Wednesday, October 20, 2010

PerfectForms - Make your business documents come to life

Moving intelligent forms to the cloud takes us a step closer to the paperless office

By now everybody has heard about cloud computing, and countless big and small companies and even individuals are using it on an everyday basis. In some cases, people are using it and don't even realize it. Store your vacation pictures in one of the popular photo-sharing services? Use Hotmail? Play Farmville? That's cloud computing. On a bigger scale, cloud computing may involve e-commerce, productivity applications, or cloud-enabled versions of your internally-developed custom apps.

When paperwork is no longer paperwork . . .

We tend to think of "forms" as pieces of paper, which are filled out, collated, and entered manually into a computer database for subsequent processing. However, the nature of "form" has changed, and with it, the entire workflow associated with the form has been altered.

The form is an entry point to workflow. That is, the form, whether it is paper or electronic, is used to collect information. That information then goes on to be gathered, calculated, processed, and compiled into reports. It is passed on from department to department so different actions can be taken. That part hasn't changed, but the fundamental shift involves the level of integration.

In the old model, the form was a static point of reference that stood on its own. A data entry clerk had to copy information from the form into a database or computer application before it could become useful.

Today, the form is no longer static. It is a dynamic and integrated point of reference that is a part of the entire workflow, and a part of the applications that depend upon it to carry out business processes.

Let's start with what an electronic form can do. A simple example is the fillable PDF. The IRS uses them, and you can fill out your 1040 directly onto the electronic form. That gives some convenience to the end user, but that's only the beginning. Convenience to the end user—the person filling out the form—is good, from a public relations/marketing perspective, but the real value comes in the back end.

Traditionally, all those forms would be gathered in an office for processing, and an army of data entry clerks would take each form, and re-type the information into a database, which would then compile the information and generate reports for management.

Here's where electronic forms bring the big benefit: If you're able to integrate those electronic forms directly with your other applications, all that data entry becomes unnecessary. And instead of the form being just a static document, it becomes part of a larger integrated system.

What is the cloud?
But before we talk about bringing the cloud into the paperwork loop, we have to understand precisely what the cloud is . . . and what it is not.

Cloud computing is often misunderstood, and because the very name "cloud" implies something that you can't pin down, it's easy to get the impression that with a cloud application or cloud service, you never know where your applications and data may lie. But that's not the case.

A cloud is just an interconnected group of servers that use a virtualization layer so that they can operate as a single unit. It then delivers services to customers over a secure connection, typically using the Internet as a primary conduit. So, while the Internet may be part of the process, it's not the entire process. The cloud itself is a defined group of hardware elements, usually housed in one or more data centers. And despite the ethereal sounding name, you can actually pin it down. When you purchase a cloud application from a provider, you are able to know exactly where your data and applications are held, and that there is strict control and oversight over that location.

Now that we know the cloud has a defined location and consists of actual physical components, let's talk about what it does.

The most common type of cloud computing is Software-as-a-Service. Again, many people make the mistake of thinking that all cloud computing is SaaS, but this is not the case. Most analysts recognize three distinct types of cloud computing:

  • Software-as-a-Service (SaaS). SaaS is the delivery of a software service from a third party provider. The software is delivered from a single code base residing in a cloud-based server, but end users are able to enjoy use of individual desktops or custom interfaces to show their individual settings or to gain access levels to certain features.
  • Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS). IaaS is the delivery of hardware services from a third party provider, such as computer storage, or virtualized servers that are managed by the third party but used through a custom portal by the customer.
  • Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS). A cloud platform establishes a set of cloud-based tools that can be used to create SaaS applications, often without any coding required of the end user. This brings real power to the SaaS model in that it allows companies to create highly customized, cloud-based applications and workflows as needed.
So where does all this fit into business documents? Simple. Given that a document is no longer a piece of paper, but rather, an electronic file, those electronic forms naturally lend themselves to integration into cloud applications.

Introducing the cloud to the paperwork jungle
Combining electronic forms with the cloud is a natural. The cloud is the Great Enabler of the 21st century. It enables communication where no communication was possible before, it connects offices and people that had no connection, and it enables and empowers workflows so that business processes can become more efficient. Bringing the form into this loop is not only "natural", it is essential.

That's because an electronic form isn't just about having a better way to type information into boxes. An electronic form is just one part of managing your business better, getting more insight and visibility into your business processes, and enabling an end-to-end workflow that actually starts with the electronic form itself.

The idea of the electronic form as a tool for gathering information and seamlessly transmitting it to other applications isn't unique to the cloud, and it's already in use in several corporations internally. The concept itself simply captures the electronic data programmatically, whether it exists in a cloud server or an internal server.

