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Which is Better? Forms & Workflow vs eSign Tools

July 10, 2020

Today, higher education administrators and IT departments are asked to do more with less. Since the onset of the coronavirus, many institutions have seen budget cuts and workload increases. Process automation can significantly remedy the situation, and it is becoming a major area of interest for higher ed leaders. 

As you look to automate processes in or across departments, keep in mind process automation software typically can’t be found in one single product. Higher ed institutions often have a portfolio of automation technology, averaging from three to five products. Each software has a specific use case, and no software can meet the needs for every use case. Let's dive into the functionality and use cases for e-signature tools and forms and workflow platforms. 

Functions of an eSign Tool

An eSign tool is used to electronically obtain approval or consent in a legal way. This type of tool is perfect for single-approver document-heavy processes, like hiring a new employee or confidentiality agreements. 

When to Use: 

The University of Hawaii has a range of process types for its 10 campuses across six islands. For “document-heavy” processes, Hawaii uses an eSign tool, according to Garret Yoshimi, CIO and VP of IT. For processes that require higher-powered integration and configuration abilities, but not excessive customizations, the institution uses a forms and workflow platform, which we’ll dive into later on. 

To better understand eSign tools, these are the pros and cons that you’ll see in a tool like Adobe Sign: 

Pros

  • Easily obtain virtual signatures
  • Simple to use and train
  • Some ability to create a workflow for your form like designating multiple signers in a given order
  • Audit trail allows you to see who has signed or viewed a document
  • Moderate integration capabilities
  • Document templates

Cons

  • Minimal integration with your institution’s identity systems. That means you can’t send a form to the current dean at the Law School without knowing her name.  
  • No integration for auto-filling within the form, leaving room for error when it comes to adding things like a student ID number or a financial code. 
  • Priced per user
  • Not designed to support complex approval processes.

Functions of a Forms & Workflow Platform

With a forms and workflow software, you can create forms and route them through a custom approval process. We’ll use Kuali Build as our forms and workflow platform to understand the pros and cons. 

When to Use:

The University of California San Diego uses a portfolio approach to process automation. They use Kuali Build for local and departmental forms and workflow. Brian DeMuelle, Executive Director of Enterprise Architecture and Infrastructure, calls this category of processes “general-purpose workflow.” For example, UCSD might use Kuali Build to automate reimbursements or purchase requests. 

These are the pros and cons you can expect from Kuali Build:

Pros

  • Create smart forms that expand or minimize sections on the fly according to the user’s input.
  • Robust integration with identity systems, giving you the ability to assign approvals to specific roles, like the VP of Athletics, without manually inputting names or email addresses. 
  • Strong integration with campus systems. This means you can integrate a change of major form with the student information system or a reimbursement request with the financial system. When a reimbursement request is approved through Kuali Build, it can be simultaneously pushed to the financial system. 
  • The approval process, or workflow, can be as complex as needed, ranging from a one-step approval to 100+ steps.
  • Use parallel branching in the approval process so multiple stakeholders can weigh in before moving to the next step.
  • Reports that show status and highlight bottlenecks. 
  • A variety of flexible pricing plans ranging from department- to enterprise-wide.

Cons

  • Due to the ability to create complex forms and approval processes, it isn’t as simple to use as an eSign tool. 
  • Currently, there are no templates readily available.  

One last element not discussed above is the legal viability of the tools. The Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act (E-Sign Act), which you can review here, states that electronic signatures are legal in every state and U.S. territory where federal law applies. 

Confirmed. Electronic signatures are legal. 

E-signature tools were built to capture signatures, and Adobe Sign operates well in that role. However, not all higher education processes require signatures. Many, perhaps the majority, of a university’s internal processes don’t require a signature. Instead, they’re approval-based and an auditable trail of approval is adequate.  

What I’m getting at here is that there is a time and place for both an eSign tool and forms and workflow software. Many of Kuali Build customers use both regularly. A tool like Adobe Sign is best used in single-approval processes that are PDF-based and require minimal integrations with campus systems. Kuali Build is best used where complex, multi-step approvals are needed internally and integration with campus systems is necessary. 

Check out how the University of Hawaii used Kuali Build, even with an eSign tool already in place, to cut approval times to under 24 hours. Read their success story here.

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