In this series I tackle the topic of electronic forms: why we need them, best practices and comparisons on creating, managing, and automating them.

INTRODUCTION

Over the course of the last few weeks it seems a perfect storm has converged around me to force me to re-examine the fundamental issue of electronic forms in their various incarnations living around us today, from stand-alone (Microsoft Word and PDF, for example) to those more sophisticated ones embedded inside workflow and collaboration portals.

First, everyone I speak to seems to be complaining about their forms and can’t decide on the best way to create and manage them.  Should I use PDF? InfoPath? Web forms? Microsoft Word? Excel? How do I organize them? They’re “all over the place”, and “I’m buried!”

paperstack

An old associate's desk circa 1988 😉

Meanwhile, and quite à propos, my team and I have been working on a review of the simplicity of design of various electronic forms, because not all form tools are created equal and we needed to get clarity on specific technologies (yes, I’ll reveal the results soon).

Then the icing on the cake: I received an e-mail from a potential client who sent me a confidential document intended for a Patrick at their company (not me!), and whose company name is somewhat similar to Intellera (gotta love Microsoft Outlook’s AutoComplete feature…)   Instant yet preventable security breach. Luckily I’m a nice guy and advised the person and promptly deleted the mail. But the incident highlighted the importance of my research on form and document security, authorized distribution, and workflow over the years.

So I decided to investigate further what makes forms so critical, why so many business people struggle with them, and practical suggestions and comparisons of existing technologies that can solve the problems.

THE NEED FOR FORMS

How many forms do you fill out (or process what others fill out)  in your organization so as to get things done in a week? Dozens? Hundreds? What if you consider that any computer input page, such as those on your accounting system, ERP, or other systems that let you create products, enter customer information, or create an invoice, are also considered forms? Then the number might grow quite large I bet.

Overall, are they electronic or still mostly paper? Are they organized in a system of some sort or are they free-form, floating around in e-mails and mapped drive folders? If I had to guess they are a mix of scattered Excel documents, Word documents, some paper here and there (a lot of paper if you are at the receiving end of a customer service desk), and an ever growing number of computer screens you tap-tap-tap at during the day. (Pop quiz: do you consider e-mail a form? My opinion is a resounding yes…)

Forms, whether paper or not, are with us now and will be forever because they are the glue that binds us together in business. If you pardon the techie phrase, they are containers for what developers call “data persistence”, our externalized short and long term memory,  the way to make sure an idea is remembered long enough to be communicated.

But that’s the easy part. The hard part is having the wherewithal to build and use these forms:

  • Efficiently (why do you always need to re-write your name and address each time you visit City Hall for a permit? Don’t they know who you are?)
  • Accurately (why can’t we use tools to validate the input rather than accept “garbage in” to be disseminated forever and a day? The form should know that two checkboxes are mutually exclusive of each other, no?)
  • Securely (are you sure you are authorized to view that person’s social insurance number, or fill out that form or approve it? What is the impact of a mistake? Think Compliance)
  • Conform to law (are you performing the correct actions or verifications based on the information provided?)
  • Following policy and procedure (how does this form move along the workflow? How can you guarantee everyone knows the accepted and documented processes?)

Just a few of the questions I have pondered and will expand upon in Part 2… see you then!

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