This electronic capture of data at the point of entry first of all delivers the benefit of eliminating redundant data entry. Without the need for a staff of clerks to re-enter information, time is saved, and accuracy is improved.

But beyond eliminating FTEs and saving on personnel costs, there is an even greater benefit, and that is real-time visibility. The ability to capture that form-based data immediately allows other reporting and management applications to get a real-time view of what's actually going on. When the boss asks, "How many orders did we take in today?" it's not necessary to go through a physical stack of papers. Instead, a reporting application can compile the data immediately, and with the click of a mouse key, show the bottom line, complete with easy-to-understand charts and graphs.

In addition to the reporting benefit, integration of electronic forms also enhances the utility of related applications. Because the form is now a live part of a workflow, and not just a static piece of paper, it becomes an extension of the company's accounting applications, inventory applications, and fulfillment applications. Data starts flowing faster into those applications and business processes, so all across the board, things get done a lot faster. Orders get filled quicker. Customers get happier. Your company gets more orders. The end result is that the savings realized from needing fewer data entry clerks is dwarfed by the benefit gained from more efficient business processes and greater visibility throughout the entire enterprise.

What is an intelligent form?

Let's not confuse a fillable form with an intelligent form. A fillable form is one that can be completed online. It includes a basic function that allows the user to see the form on the computer screen, and then to type in responses into each field. The completed form can then be printed out, or sometimes saved and submitted electronically.

An intelligent form does something much more, and this is the basis of the value proposition being discussed. An intelligent form starts by allowing fields to be completed electronically, but it doesn't end there. The intelligent form has built-in knowledge of the business process to which the data being entered is applied.

An intelligent form has two main characteristics beyond the data entry automation:

  1. A built-in understanding of the business process for which it is being used.
  2. An integrated workflow that gives the form "knowledge" about where the information it contains is going to be routed next.
We can draw an analogy with the old "dumb terminals" used in early client-server configurations. The "dumb terminal" was simply a keyboard and monitor that was used to allow information to be entered. The terminal had no built-in intelligence and no processing ability. That model didn't last long, and now every desktop has a CPU, and at least some processing occurs at the desktop level.

By the same token, a "dumb form" is also simply a tool that allows information to be entered. It has no built-in intelligence and no processing ability. By going beyond the "dumb form" model, business processes can achieve the same quantum leap of efficiency they saw when the world moved towards intelligent networking.

In short, an intelligent form is a form that does three things:

  1. It allows for electronic entry of information into each field.
  2. It processes that information and performs calculations.
  3. It understands the workflow and integrates its data with other applications and processes.
The intelligent form model represents a whole new approach to information management, and a new level of integration that can be applied to a business of any size.

Should you cloud-enable your intelligent forms?

The intelligent form model can, technically speaking, be implemented on-premises or in the cloud equally well. There are advantages to both approaches, and some enterprises that may be running ultra-secure, high-security applications may prefer to retain in-house control. This may involve deploying the intelligent form application either on an internal server, or on a private, internal cloud (something used usually by larger enterprises).

That said, security in a third party cloud is typically quite robust, with 24x7 maintenance and physical security, state-of-the-art firewalls, and high-end servers and connectivity that provide for superior responsiveness and on-the-fly scalability.

One benefit of cloud-enabling the intelligent form application is taking advantage of the third-party provider's management and administration, a factor that results in substantial in-house savings even beyond the savings naturally accrued by deploying intelligent forms. In addition, the cloud-enabling of the intelligent form application will allow for a broader level of controlled access, which can be very beneficial in an environment where there are multiple stakeholders and participants across many locations. Access is still password-regulated and transmitted via secure connection, but because connectivity is done via secure web browser, any process involving the intelligent forms can be carried out from any location. Not only can the forms themselves be completed from any browser, the connecting applications can receive information from the forms as well.

Introducing PerfectForms, for making your forms come to life

PerfectForms is a platform for creating electronic forms and integrating them into your business processes. Representing this new approach to intelligent forms, it fulfills all three requirements: Allowing for electronic entry of information, processing the information and making calculations, and understanding the workflow and integrating its data with other business processes.

Available as both a cloud-based application or an on-premises deployment, PerfectForms helps make information more usable, visible, and interactive. With no programming required, end users can create intelligent forms for capturing information, and use the WYSIWYG tools to create a live workflow to guide and direct that information after it is entered.

With PerfectForms, information doesn't end once it is entered into fields. It lives on, reaching out across the enterprise and inserting itself into the applications that will make use of it. That data is processed into management reports for easy, real-time views. The intelligent forms created by PerfectForms are the perfect way to achieve remarkable efficiencies that have never before been possible.