Digital transformation and its acceleration due to the COVID-19 pandemic have compelled more businesses to use automated document management systems that include digital and electronic signatures. Paper-based processes just haven't been practical when people have been sheltering in place and working remotely.
"We saw really fast acceleration of this paper-to-digital transformation in the last 18 months across a number of use cases," said Simon Longbottom, vice president of product marketing, Adobe Acrobat and Adobe Sign for Business. "[A] quarter of Americans electronically signed a document for the first time in 2020."
Adding e-signature platforms to the electronic document process can improve organizations in several ways, including saving time, lowering costs, reducing risks and advancing sustainability goals. Meanwhile, customers, corporate partners and employees benefit from a faster and more convenient experience.
How digital and electronic signatures differ
Digital signatures and electronic signatures may seem alike, but they're not the same.
An e-signature is the more common of the two. A person can initial or sign a document using a keyboard, keypad, or mouse -- or, if the platform requires it, by writing the signature in a blank box using a finger or stylus on a trackpad or touchscreen. The various mechanisms for capturing a person's signature doesn't change the outcome. They're merely different methods of confirming an individual's acknowledgement, approval, consent or agreement.
A digital signature adds a digital certificate to an e-signature. According to a June 2020 Forrester Research report, "Digital signatures offer greater assurance than simple e-signatures about the identities of the parties involved in the transaction. They embed personal key infrastructure into the signing process to identify both the party requesting a signature and the party providing one."
The metadata matters most, said Tricia Phillips, senior director analyst at Gartner. "It's the IP address, the email address that it was sent to, the time and date of the signature and various other things," she explained. "What matters is that there was clear consent that's captured."
The COVID-19 effect
Businesses were forced to digitize traditionally analog processes to support their remote workforces in 2020. And e-signature platforms suddenly became a critical part of automated document management systems.
"They'd integrated everything but the last mile," Phillips said. "You'd print something, sign it, scan it and upload it. With the pandemic, that became really cumbersome, so we saw an increase in the last segment of the workflow, which for this use case is signing."
B2B and B2C companies include e-signature capabilities in various automated document processes, ranging from hiring or onboarding an employee or a contractor to closing a sales deal or entering into a partnership arrangement. Similarly, documents can be signed by a group of people during a meeting.
"It changes the speed of business because you have the ability to close things quickly," Phillips reasoned. "There are also interesting use cases like Adobe Sign integrated into Microsoft Teams, so now you have the ability to share a document in a Teams meeting, talk through it, answer questions, and the participants can sign within that videoconference. You can complete that whole process as if you had been in person."
E-signature's expanding role
Enterprise application users are constantly creating and customizing documents. Each one of these applications might use a different e-signature platform. In today's API-enabled business world, enterprises want to go beyond tacking signatures onto a document. They want to invoke e-signature capabilities from within applications such as Salesforce, Microsoft Office 365, ServiceNow and Workday.
Rather than having a different signature technology for every application, some companies are centralizing the capabilities to ensure metadata consistency -- where it's stored, where the system of record is, and whether the signatures are integrated with identity verification tools, trust service providers (TSPs) and certificate authorities.
Customer and employee experiences are additional reasons for taking an enterprise-wide approach. School districts, for example, may use several K-12 platforms that have e-signature capabilities, but parents may have to sign a document of consent in one platform and acknowledge their consent in another platform.
"Employee and customer experience are two use cases that have really grown in the last year and a half," Adobe's Longbottom said. "You've had companies that had to entirely reinvent their whole hiring and onboarding processes. You have to make things feel seamless, easy and warm."
Adobe Sign is integrated with various applications and services, including Microsoft Teams, ServiceNow, Workday, national identity programs and various authentication services. "One of the benefits and challenges of the digital age is having a lot of information at our disposal, but finding that information quickly and easily becomes a real challenge," Longbottom acknowledged. "Our partnership with Microsoft is really important in terms of deeply integrating where your documents live."
DocuSign has been integrated with Salesforce for quite some time. Its DocuSign Gen document integration tool allows users to generate customized sales agreements and documents with a single click in Salesforce.
Automating sales contracts "is the first thing companies do," said Steve Krause, senior vice president of strategy and product marketing at DocuSign. "Then they say, 'Our sales comp plans are taken care of through HR. Can we do those electronically?' Then we go into a long list of all the things that are getting digitized, so it's really working through the backlog of things that already exist in businesses, which are agreements."
It's all about document workflows
Enterprise content management (ECM) software maker Laserfiche has its own digital signature product. The company is also partnering with Adobe and DocuSign to ensure that its proprietary signature product doesn't interfere with any workflows supported by its ECM software. The partnerships help ensure smoother workflows throughout the lifecycle of a document, noted Thomas Phelps, vice president of product strategy and CIO at Laserfiche.
"We get signatures right in the process," Phelps explained. "We can manage the workflow, automate the approvals, store the signed documents in a repository, automatically redact sensitive data that should not be shared with others in a contract and then archive it once it's signed through a DocuSign envelope. It's going beyond just a document that needs to be signed. It's a holistic approach to process optimization and looking for innovative ways of doing things differently."
Pointing to the importance of uninterrupted workflows, a December 2020 Gartner market guide emphasized the role of e-signature platforms in an enterprise's entire automated document management process. "While the core technology of electronic signatures is highly commoditized, the business, legal and regulatory requirements make the selection of an electronic signature provider or providers an important cross-functional initiative," Gartner reported. "Support for workflow features, specific platform integrations, user experience of signer and sender, and integration to TSPs in key markets all can drive the selection of one vendor over another."