Making the transition from paper to electronic forms

Making the transition from paper to electronic forms

Written by Richard Adams on Tuesday, 07 January 2020. Posted in Electronic forms

Organisations and the departments within them depend on the efficient movement of information to run their businesses. Inefficient processes, such as using paper forms to capture data and manually transcribing the information into a database, leads to reduced productivity and costly delays.

Consequently, more industries are digitalising their paper forms and moving to web-based electronic forms (eForms) to optimise the processing of information.

One example is clinical trials organisations. Over the last few years, we have noticed a shift away from paper CRFs (case report forms) to electronic CRFs as clinical trials organisations seek to allow trial participants to provide more accurate data in a secure online environment.

Another interesting change we are seeing is an increasing need for a seamless solution for clients requiring both paper and eForms.

In this blog, we examine some of the drivers for these changes.

What are some of the pros and cons of paper forms?

Over the last thirty years, the ‘paperless office’ has been an objective for many organisations.

In 2020, paper is still widely used with Forrester Research estimating 80% of all information processed is still paper-based. Likewise, an IDC InfoBrief in 2016 found the same thing. In terms of paper production, McKinsey Insights research reveals the paper and forest-products industry as a whole is growing, albeit at a slower pace than before.

The question arises: Why has there been such little progress towards a ‘paperless office’ in the decades since the term entered our vocabulary?

Many people prefer to fill out paper forms rather than web forms and some may not even have access to the internet. At the same time, it may be inappropriate to provide access at the capture location. Meanwhile, many businesses have a legal obligation to maintain a physical copy or a requirement to capture an ink signature.

However, there are a number of issues with paper forms. Paper is slow to move around and easy to fill in incorrectly, with mistakes only being spotted hours or days later.

Paper is also inherently hard to back-up and impossible to make accessible to distributed users. This means it should have no place for capturing and storing business critical data or being relied upon within any time-sensitive process.

Compounding the problem is the fact that manual keying from the paper is still the most common method for digitising the information from paper questionnaires, surveys and forms.

Yet manual data entry is expensive and labour intensive. It is prone to human error and can be time-consuming when re-keying data or handling paper copies.

Despite its current pervasiveness, paper is increasingly being replaced by eForms with the trend likely to continue as Generation Z enter the workplace, large public and private sector organisations embark on digital transformation projects (e.g. NHS ‘Paperless 2020’) and global politicians start to enact climate change policies to reduce deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions.

What are eForms…

Any group, organisation or process where data collection is involved can benefit from eForms software which takes existing paper forms and presents them to internal and external users in a web browser for online completion.

Put simply, eForms enable users to create web forms to collect data.

eForms reduce the amount of paperwork circulating in an organisation which can lead to cost savings in storage, printing and labour. They can be configured to prompt users if data is missing or incorrect, meaning small mistakes do not lead to extended approval times.

Once submitted, form data is automatically exported or instantly becomes part of a review and approval workflow without the need to wait for snail-mail to deliver the information.

Electronic forms software is not only able to introduce new forms and processes; its most important role is in its ability to handle your existing forms and processes.

If you need to retain paper forms, the first step on your digital transformation journey could be automated forms processing software, where OCR, OMR and ICR document recognition technology is used to extract, read and capture data from paper forms and export to a database.

Example eForms

Rentokil Initial - UK CapEx request form
Rentokil Initial - Korean CapEx request form

…and what they are not

When people think of eForms, fillable PDF solutions such as Adobe Acrobat tend to spring to mind. The common assumption is that you simply convert a paper form into an electronic document using Acrobat for end-users to complete onscreen.

However, these solutions rarely provide efficient processing of the information, which is exactly what a true eForms processing solution offers. For example, users need to be authenticated, information needs to be validated in real-time, routed to individuals for review and approval and sent to back-end databases for regulatory reasons.

You might also consider using web-based services such as Survey Monkey. Back in 2015, we discussed the European Court of Justice (CJEU) ruling that the ‘Safe Harbor Privacy Principles’ were invalid. The ruling meant that if a UK or EU company stored customer/patient/employee data with a company in the US, they would not comply with EU Directive 95/46/EC (the forerunner to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)) on the protection of personal data.

Effectively, if you were using online survey tools for data capture or information on your customers/patients/employees was held in data centres in the US, you were risking a fine from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

Nine months after the ruling in July 2016, the European Commission (EC) approved its replacement, the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield with US organisations able to self-certify and meet the standard.

The subsequent introduction of the GDPR in May 2018 stated that there needs to be appropriate legal safeguards applied to data transferred outside the EU. Some countries are certified by the EU as ‘adequate’ but others need to provide safeguards e.g. EU-U.S. Privacy Shield and U.S./Swiss Privacy Shield.

To address the concerns of European customers, Survey Monkey has self-certified with the EU-U.S. and U.S./Swiss Privacy Shield and opened a data centre in Ireland in May 2019. However, the EU data centre (powered Amazon Web Services (AWS)) is currently available to new Enterprise customers only with most European customer data residing on servers in the USA. The situation is complex and compliance with necessary regulations is clearly far from guaranteed.

What processes are suitable for web forms?

Some paper based processes are perfect for web forms including:

  • Registration forms
  • Government forms such as self-assessment and legal aid
  • NHS and GP forms such as patient safety incidents
  • Clinical trials forms such as case report forms (CRF)
  • Timesheets for recruitment agencies
  • Employee and HR (hiring, salary, expenses, performance reviews, holiday, leave requests)
  • Purchase order submission
  • Surveys and questionnaires
  • Course booking and evaluation forms
  • Web based form submissions (support, helpdesk, etc.)

