The application of the form – comparing form technologies

By Clinton Jones on November 23, 2010

There are plenty of articles on the web that speak to the immense benefits to be had from implementing electronic forms over paper forms, and of course the merits of electronic over paper and manual are largely intuitive.

Valuable metrics like turnaround time, reduced printing, filing and retrieval delay costs are all part of the formula on cost and return however one shouldn’t be too easily seduced into the idea of forms if it is not appropriate.

Paper-based form processes have limitations

requisition form

Adobe in particular has put out a number of articles and ROI calculators that indicate that some of the reasons you might switch to electronic forms.

Paper-based form processes have limitations, entering data into them is notoriously error-prone and the content easily outdated; manual data entered into the form then needs re-entry into whatever is your system of record. The manual paper-based process and the associated status of forms is hard to track; there are high costs associated with things like form production, processing and ultimate storage and archiving, and for some organizations this can be as much as $30 million per year for a global organization such as a financial institution with high data volumes.

Forcing the casual business user (including executives) into using a technology solution (like SAP) with which they are typically unfamiliar with, comes with a tremendous cost both in terms of implementation, support and maintenance. Often, if the system based approach is not intuitive, people will try to circumvent the system based approach and adoption levels will be low, resulting in non existent ROI in the areas where perhaps it could have the greatest impact.

So clearly, under these circumstances (assuming basic PC literacy) an electronic form that looks like a piece of paper but works like a system screen makes sense. Certainly if the form is well designed, simple and achieves the objective with just a few clicks, then it will be a resounding success.

The numbers published by Adobe in conjunction with SAP suggest that moving from paper forms to distributing electronic versions online that can be printed out and filled in can save up to $14.00 per form in printing, storage, and distribution costs. Moving to a complete solution to fill, validate, sign, submit and can manage entire process can add up to savings of as much as $154 per form apparently. These are pretty big numbers especially if you consider that in a company of 30,000 employees, as many as 30,000 to 60,000 leave application forms may be filled in in a single calendar year; that’s a whopping potential saving of over $7.5M . The ROI on automating such an activity then seems pretty straightforward.

There are cases however where the richer ERP system screen is actually the correct approach to use and we should not lose sight of the immense power of the basic SAP transaction.

Implementing an electronic form that mimics all the capabilities of an ERP transaction, may be intellectually challenging and appealing to a forms designer but in the end, does it make sense to the business?

Using traditional forms development approaches – time to value may be many months

The implementation lifecycle of a full blown forms based solution may take months from the stages of idea conception to actual implementation and certainly a simple scenario like time sheet implementation using the basic CAT2 or CATS SAP transactions can take as many as three or four technologist participants and as much as three to four months to implement.

Consider then, for a more complex scenario whether form implementation may take much longer and involve many more participants and ultimate yield a poorer ROI or protracted mean time to savings being generated.

There should be little doubt that with using Winshuttle’s approach to form development you are able to leverage already proven technology built on Winshuttle Transaction and you can deliver form based solutions built on existing SAP transactions rapidly and effectively. Be aware however that not all scenarios are appropriately delivered in the form of a simple or even slightly more advanced use case, those challenging GUI script scenarios probably can’t necessarily be easily overcome with a forms-based solution.

The limitations of the technology are primarily bound up in the characteristics of your particular business problem and the underlying SAP technology but also the volatility and volume of the process you’re trying to automate. If you have a process that is evolving and you think a form may solve the problem consider using an Excel-based form based on cell based mapping as opposed to column based mapping before you make the jump to publishing a WSDL and implementing something like Winshuttle Foundation, the development life cycle is considerably accelerated when compared with traditional ABAP development but it is still slower than using Excel as your data source.

For example, with something as simple as F4 lookup capability that you can do in Excel today how do you leverage that in a form?

Additionally, while you will enjoy the benefits of the flow control logic of the SAP transaction and the inherent data validation, you only get this benefit when you try to post the data to SAP.

If you want prevalidation and pattern management of data fields in your form, you will have to build them manually into your form.

Prototypes in Excel are often a good starting point

Consider that an easy way to test the concept of a form is to prototype the validation and patterns you require in Excel before you commit to any specific form technology. Using simple Excel validation and vlookups rather than building complex form logic that may need to be tweaked periodically may be adequate.

All that said, I don’t want to steer you away from the potential of using forms in your business, just be aware that there are circumstances under which forms may be initially a much harder implementation than the classic use of Microsoft Excel. If your process is well defined, clearly articulated by the business community and clearly paralleled to something you already do with a paper form, then it is likely that implementing forms will be relatively straightforward and a good fit.

Though not exhaustive, here are some thoughts on things to consider and suggestions on best approach when deciding on any of the forms options vs Excel.

form choices

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About the author

Clinton Jones is a Director for Finance Solutions Management at Winshuttle where he has worked since 2009. He is internationally experienced having worked on finance technologies and business process with a particular focus on integrated business solutions in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and North America. Clinton serves as a technical consultant on technology and quality management as it relates to data and process management and governance for finance organizations globally. Prior to Winshuttle he served as a Technical Quality Manager at SAP and with Microsoft in their Global Foundation Services group.

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