Don’t Forget Forms Management: Examples From Higher Education

George Despres

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With a whole professional organization devoted to it, good forms management can be highly valuable to an enterprise. But it’s an often neglected part of information governance (IG). Forms optimization promotes the replacement of paper forms with electronic ones, enabling organizations to be more efficient and environmentally responsible, in turn improving productivity and public reputation. And with e-signatures now widely accepted in contractual agreements, there’s little excuse not to pursue good e-forms stewardship. While all institutions can benefit from this endeavor, colleges and universities exemplify some key reasons why.

Take a typical paper-based workflow. Most colleges employ student workers. Each week, the student’s supervisor prints a paper time sheet and then hands it to the student. The student handwrites her hours worked on the form, signs it and hands it back to her supervisor. The supervisor signs the form, walks the form down to the payment processing office (or worse, sends it via snail mail), at which point a payment processing officer physically keys the data into the payment system. You get the idea — not very efficient.

A secure electronic workflow vastly improves upon this scenario: Hours worked and e-signatures are entered independently via desktop or mobile device, automatically delivering the data into the payroll system.

Some forms used by universities are automated by commercial vendors. These products enhance admissions and course management, grants management and alumni data management, among other capabilities. Third parties can also host university operational data and forms. The nonprofit College Board, for example, connects colleges with applicant test scores and financial aid data, while the Department of Homeland Security’s Student and Exchange Visitor Information System supports forms and data management for international scholars. Additionally, some enterprise resource planning systems include e-form components, ensuring smooth flow of university data.

Yet paper-based workflows remain. This is where forms optimization comes in. So, where do you start?

An assessment and inventory of existing paper forms is the first step. Identify any paper forms with bulky, slow workflows and high paper consumption and prioritize them for your pilot forms revamp project, engaging department stakeholders.

Next, determine your metadata schema, input your business rules (for example, this may entail masking certain fields or adding a validation procedure), implement security and access requirements and design the form layout. Then integrate, test, improve, release and announce to your audience. Collect user feedback for more improvements.

When selecting your e-form software solution(s), minimize the number of products you deploy and consider the following: Is sign-on easy and secure? How well does the form software integrate with current systems? Does responsive web design enable a consistent user interface and experience across different devices?

After release, be sure to remove links and references to retired paper forms. And finally, measure your results: Determine page counts based on forms submission and report paper reduction statistics to management.

Good forms management is well worth your attention. Practice it.

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