian cultures are an obvious example, with Japanese resumes typically being hand created so employers can judge people's personalities from the characteristics of their writing.  Japan and China both typically run on hard copies of documents, ironically even when the work being discussed is futuristic digital communications devices.

Seals on hard copies are sometimes required instead of signatures in Japan and other countries. (Most Japanese people have a personal seal called a 'jitsuin' which they officially register as theirs through a bureaucratic government office). Electronic signatures are gradually making inroads into this cultural convention, but of course are still a form of signing a document.

In our ever more global world the slowest moving process defines the speed at which we can work, and front office efficiency is defined by complexity (or lack of it), availability of and interaction around contextual information and the ability to close deals quickly and move on.

Making a series of phone calls to request a facsimile transmission isn't the most efficient way of doing things but still takes precedence in many cultures. Late last year Intel found that forty per cent of workers in Britain's small businesses still use fax machines on a daily basis, based on a survey of 3000 small firms.

As so often happens the digitally savvy in companies start using cloud storage, SaaS tools and their own digital devices informally in business cultures where the main activity is putting on reading glasses to squint and peck out numbers on a fax and push reams of paper through - it seems laughable but plenty of businesses are working around that core right now as you read this, whether the document is in hebrew, cyrillic, mandarin or French….

With the majority of legal transactions being very document centric, the solution to the chronic inefficiency all these originally quill, parchment and stagecoach based activities create is to ring fence them ugh as you would the usage of an elderly, slow piece of equipment that is still necessary to perform certain functions on a shop floor.

Creating a digital front office was overrun by email until recently, itself an outmoded but lowest common denominator way of communicating that is a necessity in certain situations. Now that many people have found - stumbled across in some cases - a digital rich mine of information in their work environment, whether a Sharepoint site full of useful info, a wiki or dynamic activity streams full of invaluable insights, contexts, and yes sometimes documents - the understanding that there are more efficient ways of working is increasingly more on people's radar as vein got value. Making this their default way of working collectively and moving away from document centric work as the foundation is the challenge to achieve greater efficiencies going forward.

We still have to listen to Kenny G loops after clicking through telephone options, wait for faxes and mail to arrive and put things in filing cabinets but do so to accommodate other people's inefficiencies, not our own. That's the key….

~ I

Image from Shorpy A. D. T. Messengers, August 1908. Location: Indianapolis, Indiana 






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