The path to mass adoption of electronic signatures

The usage of electronic signatures across the world has grown by leaps and bounds in the recent past across virtually every public and private sector. Consumer purchases, business to business transactions, and government bureaucracies – to name just a few – have driven the implementation and usage of e-signatures, spurred on by friendly legislation and acceptance in a number of key legal circles.

However, there is tremendous room for growth. As we all know, there are plenty of processes and people that are resistant to electronic signatures and digital records. ESRA asked expert Jon Perera, a Vice President and Product Manager for Adobe’s Adobe Sign solution, his opinion on the path to true mass adoption.

He kicked off his talk by talking about a client dealing with a “mountain of paper” and struggling to move to e-signatures. “They’ve just received permission to move from paper to fax,” he told attendees, producing some bemused reactions. And they’re not alone, he noted: He said that according to Adobe’s research, 98% of the 2,000 companies they surveyed still require a wet signature on paper when processing contracts.

“What’s interesting is that not even attorneys think paper is particularly secure,” Perera said, adding that 67% of the attorneys Adobe surveyed think that paper agreements are prone to being defaced after being signed. “And the average office worker discards 10,000 sheets of paper per year,” he said. “How much cost is going into that, to say nothing of information loss and the environmental impact?” he asked.

“We’re in the last mile of adoption,” he continued. “Companies have gone to mobile apps for many things, but when it comes time to an offer letter or a contract, many stop and pull out pen and paper.”

Perera then discussed some use cases he has seen, starting with his own company. “When Adobe acquired Omniture in 2009, before they bought EchoSign, our HR team took over two conference rooms and spent two weeks printing out 3,600 offer letters and putting them manually into 3,600 FedEx envelopes. The fastest employee to receive offer and get it back was 72 hours – the whole thing took weeks.

“In contrast, a few years later when Adobe acquired Neolane, which had 600 employees, the whole process was handled by one person in 90 minutes. All of the employees signed and returned their offer letters in less than 24 hours.”

He added: “We’re saving about a million dollars a year in FedEx costs with offer letters alone.”

Lack of Awareness and Adoption

Perera noted that it’s not just HR departments that can struggle with this problem. He said: “I was at Dreamforce, meeting with directors of sales operations. Their lives are about efficiency. I asked how many of them used e-signatures and only 15% raised their hands. That just slows down the sales cycle.”

He added: “People think about e-signatures with contracts. But one area where we see a lot of use is document approval, where 15 people at a company need to approve a document so it can be released. Some companies use Adobe Sign just for that. One thing we’ve seen is an 83% performance improvement in getting approvals, along with 86% savings in document costs.”

Perera noted that Deloitte saved half a million dollars by using Adobe Sign for offer letters.

But despite those efficiency and cost savings, even Adobe Sign’s largest users don’t know the extent of what they can do with e-signatures. Once they learn, they want to get others on board at their companies, but adoption has been slow in North America.

Perera pointed to some research Adobe did where they interviewed 1,300 North American business professionals. Amazingly, 61% of them weren’t even aware that e-signatures exist. “E-signatures win the prize for slowest tech adoption ever,” he said to laughter.

That survey of business professionals also turned up their top three concerns:

  1. Security: Companies are very concerned about it, with good reason.
  1. System availability: You need that contract signed so you can book revenue.
  1. Ease of use: “We’re hearing that it has to be drop dead simple,” Perera said. “E-signatures are used by everyone, from CEO to employees to the company’s best customers. Those are very high stakes.”

One potential issue is the uneven rate of adoption of e-signatures around the world. Adobe maintains a heat map so anyone can see the state of legality of e-signatures in other countries. “We have mountains to move,” Perera said of the situation.

What the Business Process Ninjas Want

Perera wrapped up with an overview of the discussions he has had with 35 directors of operations for legal, HR, sales, and other company departments. “These people are what I call ‘business process ninjas.’ They’re relentless about getting rid of inefficiencies in their companies. They’re technologists, so they understand how everything works in detail, and they have a good amount of legal expertise. I’m a fan of those people.”

During his interviews, Perera heard these top five:

  1. Workflow: An e-signature is only a step in a digital document’s journey. “What business process ninjas are telling me is to expand the capability set to go upstream in business process workflow as well as downstream, after signature is captured,” Perera said.

He added: “We also need to stretch out and expand what people can do by using APIs, so these things can snap in.”

  1. People want best practices: They want SaaS service to give analytics about what they’re doing and how they can improve. That’s an opportunity to unleash more broad adoption. They want quick guides with “just in time” training in software and in reporting.
  1. There’s an opportunity for e-signatures to provide a higher level of value in organization: Perera said: “One of our customers said they have 4 million contracts in the EchoSign cloud. They want to know their highest level of exposure. Who are the best customers? Where do things get stuck if there are multiple people in a workflow? They want to strip out inefficiency.”

He continued: “Documents need rich analytics. PDFs should have smart markers for better analytics. Imagine an organization where all contracts sit in some warehouse and you need everything relating to vendor X. That’s costly today, but not with built-in analytics.”

  1. Document protection: People sign documents with confidential information. Perera explained: “Every e-signature vendor today attaches an audit trail to every PDF that’s generated. But there’s no technology today that stops someone from taking a file and putting it online. Companies need to protect documents after they’ve been signed. We’re looking at digital rights management so you can apply policies to groups of documents and have control over who has access to them.”
  1. Global: “That’s the next big breakthrough,” he said. “It’s more that just legislative recognition. It means things like data centers that are 100% available and secure and meet local requirements. Rich multi-language support. Adobe EchoSIgn is also working on translations of documents in the cloud.

“How do you make e-signatures global? The five things I mentioned need to be embedded. Any place and any time someone is working with a PDF, we should embed best practices around it. We should all do more with analytics around that.”

Lastly, Perera laid a significant responsibility at the feet of electronic signature providers.

“Every E-signature vendor should provide all the evidentiary case law around e-signatures for your legal team to review,” he said. “They should also be willing to connect their legal counsel to your legal counsel. They should be doing more to showcase case law and mainstream e-signatures.”

“If you ask someone if their company has embraced cloud computing, they often say they haven’t used it, but they’ll say they use Salesforce. That’s cloud computing. We have to make e-signatures ubiquitous in that way. Even things like school permission slips shouldn’t ever be handled with paper and pen.”