How to Transform Your Business with Electronic Forms

By Brian Lincoln  |  Posted 2010-09-07

How to Transform Your Business with Electronic Forms

Paper-intensive industries can transition to capture technologies such as electronic forms (e-forms) to make processes more streamlined and improve employee and customer satisfaction. Pairing e-forms with an Enterprise Content Management (ECM) system allows companies to reduce data errors while speeding up business process cycle times. In just a few clicks, users can complete and route their digital forms for review, approval or storage.

So, how do you start the e-form conversion process in your organization? Start with a well-thought-out plan, since any change to established processes can be daunting. However, with a plan, a smooth adoption of e-forms is within any organization's reach. There are several elements to consider when preparing for the conversion, two of these being timeline and system requirements. Let's explore each:

Element No. 1: Timeline

Develop a reasonable timeline, allowing for all tasks to be executed thoroughly. Typically, creating e-forms (or converting them from paper) involves designing a form using e-form designer software, with the time required dependant on the user's experience level. The overall process of launching an e-form can be quick and simple, yielding immediate time savings. Or, if it involves automating multiple back-end workflows to process the form, it may become more involved. The timeline will be influenced by your requirements and system complexity.

Element No. 2: System requirements

The ECM system is the underlying structure that makes e-forms work smoothly and stores them for later use. E-form technology and packages can be configured to run on a variety of systems. It is important to start by evaluating the existing ECM system and projecting the performance impact that implementation will have on it. Use of e-forms can add significantly to the load on the system.

Determine how much physical space will be needed for the forms to be housed, as well as how many users will be accessing and later adding e-forms to the system for storage. The number of forms processed daily or weekly will determine the system configuration, while the volume of all forms to be stored will drive storage sizing requirements.

Collecting Error-Free Data

Collecting error-free data

Database look-ups and data validation ensure that the information collected on the forms is free from error. Forms and form data can be mapped to ECM system object types and properties. Together, these features facilitate auto-population of forms as users are filling them out, and allow for information searches and comparisons.

For example, a new hire form may have a field that allows human resources to enter a job code that represents the newly hired employee. When that happens, a database look-up is done and another field is automatically filled with the job title that corresponds to that code. Similarly, some fields may require that an entered value be validated against the database before proceeding. If an employee enters their name, it can be checked against the database for spelling and correlation to the employee ID-similar to a personal log-in for any system.

Identifying needs before going digital

Once the ECM system is ready, there are some simple steps to move forward with the introduction of e-forms. First, identify any specific needs that may be present within the company team. Tulane University in Louisiana, for example, was motivated to add e-forms to their existing ECM system in order to cut the costs and time required to manually process a wealth of paper-based forms. They wanted to speed up processes that ranged from everyday activities such as mailing documents outside the campus to academic activities such as students declaring a major.

Tulane University's e-form project has benefited from regular department lunch meetings where users and form administrators from different teams can meet and compare notes, wish lists, lessons learned and ideas about what they require from the e-forms project. Being considerate of users' needs is crucial in the eventual acceptance of e-forms into the company fold. Depending on the users' digital aptitude and adaptability, removing paper from established processes may be difficult. Some work environments may benefit from change management prior to the e-forms launch. No matter how digital the workplace may become, the human element will always be essential.

Selecting Forms to Digitize

Selecting forms to digitize

Next, select a form or group of forms to be among the first to go digital. A phased approach may help to ease the transition. For example, you can begin with several low-volume, easily converted forms such as office supply order forms with just a few fields. After that, you can move to more complex forms with higher demand.

Consider two scenarios. In the first scenario, a newly-introduced student admissions e-form has been designed from scratch. But before it can be launched for users, it may have to be reviewed and approved by the admissions, housing, financial aid, student life and other departments to obtain input from all affected parties.

But in the second scenario, a student major declaration form only requires input from one department and provides the e-forms conversion project with an easy lead-off win. Tulane University followed the second scenario, benefiting from initially introducing e-forms that did not cross departments. Because of this, they required fewer stakeholders to review and agree upon what the form would look like.

Making it easily accessible to users

Once the selected form has been re-created in its digital form, it will need to be made available somewhere easily accessible for users. Before making the form available, consider privacy, anonymity and legal issues. You may wish to add access permissions to particular forms so that only certain individuals can fill them out. Some forms may require a specialized, secure location. In most cases, a Website or a place on the company intranet is a convenient solution.

Implementing E-Forms

Implementing e-forms

Now that the starting point has been established-a form, a set of affected users and a place for the form to live-you are ready to move forward with implementation. Begin by modeling the desired e-forms using the software's form designer as a starting point. Or, alternatively, packages exist that can create digital replicas of scanned paper forms that allow a designer to work in customized edits. The final format is often an XML file that acts as a container, displaying the form in an application or Web page and collecting data in fields filled by the user. Once a user has completed and submitted the form, the completed form is often stored in PDF or XML (or both). If the in-house team does not have the skill set to adapt their existing forms to electronic, consider outsourcing the transition.

Keeping information safe

Traditionally, many paper forms are made official with a signature. E-forms often provide the same opportunity using an e-signature option. E-signatures allow users to sign the forms online as they would have done with pen and paper, certifying that the information is agreed upon and factual. There may be special regulatory requirements within certain sectors that must be considered when employing e-signatures.

For example, healthcare is an area that has stringent guidelines and specific regulations that must be adhered to in order for the form to be official. It is best to investigate the parameters within your industry before setting up an e-signature process.

Converting paper forms to e-forms with an ECM system provides the opportunity to automate the forms-based processes using business process management (BPM) or workflow capabilities. The most common workflow for e-forms involves the user filling out the form and clicking submit, resulting in a saved form that is routed for approvals specific to any given system. Some e-forms-such as those that require multiple approvals or are populated by more than one user-are inherently more complex than those requiring one user and one approval. With this in mind, design workflow solutions that are relatable to the form because each form has its own style, information and process associated with it.

Making E-Forms Available

Making e-forms available

Once an e-form is ready to be deployed to users, it can be made available in a variety of ways.  External forms such as customer satisfaction surveys can be published on a company Website. Internal forms such as vacation requests can be housed on a company intranet system. For convenience, many organizations choose to place forms into a directory of forms or make the forms searchable using an ECM system.

However, when the forms are delivered, be prepared to assist users, answer questions and aid in the overall adoption of e-forms into the company fold. Once users are accustomed to the idea that paperwork can now be completed online without paper, information will become more streamlined, contain fewer errors and have less of an environmental impact.

Brian Lincoln is a Senior Product Line Manager at Xerox. Brian has over 14 years of experience as a content management professional including previous positions at Documentum and EMC, where he specialized in launching vertical applications into government and related regulated industries. Brian has performed roles spanning the entire product development life cycle, evolving from engineering and consulting leadership positions to senior product management, where he also managed OEM relationships. Brian holds a Bachelor's degree in Economics from California State University, Sacramento. He can be reached at

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