Understanding e-Forms

According to a recent study conducted by Microsoft, a single paper form can cost an organization $165 to print, store, process and use. Moving that form online and automating it can save that company $150 per form. Despite these findings, a 1999 Goldman Sachs survey revealed that only 2 percent of all business transactions are digital. Gartner adds that paper-based transactions cost upwards of $360 billion per year and that 83 percent of all documents are forms.

The 1996 Government Paperwork Elimination Act (GPEA) stated that government forms have to be online and fully automated by the end of 2003. In October 1999, President Clinton accelerated the GPEA with the Presidential eGovernment Directive, stating that the top 500 most commonly used federal forms must be online by the end of 2000. In June 2000, Clinton signed the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act, also called E-Sign or the E-Signature Act, which has aided government adherence to the GPEA regarding electronic forms. (For more information about e-signatures, go to www.destinationffa.com/0901/links).

Cardiff, a developer of integrated e-transaction solutions, has created a Web-based e-form management system, LiquidOffice, in conjunction with Adobe Acrobat to address the growing need for electronic transactions. Alan Tam, Cardiff product marketing manager, explains that one of the problems with transitioning to e-forms has been that there is currently no standard for electronic transactions. If an organization wanted to create electronic forms internally, client/server technology most likely would have to be used. The expenses involved with client/server technology can become outrageous if that organization created forms for outside users.

According to Tam, Cardiff and Adobe aim to create a standard for electronic forms. "Adobe PDF is already the de facto standard for business documents. We are extending that standard to an electronic forms environment," he says. Currently, Adobe Acrobat has more than 220 million installs around the world; that's more than either Internet Explorer or Netscape. Because Acrobat is already widely accepted, says Tam, organizations wanting to create electronic forms will not have to learn an entirely new application solely for that purpose. "It is a peer to Explorer and Netscape," he says. "I can use it to view the Web, I can create and view business documents; if I wanted to send contracts within my organization, I most likely use [Acrobat] for online collaboration and digital signatures. It's not just a form field tool."

While the government is making strides to eliminate paper-based forms, there is still a lot to be done. At www.irs.gov, for example, one can find PDF versions of tax forms that can be printed, completed and mailed back in. But that is just the beginning of what Cardiff sees as a five-phase process for complete automation.

• Move all paper forms online, perhaps to a central intranet--most organizations have accepted Adobe Acrobat PDF format for this purpose. This eliminates the time spent tracking down appropriate forms.

• Make all the forms fillable. Instead of printing and manually filling them in, information can be entered directly on the online form and then printed. With Acrobat v.4 and v.5, forms can be created either in a static or fillable manner. For those corporations planning to completely automate transactions, fillable is the way to go.

• Create a submit function on the form so that once the information has been entered, the user can skip printing and simply submit. The information will be processed into a database through the business rules that were applied during creation of the form.

• Create submit, route and approve functions. Once a form is complete, it can be sent to the appropriate supervisor(s) for approval, and it will automatically go into a back-end system for storage.

• Capability for digital signatures and even multiple signatures can be added, such as a work order in a manufacturing environment that requires approval from various teams. Instead of tracking down teams and signatures, this can be sent directly via e-mail.

Ultimately, every organization should reach this fully automated form system. Tam describes this as a marriage of the Cardiff and Adobe technologies, allowing organizations to adapt to automation at their own pace. "Automation can't happen overnight," he says.

"With LiquidOffice, we have a standard platform," Tam continues. "It's a universal front end to all your business applications." He uses the analogy of a home entertainment system with a television, VCR, DVD player and stereo, each one with its own separate remote control. "Let LiquidOffice be the universal remote for all the applications."

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