E-Procurement Signs On to Multimedia Contracts
E-Procurement Signs On To Multimedia Contracts
Systems and applications based on new technical advancements have tantalized and often fulfilled their promises of enabling entities to gain greater efficiency over current processes. In fact, many of us wonder how we got anything done before the mass adoption of e-mail, voice mail and electronic facsimile.
The truth, however, is that modern technology also brings with it a number of complexities. Often, the very technologies designed to make our jobs easier can unexpectedly drive down an entity’s productivity in unforeseen ways. Nowhere is this more evident than in modern contracting systems.
In theory, making the procurement system electronic and accessible online should speed the entire process. Recent advancements in contracting applications have enhanced the overall performance of many e-procurement systems, resulting in exponential performance improvements in terms of procurement-fulfillment turnaround—that is, filling orders to specification.
However, this does not mean that contracting time it-self is reduced. In fact, all too often, technology-based contracts bring new complexities through any number of unaccounted for variables.
Even though online contracting certainly has the potential to drive efficiency, the reality is that contracting professionals need to be prepared to support the technology behind modern contracting methods. Consider the following issues:
Multimedia Integration: Lawyers not trained in the design and performance nuances of technology continue to struggle with contract elements. Many face significant challenges while interpreting technical details that have a direct impact on the specifics of certain contract elements. In today’s contracting environments, downstream legal clarity is essential for reducing costly, ongoing legal expenses. The effective integration of multimedia, including audio/video clips and electronic measurement results can help prevent these kinds of bottlenecks.
Collaboration: As online contracting continues to evolve, third-party technology and service providers are brought into the mixeach with their own strengths and flaws. If contracting environments are to be truly collaborative, consider the vital importance of standards-based contracting elements, including universal “read-only,” text lock-down, and limited editing, using common commands and technical platforms.
Version Control: Much of today’s contracting is conducted on-line, with the editing of documents completed via e-mail. This has streamlined legal collaboration substantially, cutting costs and speeding the process. However, version control is paramount when considering multiple contract parties. Additionally, security is critical given the competitive nature of contracts and the fact that the system is electronic, online and being managed by multiple parties. Manipulation of the text/signature can occur without permission, or even inadvertently.
There is a growing trend to integrate actual excerpts from technical documentation directly into the contracts, as a means of clarifying highly technical issues during the contracting process.
As the demand for performance-based contracts continues to grow, this is an invaluable asset to ensure contracting parties can be very clear about expectations and measurement criteria.
In fact, actual metrics can be cited that are specific to the vendor, or to the project results that would be under contract.
However, since many technologies are described by systems that are non-Word processing-based, it is critical to directly incorporate technical systems outputs that are easily integrated into online contracting systems.
Until recently, the only way to integrate these multiple outputs was through “attachments” or “exhibits” such as pictures of measurement readings, or printouts of measurements.
Very good examples of this requirement are the Case Management Systems currently deployed in the federal sector to support Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) prosecution. These systems include audio tapes, photographs, e-mails, bank records, and other non-Word documents, which need to be available and distributed work-wide in a totally secure online environment.
Collaboration access and text lock down are critical requirements for any contracting initiative.
Online contracts should require a schematic by which the revisions of all parties involved in the “development” or revision of the contract can be tracked.
In order to really push the efficiency of the e-procurement model, collaboration needs to be possible and it also requires a new level of platform “openness.”
Collaboration access and text lock down are critical requirements for any contracting initiative. In terms of enabling actual technology outputs to be incorporated directly into an online contracting platform, state-of-the-art document assembly systems can now provide a vehicle that provides seamless, open integration with most technical platforms. These systems can accommodate multiple media-data inputs directly into the online contracting platform.
An effective contract document assembly system should have the ability to draw from multiple sources: previous archived documents, sub-document boilerplate components, financial data, images, CAD drawings, or even multimedia files, such as audio, video, computer data output files, or computer simulation visual files.
Users should also be able to define rules for generating complex documents on the fly, or build them adhoc via simple cut and paste. Typically, a simplified user interface enables fast fill-in of variable fields by hand, and automated fill-in by database-driven processing can also be supported.
User interfaces should be compatible with standard applications, such as MS Word and Adobe Acrobat, so that contract document assembly software can link seamlessly with Windows’ application-centric e-mail and Web environments.
This is a fairly well understood concept. Online contracts should require a schema by which the revisions of all parties involved in the “development” or revision of the contract can be tracked. Most people have some understanding of this concept through the document editing, or “red-lining,” capability in programs like Microsoft Word.
Unlike these features, however, tracking mechanisms for an online contract need to be far more sophisticated. For online collaboration, version control can be automated with author ID, change-tracking, revisions history, version comparison— all supported on an end-to-end basis.
Most importantly, this function should allow the contract coordinator to run a variance report that can separate all revisions by author, then compare them by group with the original document.
This feature adds even greater convenience when dealing with multimedia enhanced contracts. Consider the contract coordinator who has to review a document containing four different multi-media elements (sound clips, pictures, and video recordings, etc.) from each of his three collaborators.
Without being able to separate and review the contributions of each author, the coordinator could easily find himself in a potentially confusing position of properly attributing each author with the proper contributions.
Security is an increasingly important component of contracts, and part of that responsibility is keeping an eye on who has access to the document. To some extent, once the document has been forwarded to your associates, you assume a level of risk that your contract will make it out of their immediate hands. Given the sensitive nature of most contracts, it is worthwhile to familiarize yourself with some of the features that allow you to keep tabs on the document’s distribution.
Password registration capabilities are standard with many office programs, but easily breakable to an accomplished hacker. In some circumstances, it is worthwhile to look deeper than the pre-packaged solution.
Authentication certificates can be distributed to only those people you wish to view the document, and even allow you control over the level of changes they can make. Examples include “Read Only” (with the option of blacking out particular sections), “Limited Text Editing,” “Read and Edit All Text,” and “Read Only No Edit.”
The value of these capabilities is that documents can be compiled, distributed, edited, and executed—all online. There are however, systems support requirements that must be met to support these capabilities, including the ability to archive multiple media data files with rapid retrieval response times, or production of final documents, inclusive of multimedia files. Even on a more fundamental level, users need to have the capability to run multimedia programs on their desktopsa factor that is particularly easy to take for granted.
While the procurement model has improved significantly with the adoption and integration of new technology, there are still critical shortcomings. Demanding and then utilizing systems that integrate multimedia, collaboration, and version-control features will significantly improve contract processes while reducing the approval cycle times.
Editor’s Note: Marian Sabety is president of Flywheel Group, a Washington, DC-based consultancy that specializes in technology-based process analysis and systems integration management. She can be reached at [email protected], or on the web at www.flywheelgroup.net