Online document management = sustainability for smaller businesses

Cutting paper out of invoicing, contract distribution or project specification outlines doesn't just save money, it has a green benefit.

The thing that I love about the topics I cover is that there is so often a sustainability or green angle to corporate initiatives that are first and foremost about saving money or becoming more operationally efficient. That's especially true for small and midsize companies that, quite frankly, have been challenged to create initiatives that are all about sustainability.

One of the most obvious examples of this is the concept of online invoice or contract management. I receive at least one pitch related to this sort of thing every week (if not every day). A few weeks ago, I bit on a couple of these: I arranged to speak with businesses that are testing the use of online systems for managing contracts and other previously paper-intensive processes.

The first example is Celadon Trucking Services, a $550 million transportation services company from Indianapolis that has used a service called EchoSign to go paperless with some of its contracts. EchoSign is an e-signature service, among other things. Since I first started researching this story, that company was acquired by Adobe Systems, which suddenly makes it even more interesting.

I think it's notable that I spoke with Michael Pecchia, the pricing manager for Celadon, about his experiences with the application rather than with a green or sustainability expected. So far, his company has only implemented the service on a small scale in the pricing department. "The transportation industry is pretty traditional in the sense that it is face-to-face, paper contracts and contracts via mail," Pecchia said. "But we decided we needed to turn over our contracts faster."

Before EchoSign, contracts could take an average of one month to two months to receive all the requisite signatures. The initial motivation for evaluating EchoSign was driven by the need to shave that time. Along the way, however, Celadon realized that it could also help cut out paper, which was important for a company that is a member of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's SmartWay program.

Pecchia says that many of Celadon's customers have been receptive to that argument, once they get past the workflow adjustments that are required when moving from a paper to an online process. He didn't really have figures to cite yet about paper savings.

The other small business that I spoke with about the concept of online document management and sustainability was CVG Strategy, a company in Viera, Fla., that consults on defense and manufacturing projects. CVG has been using a secure online document-sharing service called WatchDox to make its documents available to clients. It does this for several reasons, including intellectual property concerns, but also because some of these documents are a whopping 800 to 900 pages long, according to Kevin Gholston, vice president of business development.

"We don't want people to retain anything other than what is in their brain," he said.

Gholston said CVG Strategy doesn't promote what it is doing as green, but it has been a benefit of the service. Another benefit: WatchDox contains an auditing tool that shows when the recipient looked at a document and what, exactly, they looked at. You just can't do that with a paper document, Gholston said.

While I was prepping this story I received some statistics from a company called online invoicing company TradeShift that helped further demonstrate the link between sustainability and taking traditional processes online. That data is expressed in the great infographic below, but here are some things to consider:

  1. Close to 10 percent of all paper invoices contain mistakes (that's not to say that online ones won't but it is easier to distribute the fixes)
  2. Between 60 percent and 80 percent of all typical office waste is paper
  3. Approximately 96 percent of all businesses wind up reissuing invoices

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