Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Planning for the Future: Electronic Forms and Your Organization


Every organization has forms. They come in many shapes and sizes, formats, and are often a necessary evil.


For organizations who use SharePoint as their intranet, they often utilize InfoPath as their form platform. It's an easy way to create forms and digitize business processes.

As you may have heard, InfoPath is being retired. This news should come to no one's surprise as there have been rumblings about this for several years. However, the social media-sphere is blowing up with comments and people offering immediate solutions to replace InfoPath.

There are lots of good solutions, but regardless of whether you utilize InfoPath forms or not, now isn't the time to panic. Instead, be sagacious in planning the future of forms within an organization. I want to take some time and clear the air about forms. So regardless if you use InfoPath or not, there's hopefully some takeaways for you and your organization.

You currently use InfoPath forms

Let's say you have InfoPath forms. Technically InfoPath will stop being supported in nine years (2023). But you’ll probably go through a migration or two or three in that almost-decade and here's what you need to think about to properly plan for the future.

Are you using SharePoint 2010?

  • Chances are a migration to SharePoint 2013 is in your future. If so, you have a few more years of InfoPath at your disposal. If a migration is not on the horizon, you may be in store for one of those super-fun double migrations but your InfoPath forms will not be able to come along for the ride. Instead of utilizing the “kick the can down the road" approach, go ahead and ask yourself the questions in the section below. You don’t need to answer the questions at this exact moment. But an answer sooner will save you and your organization from a world of hurt later.

Are you using SharePoint 2013?

There are a few more points of consideration here. InfoPath Forms Services, the backbone of InfoPath on SharePoint, will not be around after SharePoint 2013. Instead of panicking the week before a migration to SharePoint 20XX, ask yourself the following questions now.

  • What would be the level of effort and cost to change form platforms?
    • Licenses and training are all expensive items. We all know licenses cost money, but consider the amount of time it will take a developer, or a team of developers, to learn the new platform and port over the current forms to the new platform. Don't view training on a form platform as a cost. See it as ROI for the entire organization.
  • What if you went back to basics?
    • The only thing more ubiquitous than Microsoft Word are water and air. Ok, that's a little hyperbolic. The fact is that Word is a pretty powerful forms engine. You can build a great looking form in little time at all and route it though out of the box approval workflows on SharePoint. Additionally, this may be a great stop-gap measure as we see how the industry develops a new best of breed approach for SharePoint forms.
  • What if you DIY?
    • A lot of companies already develop their own forms. It doesn't matter what the language is. If you have in-house talent, you may find it more efficient to have them build the web forms. With this approach there really aren't licensing or education costs involved. However, you may be pulling in an existing resource into a new role. In terms of allocation within your organization, it's a little bit of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Additionally, similar to using Word for forms, by creating your own web forms you can use programming languages that may stand the test of time.

You don't currently use InfoPath forms

In this section my assumption is you use physical, paper forms, or have an existing forms engine that is outside of SharePoint and are tired of maintaining disparate systems for the intranet and for forms and their approval processes. All of the questions from the previous section are applicable, but the context changes.

  • Assess Your Current Forms Situation
    • First and foremost, start by identifying the forms within your organization and rank them based on business criticality and complexity. By talking to end users and stakeholders you can put together a spreadsheet of system requirements that can help you make an effective business decision. Once you have that gathered, then you can ask yourself the following questions.
  • What if you DIY?
    • The DIY option in the section above is still applicable.
  • What if you went back to basics?
    • Microsoft Word is familiar throughout the entire enterprise. Plus, there's little to no risk here. However, be sure to spend the time and get the Word form right. There are lots of hideous Word forms out there and if you’re going to go down this avenue, it’s best to make an appealing and user friendly form. Otherwise you’ll just wind up porting over your paper form woes into a digital environment.
  • What if you bought a product?
    • There are some really great forms products out there. You'll need to decide whether you want something that's Open Source, or a product with a solid support team or support network. Open source may be "cheap" but when those "oh shoot" moments happen, and they will, do you want to be left out to dry? Additionally a lot of third-party vendors also sell workflow products. So if you not only want a form, but want a workflow too, this is something to consider. Because if you're digitizing a form, why not make the process digital too? But as I mentioned earlier, there is a training element here. And while there technically can be a training element here with all these options, you need to evaluate the gains this will provide your organization.