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Time to Fall in Love with Forms Again

People find them annoying at best and indecipherable at worst. Organizations use them for everything but hate to invest in them. And no one is exactly sure where the development art ends and the implementation science begins.

We’re talking, of course, about forms – paper forms, electronic forms, even the kind of wizardy-type things many Web sites use to engage you as a prospect of customer.

It’s been literally 20 years since this observer got his first look at an electronic form, and the experience lit the fires of imagination because the technology so clearly was all about entering information into a database so it can be used and tracked, thereby enabling staggering new heights in operational efficiency and records management.

Today, that potential lives on as strong as ever. But in the score of years in between, the technology failed to generate the kind of excitement I believed it would – probably because pretty much nobody likes forms. At this point, not only do none of the original purveyors still exist, but the functionality itself also has been largely overshadowed and subsumed by other related stacks like BPM/workflow, imaging, and records/content management.

But here’s the thing:

Forms technology is everywhere,
whether we recognize it or not, call it that or not, realize it or not.

  • When you order office supplies or request a vacation, you fill out a form. (That’s an easy one, even if done on-screen via a browser.)
  • When you click the electronic calendar on the hotel’s Web site to check room availability, that’s a form, too.
  • When you check the box and click “OK” to accept the licensing terms of your new desktop software, that’s yet another form.
  • And when you set the parameters for and run a report in SalesForce.com, guess what? You’re using a form!

The point is that almost anything you do on a networked computer these days – and that means nearly all of them – involves a form. In many cases, such as the hotel site and CRM examples just cited, they don’t really feel like forms. But they are just the same, and they are the key to unleashing everything, from a process perspective, that then ensues: receiving new pencils or getting time off, making a reservation and charging your credit card, sending an email campaign to selected contacts … all of which results in new records to be managed.

In many ways, Microsoft’s SharePoint embodies all that is happening with and around forms because it is the nexus for all kinds of applications: portals, business intelligence, document collaboration, knowledge management, etc. This being the case, it is no coincidence that it includes its own forms product in InfoPath.

But even if you don’t buy into Redmond’s view of the world, the fact is that the template exists in the collection of offerings from EMC, IBM, Oracle, and others as well, all of which have assembled entire kits of operational components that functionally are glued together by one type of form or another.

So, gentle reader, it’s time to fall in love with your forms again. The context in which they exist has changed dramatically over the years – as have the tools to design them and put them in the field, which now range far beyond simply putting ink on paper – but they are as critical to your business processes as they were 20 years ago.

Even if you can’t stand them day in and day out.

If you’re in New England and would like to continue this conversation, join me at a special meeting of the Business Forms Management Association on June 21 at the MetLife facility on Boylston Street in Boston. For details, please click here.

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