Enterprise forms automation
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Enterprise forms automation is a company-wide computer system or set of systems for managing, distributing, completing and processing paper-based forms, applications, surveys, contracts and other documents. It plays a vital role towards achieving the goal of a paperless office.
The term "enterprise forms automation" was first used in the mid 1990s by JetForm Corporation to describe their solution to automating paperwork. This process was later acquired by Adobe Systems and is now part of the Adobe LiveCycle suite of products. In 2004 Efficient Technology Inc became the first company to apply this term in the software as a service.
This term is intended to refer to the automation of paper-based processes that specifically rely on documents (forms, applications, etc.) that retain their paper-based look and feel even if not printed out during the process. In order for a forms automation solution to be considered an ‘Enterprise Forms Automation’ solution it must meet the requirements of enterprise software and be specifically focused on automating paperwork and paper-based forms.
Organizations implement enterprise software solutions in order to automate major functions and large processes as these areas offer the greatest cost savings and return on investment compared to smaller projects. Enterprise-level implementations often cost well over $100,000 and therefore take many months to realize cost savings. As such, automating smaller functions are ignored due to the lack of immediate financial benefit or cost savings. As functions become more and more automated while software costs for enterprise systems drop in price, organizations begin automating lower-level functions in order to reap additional cost savings and become more efficient. In addition, through the advent of standards like Adobe’s PDF model and service models like Quik!, automating the process of filling out forms is one such area that companies seek to automate via Enterprise Forms Automation solutions.
Automating forms also has a positive ‘green’ impact on the environment. In order to reduce waste and carbon emissions, companies seek ways to eliminate paper. By deploying an Enterprise Forms Automation system, companies can eliminate paper entirely or significantly reduce how much paper is used, while greatly reducing shipping and handling costs, storage costs, and printing costs associated to pre-printed forms. In addition, automating paper-based processes greatly speeds up the time it takes to perform transactions, which results in fewer errors, rejections and revisions and has the benefit of freeing up the time spent by users on manual labor.
In today’s implementation of the paperless office concept there are two main focuses: creating documents and managing documents. Since major systems have already displaced paper altogether (e.g. enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management, accounting software, etc.), the paper that continues to be in use is largely generated by processes that capture data, generate reports and distribute communications. As software and computers have evolved, the first problem to be addressed has been the management of existing and legacy documents through document management systems.
Document management and archiving systems do offer some methods of automating forms. Typically, the point in which document management systems start working with a document is when the document is scanned and/or sent into the system. Many document management systems include the ability to read documents via optical character recognition (OCR) and use that data within the document management system’s framework. While this technology is essential to achieving a paperless office it does not address the processes that generate paper in the first place.
The ultimate step towards eliminating paper is to change the way that documents are created. In 1993 Adobe Systems introduced the Portable Document Format (PDF) in order to facilitate the exchange of documents in a universal manner across most computer platforms. This format has laid the foundation for creating, transporting, working on and archiving electronic documents and in 2008 became an ISO standard. In addition, the PDF model established a method for automating forms that allows forms to be prefilled with existing data and manually entered on a PC screen which can greatly reduce and/or eliminate the number of paper forms being printed.
A typical Enterprise Forms Automation implementation typically combines the following technologies:
- Library of electronic versions of paper-based documents (PDF format or other comparable format)
- Data store of existing data and/or web page to collect data to fill onto forms
- Software to pre-fill existing data from databases and data stores onto electronic forms
- Software to save forms that are in process and/or partially completed
- Software to capture and translate electronic form data
- Workflow systems to manage the interaction with forms and data
- Two-way messaging between forms and systems during submission and validation
- Barcode software to match images of forms with electronic form data
- Digital signature solutions to capture signatures electronically
The primary challenge to making use of these technologies is a matter of resource planning and implementation costs, however all of the necessary technologies have been in existence since at least 2000. Furthermore, the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act (ESIGN Act) was signed into legislation by Congress requiring that digital signatures be accepted as valid signatures. But even with the law in effect, companies have been slow to adopt such solutions due to the cost and skills required to design, build and maintain such systems at a reasonable price.
A secondary challenge is integrating the electronic forms into an existing process, whereby existing data stores can be accessed and supplied to and from the forms. While tools to assist with the integration exist, most implementations require custom programming efforts to the specific forms and data sources.
Many of these challenges are being addressed by middleware solutions, technology platforms and services that tie all the pieces together. Known as Enterprise Application Integration (“EAI”), developers of EAI solutions are continually introducing new cost-effective methods to take advantage of web-based and centrally-managed capabilities plus the ability to leverage legacy system architecture. With each advancement in EAI technologies enterprise forms automation becomes easier to implement and manage.
- Walker, Richard (2009-08-07). "Achieving The Paperless Office" (PDF). Efficient Technology Inc.
- "ISO 32000-1:2008". International Organization For Standardization. July 1, 2008.
- Ruh, William A.; Maginnis, Francis X.; Brown, William (2001). Enterprise application integration: a Wiley tech brief. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. pp. 1–11. ISBN 0-471-37641-8.