How to Create and Exchange Digital Documents
How to Create and Exchange Digital Documents I'm a big believer in "eating my own dog food". In other words, if I'm going to recommend something to you, it's usually because I do it myself. This article is all about digitizing as many of your paper documents as you can. There are several ways to digitize your documents. Suppose you need to share a document, perhaps a proposal, with a client. Traditionally, we would create and print the document, then mail it or fax it to the client. A far better alternative is to create the document as an electronic file, then simply send it via email. You can creat the document as a Microsoft Word (or other word processor) document or you can create a PDF document. In general, I recommend using PDF documents. There are times, however, when using Microsoft Word is the best choice.
Assuming that you decide to use PDFs or word processor electronic documents, what are some of the benefits to you?
Security--Electronic forms can be secured with passwords or certificates, thus preventing unauthorized third parties from viewing their contents. Sure, there are tools available on the Internet that can crack some forms of document security, but remember that paper documents can also be stolen, photocopied, and read by unauthorized individuals.
Format consistency--Although this doesn't apply to all electronic documents, PDF documents maintain the consistency of their format across all platforms. In other words, people using a Macintosh will see exactly the same document as those using a PC. The formatting is consistent from one platform to another. The formatting of word processor documents, however, can change as they move from one computer to another.
Searchability--Electronic documents are easily searchable. Just use the key combination of Control+F and enter a word or a phrase and the computer will search for it within the document. Have you ever been reading a book or magazine article that mentions a name that was referred to earlier? You scan the pages looking for that name or phrase, but can't find it. That problem simply doesn't exist in electronic documents. (It's especially true in technical fields with lots of acronyms.)
Portability and conserving space--As a technologist, I used to have shelves and shelves of technical books and documents (most of which did a great job of gathering dust!). Today, most of my technical documentation is stored in PDF documents on my laptop computer. They're easily searchable, very portable, and don't gather any dust. I usually have my laptop with me, so no matter where I am, I have an entire library of documentation with me. I've even started reading electronic novels. I carry a Palm Treo 700p. The E-Reader software is free for it and I can download free books from many sources including the Gutenberg Project (www.gutenberg.org), which is a source of classics. (I just finished "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea".) If I want something current, I can buy e-books for very reasonable prices from many sources on the Internet. Since I always have my phone with me, I always have a book to read while I'm waiting for whatever (delayed flights, late clients, etc.). By the way, the e-reader software makes it realistic to read books on a small screen. Hard to believe, I know, but it really does work very well.
Speed and sendability--I just signed a contract with a client to present some video training. They emailed me the agreement, we worked out some of the terms, and I signed it electronically (the subject of electronic signatures is a whole article in itself) and emailed it. They received it within seconds of me signing it, even though their offices are over a thousand miles from mine. I am working on presenting a seminar for a client's customers on how to go digital (without going postal). He needed a brochure describing the seminar and my picture for publicity. He called me with the request and within seconds, he had what he needed because I was able to email the files to him. Before the digital age, I would have had to print the documents and send them to him via postal mail or an express service. This is what Bill Gates was talking about when he referred to "business at the speed of thought" (another book I have on my Treo, by the way).
Forms--This is a feature I've been using for years. In Microsoft Word (and presumably other word processors), you can create a document which is locked except for form fields. In other words, I create a questionnaire in which you can't change any of the text that I wrote, but you can fill in certain fields, save the document, and return it to me with your responses. We use it in our training business when preparing for an onsite presentation. We send an electronic questionnaire to our client asking about things like the exact seminar location, credentials needed for entry, goals of the training, names of attendees, etc. Our clients simply tab between fields on the form and are able to complete it in a matter of just a few minutes and email it back to us. To learn how to do this, search on "creating forms" in Microsoft Word.
How can you create and use digital documents? The easiest way is with a word processor such as Microsoft Word. Just save it and send it. There are, however, different formats for saving documents in Word. For the greatest compatibility, in Word 2007 choose "Save As" and save it as a Word 97-2003 document. If you're using Word 2003 or earlier, you can just save it as usual and send it. What if you want to create a PDF (Portable Document Format)? You can buy Adobe Acrobat which is a great program, but pricey. You can also buy less expensive versions of PDF creator software from various vendors. For Microsoft Office 2007 users, you can download a free plugin that allows you to save documents as PDFs. Go to www.microsoft.com/downloads and search on "PDF plugin". Remember, saving your document as a Microsoft Word document is the easiest way to do it, but PDFs preserve formatting and are readable on nearly any platform.
How do you read PDFs? Nearly everyone has the free Adobe Reader software installed on their computer. If you don't, it's a free download from www.acrobat.com. Just look for the link to download Adobe Reader.
For a list of PDF creation software, you can either Google on "pdf software" or visit en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_PDF_software
But, it's not just about digitizing paper documents. The benefits of going digital apply the music and videos, too. As I've been writing this post, I've been finishing the process of ripping my CD collection (that means converting the CDs to digital files). More on that in a future article.
About the Author:
President and chief technologist at Seattle, Washington-based IT training firm soundtraining.net, Don is a speaker, writer, and veteran IT guy with over 35 years experience in technology for the workplace. Today, he delivers keynote speeches, workshops, and seminars to business people on how to go digital without going postal. Call him at 206.988.5858. He's online at www.doncrawley.com and blogs at www.digitalnotpostal.com .
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