Processing forms is not the most exciting work, and when you have thousands of them to sift through, the task can seem ever so onerous.
Until recently, that was the experience of Ontario March of Dimes (OMOD), a non-profit outfit that assists more than 37,000 physically challenged persons each year.
For ever so long, the organization, which has more than 2,000 employees, used to engage in manual, paper-based forms processing – a laborious, time-consuming task.
All that changed – quite dramatically – when OMOD recently moved over to automated forms processing, deploying a system based on Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007. According to the company, the most tangible impact of the shift was the huge reduction in document processing labour and time.
“What used to take days, now takes minutes,” said Steve Driz, director of enterprise solutions and chief privacy officer at OMOD.
At the heart of the new system is an “employee portal” created by Bell Business Solutions Inc. and its partner EnvisionIT, a Mississauga, Ont.-based business automation firm. Access to forms has been simplified and speeded up.
Now instead of struggling with piles of paper, “employees can access forms from their browser, fill them out, and post them back to the portal in minutes,” said Driz.
First established in 1951, OMOD provided aid to people ravaged by the polio epidemic, and was instrumental in creating the Salk anti-polio vaccine. Following the near eradication of the disease, the organization shifted its focus to helping people with physical disabilities. Today, OMOD reaches out to around 37,000 individuals in more than 70 communities across the province.
Part of this task, however, involves the use of nearly 400 different types of forms to support a variety of administrative process, ranging from employee attendance records to client status reports.
Previously, form templates were created in Microsoft Word or Excel documents and stored in Outlook messaging and public folders.
Driz said employees were frequently bogged down trying to find the right form to fill. Often a form had to be printed before being filled out by hand. The finished document would then be faxed or mailed between offices for approval.
In certain cases, these forms were e-mailed back and forth between a number of people, adding to the volume of data in the organization’s mail server.
Driz said the process was a huge drain on resources, which OMOD soon decided it could no longer afford. “If it takes a form a day or two to get to a person’s desk and another couple of days to get signed off and sent to the next person, it could take a week to approve even the simplest request.”
Elizabeth Caley, SharePoint product manager for Microsoft Canada, said the OMOD was among the software’s early users when the organization deployed the system last May. She said OMOD’s environment was already running on Microsoft products, such as Windows XP Professional operating system (OS), Office 2003 on desktops, and a mix of Windows Server 2000 and 2003 OS on its server.
Bell Business Solutions recommended using Microsoft Office InfoPath 2007 and SharePoint Server 2007. OMOD was plagued by workflow bottlenecks and the best way to streamline the process was to move it over to a portal-based system, according to Joe Seguin, business productivity manager, Bell Business Solutions.
A four-person OMOD IT team worked with the systems integrators using Office 2007 to build scaleable, standards-based electronic forms that could be accessed by from a Web browser. InfoPath 2007, a Windows-based application for creating electronic business forms was also used to gather, share and reuse information among OMOD staff.
“For example an expense report can be automatically sent to the appropriate contact when the total figure exceeds a pre-determined amount,” Seguin said.
The system also made sure forms get sent to the right person. People who must approve a form receive an e-mail with a link to it. The sender can also check the status of the form.
“Automation of the [forms review] processes has reduced errors and hastened approval cycles,” according to Caley.
Anticipation of similar benefits is prompting an increasing number of organizations in every sector to opt for a range of collaborative tools.
Use of such applications in businesses, government and not-for-profit organizations is expected to rise in the near future, according to analysts.
“Workers are finding more compelling reasons not only to share information but also to work together on certain applications,” said Carmi Levy, senior analyst for Info-Tech Research Group Inc. in London, Ont.
Alison Brooks, senior analyst for IDC Canada in Toronto agrees. “Organizations are looking to standardize application development to avoid re-inventing the wheel every time.”
While SharePoint is the current leader in the collaboration space, Levy said, other notable players are IBM’s WebSphere and Groove Network Inc.’s Groove.