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DocuSign and the unbearable permanence of paper

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright June 12, 2014
Enterprises must break with paper-bound processes to realize the full potential of digital transactions, says DocuSign founder Tom Gonser

Tom Gonser DocuSign Momentum EMEA 2014 by @philww
Whatever happened to the paper-free office we were promised in the 1980s heyday of office automation, as it was then known? Putting computers in offices only served to multiply the volumes of paper being produced. With the advent of the laser printer, going digital just increased our capacity to print out paper documents at will.

Breaking out of those ingrained habits depends on more than technology alone. We have the means to do things differently in today's digitally connected era of smart mobile devices, but we have to create and then learn those new patterns of behavior.

This is why DocuSign is making a bid to be known not merely as a platform for digital signatures but for the broader concept of 'Digital Transaction Management'. Around its core e-signature technology it has added a set of management, administration and workflow tools, along with an integration framework to connect those resources into enterprise applications.

The purpose is to support enterprises in their quest to break free of conventional paper-based processes.

"We think the notion of a document is evolving to be different," explains DocuSign's founder and chief strategy officer Tom Gonser.

He points out that digital documents can be continuously connected to source material as opposed to the single snapshot-in-time of a printed document.

Thus for example a digital contract can contain dynamic links to information that is updated over time, such as the contact details of a signatory, ensuring that they can always be contacted even if they relocate. "If I print it out, I broke all of that," says Gonser.

Short-changing digital

Sending documents as email attachments is another of the ways in which we short-change digital potential. An attachment — unless it links back to a dynamically updated resource — is just as much a snapshot-in-time as a paper print-out.

"Email's a mess," says Gonser. "When you're doing a business transaction with somebody, you shouldn't use email to carry documents and transactions."

Email has a place, as an activity stream that alerts people to changes they should know about or actions they should take. But it is a poor repository for recording those changes and transactions, which DocuSign believes should take place in an online collaboration space that all the involved parties share access to.

In DocuSign's case, that shared space is known as a 'transaction room', based on technology acquired a year ago when it bought its erstwhile partner Cartavi, which originally focused on the real estate market in which DocuSign built its first major customer base.

Nowadays DocuSign casts its net far wider, talking up the benefits it can deliver to large enterprise customers such as pharmaceuticals company AstraZeneca, which cut the time taken to get participants in drugs research to sign confidentiality agreements from several weeks to less than a day in 82 percent of cases (half of those in less than an hour); or Bank of America, which discovered it was spending $33 million a year overnighting documents to clients for signature.

Its proposition to them is not just digital signing but the entire framework of document transaction management (DTM), integrated into the enterprise application stack.

Tom Gonser DocuSign
Tom Gonser, DocuSign

Most powerfully, that includes being directly embedded in Office365, a tie-up announced in February this year. This means that a user can add digital signing into a document without even leaving the Office environment.

"That's a hundred times, a thousand times extension to the number of people that get exposure to DocuSign," says Gonser.

Perhaps it overeggs the pudding when DocuSign posits DTM as an application category of its own to rank alongside the established pillars of ERP, CRM, HRM and SCM. But it has a point to the extent that these legacy stacks need to be linked into digital processes if they are to continue to deliver value in an increasingly digital world.

Mobile explosion

That message has become even stronger over the past two years as mobile use of DocuSign's technology has exploded. When people get a message on their smartphone asking them to sign a document, they're not usually near a printer or a fax machine that they can use.

"Mobile is immediate," says Gonser. "You have to go home and do this? That is so 2010."

That change in perception of what can be done on a smartphone or tablet is forcing enterprises to change the way they engage with customers, partners and employees in their document-based processes.

"When you know what's possible, it's frustrating to deal with an app that doesn't offer that," says Gonser. "The old line that, 'It's enterprise software so it doesn't have to be good or easy to use,' — that doesn't work any more.

"You're starting to see internal employees not use internal apps because they're too cumbersome."

In consumer-facing markets such as real estate, financial services, telecoms and employment agencies, offering a digital process that works with smartphones is now becoming a competitive imperative, says Gonser:

"There are many industries where digital transaction management is not a nice-to-have, it's a must-have to be competitive."

Of course DocuSign is not alone in offering digital signatures. Its competitors include Adobe EchoSign, RightSignature and others. It hopes that positioning itself as a DTM vendor will help lift it above the fray — an important consideration when it has an IPO in its sights and $210 million so far in venture and institutional funding.

Image credits: Tom Gonser speaking at Momentum EMEA 2014 by @philww; portrait courtesy of DocuSign. Respect and apologies also to Milan Kundera, author of the magic realism classic The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

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