September 03, 2009, 1:28 PM — "Just fill out this form, sign it, FAX it back, then, once it's in the database, you can start." My guess is that's said several million times daily somewhere on the planet. I cringe now, when I hear that, or a close variant. Experience has taught me that my ideas about what goes in the blanks aren't what the organization had in mind, the FAX machine will turn out to be unattended the day (or week!) I'm trying to accomplish something, and so on, with the conclusion that what sounds like a five-minute chore holds up progress for days at a time.
I love to stumble into these swamps. I love to, because I know there's a better way, and I've made that better way real multiple times.
I help organizations create simple PDF workflows that solve many of the problems the first paragraph mentions. Rather than a printed form, or, worse, a
.doc passed around an office LAN (that is, one outside version control, which mysteriously picks up revision coloring and other misfeatures from time to time), I set things up so that a low-cost Web application puts out customized printable PDFs. Notice they're customized; the organizations inevitably already have a lot of information about the signatories, including ID, departmental assignment or sponsor or ..., and so on. Rather than have the person worry over exactly which ID was intended, the PDF simply comes out with it already in place. Information not already known can be entered as FDF fields.
That takes care of a half-dozen distinct pitfalls before signing. After signing, I have the signatories upload scans of their sheets directly into a related Web application. They can immediately see for themselves how the image looks on-screen--whether the scan was successful, that any signature(s) are visible, and so on.
Among other benefits, this approach puts results in the hands of people motivated to achieve them. Instead of having to wait for someone else to pull a transmission from the FAX machine (with multiple opportunities for error in that step alone), signatories can experiment on their own time with signing, scanning, and verifying the results. A busy office responsible for signing enough NDAs, purchasing contracts, representation agreements, and comparable documents, can save as much as one full-time-equivalent of labor checking FAXes, verifying signatures, and comparable operations.
People are built for better ends than this kind of tedium. Leave "grunt work" to computers. Even a little bit of thoughtful PDF programming helps achieve that goal.