Problematic PDF Purchase Orders And Other Business Documents

Advancements in Technology

Have you ever thought about what life would be like if everyday objects were entirely different from what we know? What if nobody had invented silverware? What if there was no telephone? How about if nobody ever invented the camera or the PDF?

These are all examples of advancements in technology. When used correctly, technology improves our lives, which is true in our personal lives and our professional lives. We rely on technology to get the job done, whatever the job is.

In supply chain management, the technology we rely on most is EDI. EDI, or Electronic Data Interchange, is great, but it has one major shortcoming. That is, for the majority of the supply chain, complete EDI compliance is unreachable and, dare I say, even impossible.

For a discussion of other shortcomings of EDI in 2022 check out Supply Chain Management and B2B Collaboration.

So, what do we do when we need to send critical B2B information like Purchase Orders, Advanced Shipping Notices, Invoices, and Reject Notices to a supplier that isn’t an electronic trading partner? Usually, we send those business documents manually as PDFs through email.

At one time, this was the best workaround we had for managing a supply chain full of non-electronic trading partners. However, the year is now 2022, and it’s time to consider the problems that managing this significant portion of the supply chain creates and whether sending PDFs with email is still the best way to manage these suppliers.

Tracking PDFs

Many of the difficulties with sending PDF-based business documents in this list are issues that stem from using email instead of a well-configured EDI connection. One of the most significant issues with using email for sending important B2B collaboration documents is that as a document originator, you don’t know when the recipient of your document opens that Purchase Order or Reject Notice. That means you don’t know when 80% of your suppliers open that Purchase Order.

The impact of not tracking your business-to-business documents is enormous. Does your business care about how much inventory you keep on hand? It should; maintaining inventory costs money. If you can’t track when your supplier receives and opens a Purchase Order or Reject Notice, you’ll have to account for that by maintaining more inventory. Additionally, it only takes a few clicks of an opportunistic supplier for your rejected parts notice to “get lost.” What about when you inspect a batch of parts on arrival and find they are out of specification? Never mind who is going to pay for them; you need your supplier to know as soon as possible that they sent out of specification parts so that they can stop the production of more unusable inventory.

These are only a few examples where the impact of not tracking your B2B Collaboration documents shines. How many examples can you come up with from your experience?

Keeping PDFs Current

Emailing PDFs also creates a version control nightmare. Do you need to revise a Purchase Order or update a planning schedule? Go ahead and send that PDF via email. Hopefully, your supplier will receive the update in time. What if they never see it? What if, for some strange reason, that email finds its way into the spam folder accidentally? Now you’ve got to scramble. You have a critical shipment of parts coming in, but the supplier sent a batch they produced according to an outdated Purchase Order. You’re now behind on your delivery dates, you’re short on parts, and it’s not anyone’s fault. The opportunity for error here is incredibly high. This is a real risk for supply chains that are dependent on emailing PDF-based business documents to the majority of their suppliers. Do you want to mitigate that risk? The only way is to convert those paper document-based suppliers to fully compliant electronic trading and B2B collaboration partners.

Securely Sending PDFs?

Cybersecurity is a critical discussion today. We live in a world dominated by digital information and the exchange thereof. Competitors would love to obtain proprietary information that is critical for maintaining your competitive advantage. Cybercriminals would love to use your business to further their organizations. The list goes on.

What’s the point? Emailing PDF documents is a big point of vulnerability. Think about it. You have to send information to the open internet before delivering it to your intended recipient. While that information is out there, it’s unprotected from people with malicious intentions. You may not even know that someone is damaging your organization until it is too late to stop.

You could send encrypted emails, and that helps some. However, it won’t take long for your supplier and you to grow tired of the extra steps for communication.

It’s too bad there are so many bad people out there that want to steal your information, but that doesn’t change the fact that you need to defend your organization against them. One of the easiest ways to do that is to stop using email and PDFs for sending and receiving business-to-business documents. If only your entire supply chain consisted of fully compliant electronic trading and B2B collaboration partners that could use B2B technology to send and receive mission-critical business information instead of PDF documents and email.

PDFs and Workflow

We can’t state the importance of well-defined and enforced workflows enough. After all, the other thing that we do is business process improvement and automation consulting. You didn’t know that? Here’s an article I wrote for our other blog about developing a single source of business process.

We believe that business processes and workflows are essential. Sending PDF business documents via email does nothing to enforce business process between you and your supplier. Why do you need to incorporate your supplier into business processes? Because the same way that a well-defined and executed business process improves efficiency and effectiveness inside your organization, it does the same thing to your supply chain.

Consider the case where you have to send a Reject Notice, and you determine that the root cause of the quality issue was a quality defect in the parts that your supplier received to build the part that they shipped to you. Now you have to deal with your supplier’s supplier to resolve the quality defect, of which you really don’t want to eat the cost.

At this point, you can handle this multi-tiered supplier communication one of two ways. You could use your supplier as a liaison. We know from the beloved childhood game ‘telephone’ that this always brings perfect clarity to the conversation, right? Or, you could engage that supplier directly.

I recommend you engage your supplier directly if you want to resolve the issue quickly with any hope of accuracy. However, by simply emailing that supplier a copy of the Reject Notice and including them in the conversation, you do not have business rules in a structured process to drive you toward resolving the issue. In fact, you open yourself up to all the other issues in this post, just with a different supplier. With multiple communication layers necessary, your opportunity for error shot through the roof.

As a quality professional in a manufacturing organization, you know that eventually, this scenario will become painfully real. To prevent that pain, you need a way to combine business processes and supply chain management, and you can’t enforce that by emailing PDF documents.


The potential of technology is to improve efficiency and effectiveness to make life less challenging and more enjoyable. In reality, if we don’t use technology wisely, we can cause more problems for ourselves than if we had left it alone.

We all know that supply chain management can make or break a business, and it’s one of the most important areas for controlling costs, and consequently, profits. Supply chain management is not just a purchasing function, though. Purchasing, Information Technology, and Quality all have a crucial role in managing the supply chain well. It’s important to ask, ‘does my process dictate the technology, or does the technology dictate the process?’ If you conclude with the latter, you are likely making life more difficult for everyone involved in your supply chain management activities.

In reality, most manufacturing organizations have hundreds, if not thousands, of suppliers that are not electronically enabled, so they resort to sending PDFs via email for mission-critical business documents like Purchase Orders, Advanced Shipping Notices, Invoices, and Reject Notices. As we have seen clearly that this hinders supplier transparency, adds ambiguity regarding version control, creates security risks, and gives you no ability whatsoever to define and enforce a business process that enhances life for you, your boss, and your suppliers.

It’s time to change the way that we do B2B trading.


Check out this quarter’s downloadable resource: Solving Six Supplier Quality Issues with ChainLink SRM

Want to talk about your problem? We’d love to chat. Don’t worry, there’s no obligation to buy anything. Talk to sales

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David Erwin

David is the Chief Operations Officer and Director of Business Development at TTP Solutions LLC. Since 2019, David has been the driving force behind sales, marketing, and organizational development. David holds a B.B.A. in Entrepreneurship and a B.A. in Spanish from Middle Tennessee State University. He has a passion for helping others to solve problems creatively. Husband to KerrieAnn, David loves photography, hiking, traveling, and reading.

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