Benefits of electronic forms

Replicate your paper form

Re-create (and enhance) your existing paper form with electronic elements and add logos, fonts and colours.

Low-code development

A good eForms processing solution will simplify the task of moving paper-based forms into their electronic format, making it easy for non‐programmers to create online forms in a graphical WYSIWYG web interface with drag-and-drop tools, templates and pre-built data connectors.

Electronic forms with workflow software

Electronic forms processing without workflow is simple data collection.

Moving to eForms will not only eliminate paper forms, it can be a stepping stone to full workflow automation. You can automatically route completed forms to appropriate users for review and approval. The routing provides automated eMail notifications and personalised task lists for users who must review or approve a form.

Capture electronic forms signature

Most forms require signatures to indicate that a specific person acknowledges or agrees to the contents of a given document. To signify consent, a person can either provide a ‘wet’ ink signature on a paper form or electronically sign an online form.

Unfortunately, there is little certainty surrounding the validity of electronic signatures. Under the eIDAS Regulation (Regulation (EU) N°910/2014), the EU have created a framework for electronic signatures to carry the same legal authority as pen and ink signatures, so progress has been made. However, the validity of online forms with an electronic signature is not clearly stated in UK Law (under the Electronic Communications Act 2000).

Although the Law Commission ruled in 2018 that electronic signatures can be used to sign formal legal contracts under English law, this is primarily because the requirements for contracts under English law are already surprisingly lax, with many binding contracts consisting of nothing more than a verbal conversation. If, however, your application needs to be more robust than this, you are likely to need to consider a few important points before implementing a solution. For example, how can you be sure an electronic signature was issued to the correct individual, how can you be sure the signature is valid and has not been used by someone else and that the signed document has not been altered since signing.

Although the use of electronic signatures is common for simple documents where no witness is required or legal risk exists, the concerns outlined above means many organisations persist with ‘wet’ ink signatures on paper forms.

100% web-based

Electronic forms can be accessed, completed and submitted through a web browser with no software to install or download.

Access responsive forms on your mobile or tablet

A highly responsive, interactive user experience means users can complete forms directly from their smartphone or tablet.

Application integration

Need to integrate with other systems? An eForm solution will pull data from web services and databases to fill drop-down menus, pre-populate form fields and drive workflow behaviour.

Eliminate errors and improve data entry

Are you fed up of illegible handwriting on completed paper forms or do you suffer with the perennial problem of users submitting forms with incomplete or incorrect information?

Logical field validations mean that forms cannot be submitted with invalid data, eliminating errors and expediting the lifecycle of forms processing. Data is automatically validated on input or on form submission, even against external data sources.

Based on rules that you configure, individual fields or entire sections or tabs can be made:

  • Editable or read-only
  • Hidden or viewable
  • Empty or pre-populated
  • Required or optional
  • Fixed or dynamic

Eliminate delays

Routing paper forms from person to person within an organisation, sometimes across time zones and geographies, can take days – or weeks. Using eForms, data can be reviewed, commented on and approved in seconds due to instant delivery.

Regulatory compliance

Do you need to track and record every meaningful transaction in a way that can be retraced later by managers, auditors and regulators? Are you a Clinical Trials Manager seeking an eForms processing solution that conforms to 21 CFR part 11 and Annex 11?

A good solution will offer digital signatures, multi-factor authentication, re-authentication, data encryption and an audit log to provide a record of every task performed and its result.

Will paper forms ever be completely eradicated or is a hybrid solution the answer?

Today, there is no doubt many organisations are undergoing a complete digital transformation and are looking for efficient ways to collect and process information from their customers and/or end-users.

Consequently, the ability to automate manual processes and collect information using both paper and online forms as well as manage the onward processing of that information within a single solution makes a lot of sense.

However, there might be legal regulations or practical challenges that dictate the continued use of paper while some customers may prefer to use paper – or not have access to the web.

In these cases, a hybrid or ‘paper-light’ approach with a single solution supporting paper and web forms is essential, allowing organisations to take on digital transformation at their own pace.

Electronic forms vs paper forms: our conclusion

In the past, paper was the rule.

In 2020, we are slowly moving to a future where paper will become the exception but for the next few years, a hybrid paper and digital model is the way forward.

The first step towards the hybrid model is to replace outdated paper forms with feature-rich eForms where appropriate. Paper intensive or manual processes are good candidates for automation with eForms software.

To plan a better solution, we recommend engaging with your preferred supplier early in the process to help you:

  • Plan better user stories (“As a user, I want…”)
  • Understand the technical solutions available
  • Identify and mitigate any potential pitfalls sooner
  • Assess how much the work could cost
  • Understand how long the work could take
  • Write a detailed scope or statement of work
  • Identify critical success factors

You should expect an ROI within months with a good eForm solution. In fact, according to IDC InfoBrief, companies who embrace digital transformation are 26% more profitable than their peers.

Request a free demo of our electronic data capture solutions

Are you seeking to offer end-users the option to complete forms online and route them? Contact us today for a free demonstration of our eForms software.

About the Author

Richard Adams

Richard Adams

Richard is the Marketing Manager at ePC where he is responsible for marketing, PR and ISO 9001.