Automate Business Processes with Electronic Forms

Document Management
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The U.S. Army saves more than a billion dollars by using IBM Lotus to eliminate paper forms.


People have been using paper to write on for more than 5,000 years, so it's not surprising that there is resistance to giving it up in the workplace, even when it's more cost-efficient to do so.


The papyrus plant was used to make a form of paper in ancient Egypt as early as 3500 BC. Modern paper is believed to have originated in China around 200 AD and migrated to Europe in the early 12th century. When the production of paper became mechanized in the early 19th century, the hoi polloi (that's Joe six-pack) got their first taste of mass information from inexpensive books and newspapers.


Today, paper remains fairly inexpensive, but it's not that inexpensive, and it's gone up considerably in the past few years. For many businesses, paper is a major expense. While the concern that cutting down trees to make paper is hard on the environment may be exaggerated (consider the planting of managed forests), the landfill taken up by waste paper definitely is taking its toll on the planet. Besides, the manufacture of paper is an environmentally messy business with byproducts often fouling nearby waterways.


So if you enjoy using paper, you shouldn't feel overly guilty...yet. But certainly there is a better--and far cheaper way--to collect and distribute information: paperless document management, or electronic forms. Not only is the method far less expensive than using paper-based processes, but technology has evolved to where there now are work-process features built right into the forms.


I had to be impressed by a recent story from inFORM Decisions discussing how the company has partnered with the Arbor Day Foundation to plant 10 trees in the name of each customer who buys an IBM i-based paperless document management software product from the company. Arbor Day will use the donation to help reforest areas burned by recent wild fires.


The U.S. Army, formerly the world's largest user of paper forms, recently adopted an electronic forms solution from IBM Lotus. The moved saved close to 75 tons of paper last year. The source of some 15 million forms annually, the Army saved $1.3 billion (that's billion with a "b") by switching to an electronic forms solution. That's a lot of green, and it's not the environmental type. Nevertheless, the Army also gave quite a few trees a reprieve in its move to electronic forms.


There is a lot going on today in the field of paperless document management. As we will learn in an article by John Ghrist to appear Monday in MC Systems Insight, the incoming Barack Obama administration will emphasize paperless medical records in its initiative to reduce healthcare costs. With the advent of XML-powered Web forms, or W3C XForms, there are refinements in technology that will open up new markets. Set to replace HTML forms as the core in electronic commerce, XForms allows for creating and editing structured XML content in a browser environment. The presentation layer is separate from the underlying data model and control system.


Bob Levy is senior product manager for IBM Lotus Forms, and he took time out during the holidays to talk with MC Press Online. As with so much of IBM's cutting-edge technology today, the exciting capabilities within the various solutions we generally call Lotus Forms were acquired originally in a strategic acquisition--in this case, the Canadian firm PureEdge Solutions purchased in 2005. After considerable development of the product line, IBM Forms V3.5 now has an advanced server product, a viewer, and a designer based on the Eclipse platform. The latest addition to the product line, and one that makes it far more useful for organizations of all sizes, is Lotus Forms Turbo. With Turbo, everyone in the line of business can create their own forms at will, without having to rely on a specialist either in IT or elsewhere to create a form that was needed yesterday.


By electronic forms, we are referring here to online forms that are ready to be completed by users. These are such items as survey or information forms that make possible the collection, tabulation, transportation, and presentation of data electronically. Beyond the savings in paper costs, there is a potential to unleash innovation within the company by using electronic forms technology. By pushing that capability down into the hands of users in the business, companies can generate significant efficiencies. The idea is to automate business processes, and you can do that with electronic forms.


I asked Levy how a company gets its existing paper forms into a more versatile electronic format, and he said that the Lotus Forms Designer uses the original as a template after you scan it into the system. This saves having to recreate the form from scratch. But what about security? Lotus Forms uses digital signing that permits the user to wrap and "nest" digital signatures within a package of different forms.


"There are solutions out there for signing documents, and most of those are actually just signing the data," says Levy. "With Lotus Forms, the signatures are locking down the data, the presentation. Say you fill in your name; that entry prohibits the sort of tampering that was possible with other products because you've locked down the presentation, the data, and the underlying data model, so no aspect of that transaction can be manipulated," he says. The product supports a variety of technologies--including public key infrastructure (PKI), Clickwrap, and authenticated wrap--that provide even easier-to-administer formats for signing.


Levy says Lotus Forms is gaining traction among companies and organizations that put jobs out for bid, such as local governments. Contractors can complete electronic forms, making comparisons of the incoming data much easier to evaluate in that the data no longer has to be collated; it's just automatically entered by the vendor's proposal. Marketing departments are using them for performing surveys, and, of course, human resources finds them far superior to having to keep track of a host of paper forms that are always running low and need to be reprinted. Because data collected in the forms can be rendered in specific and different ways, they are useful in meeting regulatory compliance requirements. Lotus Forms is finding a receptive audience among educational institutions, and Cardiff University, a leading U.K. teaching and research institution, was successful in automating a number of cumbersome paper-based processes ranging from purchase order requisitions to library loans.


For those who would like to try Lotus Forms, they can do so at Lotus Greenhouse, where there is a simulated Lotus Forms application.