What Is an Electronic Form?

James Watson
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Many of our clients express their need to manage electronic forms more effectively.  But the scope of an electronic forms management effort can take many different paths.  So if your boss comes to you and says, “We need to get our forms under control”, make sure to frame the objectives and requirements carefully and properly. 

The first step is to distinguish between the different uses of forms, data capture vs. outbound communications – each of which can have static or dynamic applications.

Data capture

Forms used for data capture are essentially a means to collect information, obtain a signature.  After they’ve been completed, we hope these documents will be returned to us for processing. Data capture forms can be static or dynamic:

  • Static data capture – Primarily downloaded and printed, to be filled out and/or signed by the recipient.  These are “electronic” only in the sense that they are distributed electronically.
  • Dynamic data capture – The logic and often variable data within these forms allow the user to just confirm or modify what they see.  Generally, there are two different types:  Distributable (think PDFs that can be downloaded or emailed), or web-pages (basically, a front-end to a database or applications).

Outbound communications

Forms used for outbound communication are forms we don’t expect to get back – although they may include  data capture sections, should a change to the stored information about the recipient be required.  Likewise, outbound communications can be static or dynamic:

  • Static outbound communications – These static communications are used primarily for providing information to the recipient (e.g. terms, disclosures, instructions).
  • Dynamic outbound communications (variable data merge) – This type of static communication includes personalized documents, such as a monthly statement or bill, or a letter generated as a result of a customer service call. 

This distinction between forms used for data capture and forms used for outbound communications seems fairly intuitive, yet historically the tools and technologies used for each have been very different, and the result, for organizations seeking to implement further automation of their processes, is a very broad spectrum of approaches.  Short of re-writing everything from scratch in a “new platform” that synchronizes data capture and outbound communications, an electronic forms initiative can become a very big undertaking.

The world of electronic forms is more complex than most of our clients seem to realize.  They start down a path to standardize their use of forms, streamline operations, and improve the effectiveness of their communications – perhaps by improving the consistency of tone and voice or the visual appeal of their communications. These are all noble goals.  But for large enterprises, these projects can take years to complete.  So be clear about your objectives at the start, and budget your time accordingly.   

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