Just a few weeks ago, hardly anyone would think that signing a contract by hand can be a problem. And yet, it happened. The pandemic stroked and suddenly many of our routine activities turned out to be, to put it mildly, logistically difficult. The market is not sleeping though. Along with problems lurking behind pandemic, new solutions are arising. The growing popularity of electronic signatures has increased the pace. According to forecasts, this market will grow by an average of over 20% annually, reaching the value of nearly $7 billion in 2025. The market growth is one thing, but the questions are: is this really worth our attention? And isn’t it just another thing that will become redundant when the pandemic ends? Or maybe all these electronic signatures are just too complicated? I invite you to read my thoughts and experiences on this topic that I gladly share 🙂
Different kinds of signatures
Let’s start with the basics. The first thing we need to learn is nomenclature. Not very thrilling, but extremely important. In short, an electronic signature and a digital signature are two different things. Often these terms are used interchangeably, but as a matter of fact, they differ in both technical and legal perspectives. While the electronic signature is kind of a tag, expressing one’s intention to sign a document, the digital signature refers to the specific technology (public-key cryptography) that makes the electronic signature implementation feasible. In other words, a digital signature is used to secure the information contained in an electronic signature. Furthermore, there are three levels of electronic signatures:
- Electronic signature,
- Advanced electronic signature,
- Qualified electronic signature.
The obvious question is, which signature should we choose? A standard electronic signature is the simplest and the most common. A qualified signature, on the other hand, requires the selection of not only of the platform provider but also of the TSP (Trusted Service Provider) and the certificate (surprisingly, there are many different ways of confirming our identity to choose from). It sounds complicated. It’s getting a bit clearer though, when we consider that from 2016, Polish law (similarly to other EU countries) treats the qualified electronic signature equally as a handwritten signature. This means that if we want to conveniently (and legally!) sign most of the documents that we deal with, in our organization, a qualified signature is the right choice.
This opens up the possibility to include processes that require a handwritten signature into a pool of processes under digital transformation. It frees us from logistical restrictions, increases our automation capabilities, and thus, improves our business’s resilience to various types of unexpected situations. And that’s what we’re after.
The signature is just the beginning
We already know that we need a qualified electronic signature. This means that we also need to choose a platform, TSP, and certificate. The good news is most suppliers work directly with TSP, and TSPs with certificate providers, so we’re likely to do everything at one go. Brilliant. So, it’s done and we can consider the case closed? Not really 🙂 If we find ourselves at this point, we are good. But it can be even better.
The electronic signature support system is yet another tool in our hands. The key is to adapt it to our needs and integrate with the systems and processes that we already utilize. There are three most important aspects to be considered:
- Standardization – when we add another tool, you increase the complexity of your processes and you have to guide the employees on how to use it. The electronic signature system should be an addition to your primary system, supporting main organizational processes, and should not introduce any inconvenience from the users’ perspective.
- Security – each system should be verified in terms of security and data integrity, availability, and confidentiality. Controlling the access and information flow is crucial here.
- Traceability – the use of an external signature platform without integration with internal systems may cause an organization to lose visibility and the ability to track records, making further optimization of the processes hard to achieve.
How does it work in practice?
All of those points can be addressed by the integration of the electronic signature platform with our digital processes and workflows. Obtaining a signature becomes simply the next step of the process, which can be easily automated when using up-to-date tools. In this case, employees can focus completely on the business goal instead of on individual steps, the way to complete them (send an email, call or write on Teams?) and coordination of the next steps without a complete picture of what is actually needed.
Examples? The recruitment process. In addition to the contract’s terms verification, domain account set-up, project assignment in the workflow system, onboarding, and OHS training, we have to make sure that the contract is signed. In the scenario where we use an external system to collect signatures, we bring the following risks:
- different people will approach it differently (there is a problem of local contract templates, the possibility of skipping one of the documents, etc.),
- data can be sent by email, without proper protection,
- we lose the ability to monitor information flow and process status.
By including the signature as a step in the process, we can fix these problems right away.
Another example? Signing the agreements with contractors. Every contract should be legally verified and meet all the requirements. The classic flow requires approval before signing. If the person responsible for signing the contract receives an e-mail notification of the required signature – how can he or she be sure that the document has been verified? Again, by integrating the electronic signature system with the appropriate flow, we are able not only to conveniently sign the document but also to control the implementation of the procedures along the way and verify their history.
The system that makes this process easier
In the TTPSC case, the base system for our digitalization is Jira. It is a great tool to create dedicated workflows, views, and reports. We base electronic signature processes on our partner’s solution – OneSpan Sign. This system provides a convenient API for integration that we use in Jira and internal processes flow. For handling non-standard documents we use a generic module (compatible with the dedicated ones). It allows coordinating the process of signing documents by a specific group of recipients defined by the task’s creator. This way, we have avoided the need to introduce a new tool for our employees, kept control of information distribution (one data exchange account for OneSpan Sign and Jira) and ensured traceability of all processes and workflow.