How Microsoft InfoPath Is Helping Cancer Researchers Go Paperless

Cancer research center Van Andel Institute is using Microsoft's InfoPath electronic form software to quickly and easily automate a variety of manual business processes. Is InfoPath right for your organization?

Early last year, Bryon Campbell began using Microsoft's InfoPath 2003 software to automate paper-based workflows at his cancer research facility, Van Andel Institute. Campbell, who is CIO of the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based organization, had seen a demonstration of InfoPath's capabilities that made him realize the software could streamline a variety of activities inside the institute—everything from submitting and processing requests for new business cards, to the requests for laboratory services that researchers place to analyze diseased tissues. Until that demo, Campbell had all but ignored the application that came bundled with his Microsoft Office 2003 suite.

InfoPath is electronic form software. It provides developers with tools to design electronic forms and can convert the data on those forms into XML, says Craig Le Clair, a senior analyst with Forrester Research, who covers electronic form software. InfoPath can then move the XML data into a SQL database, for example, where it can be reported on or moved to other business systems.

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In the 17 months that Campbell and his 15-person IT department have been using InfoPath, they've automated 22 workflows, and they continue to do more. Earlier this year they migrated to InfoPath 2007, which Campbell says offers more functionality "out of the box," including the ability to automatically input form structures from Microsoft Word and Excel, according to Le Clair.

"InfoPath is gaining ground in leaps and bounds at the institute because it incorporates workflow and digital signaturing," says Campbell. "We can look at a highly manual business process, map the process, decide if it's optimal and design an electronic form around it."

Forrester Research's Le Clair says thousands of business processes can benefit from electronic form software, which first became popular in the 2001-2002 timeframe, when companies were trying to get their customers to serve themselves on the web. Le Clair expects the weak economy will spur more companies to turn to electronic form software to automate business processes. "Declining budgets make you look harder at driving costs out of existing business processes, and that could lead to a boost in e-forms and process transformation in general," he says.

At Van Andel Institute, Campbell is less conscious of cost savings. He's more excited about the fact that InfoPath gives him a relatively quick and easy way to automate processes that are disconnected from enterprise systems. Read on to learn about the Institute's process for automating manual workflows, the benefits it is seeing from InfoPath and to learn whether InfoPath is the right electronic form software for you.

Business Process Improvements

When Campbell gets a request from one of the business areas to design an electronic form, his first step is to work with the business area to review its existing process. During that review, they document the current process, identify any bottlenecks, then they map out the new process that will use the electronic form.

Campbell says the process review accomplishes two goals: It forces the business areas to determine whether their existing processes are optimal, and it provides IT with clear requirements for development. "That saves everyone time and money on the development and implementation," he says. "You don't get the scope creep you'd get if the new process wasn't clear."

Once the process analysis is complete, a developer builds the new electronic form using InfoPath. Depending on the complexity of the workflow, the creation of the form could require additional coding, and the development of the form can take anywhere from an hour to six months.

One process that was ripe for InfoPath was accepting applications for graduate study admission from prospective students. (Van Andel Institute began conferring Master's and PhD degrees in cellular and molecular biology in the fall of 2007.)

In the past, when students applied for admission to the Institute's graduate school, they downloaded an application from Van Andel Institute's Web site, filled it out online, printed it out, attached documentation regarding their course work, lab experience and internships, and mailed it to the Institute. Once it arrived, an administrative assistant had to key in all the information from the student's application into the registrar's system. Campbell says the data entry could take administrative assistants 30 minutes to an hour for each application.

Now students can attach files to their applications and submit the whole package electronically. Their applications go into a private, secured SharePoint library. Instead of having to re-key all that information into the registrar's system, an administrative assistant just has to create an export file through a series of clicks that gets the student's application out of the SharePoint library and into Van Andel's Education Edge administrative system.

The whole process on the administrative assistant's end takes about five minutes, says Campbell.

Is InfoPath the Right Electronic Form Software for You?

InfoPath makes sense for smaller organizations that are heavy Microsoft users, like the 250+ employee Van Andel Institute.

Bryon Campbell, CIO of Van Andel Institute, says he opted to use the InfoPath software bundled with his Microsoft Office suite instead of a similar electronic form solution from Adobe because it "fit right with our strategy for our infrastructure, which is Microsoft-based, and because it tightly integrated with SharePoint." The Institute currently runs 100 SharePoint sites.

Craig Le Clair, a senior analyst with Forrester Research who covers the market for electronic form software, agrees that InfoPath is good platform for Microsoft-oriented shops to investigate. He says it's inexpensive for them and integrates well with SharePoint. He also notes that InfoPath 2007 is much improved over the previous version, which had problems with having to install the InfoPath software on individual clients.

Of course, InfoPath is not the right electronic forms solution for every company.

"Like everything Microsoft does, InfoPath tends to be very departmental or SMB focused rather than enterprise focused," says Le Clair. "The form solutions from the two other major providers, Adobe and IBM with its Lotus Forms [product], in general tend to be used for more sophisticated forms applications."

For example, says Le Clair, a government agency that's creating a portal for citizens and has on the order of 1,000 forms to manage would be well served by Adobe's suite. An insurance company that uses IBM's content management system on its back end might be more inclined to use Lotus Forms because it integrates with the CMS.

--M. Levinson

InfoPath's Benefits

Campbell says part of InfoPath's value stems from its digital signature feature, which helps ensure the validity of the information on the form.

"Once I fill out a form and sign it, it can't be altered," he says. "The digital signature provides some level of validation that the form is not going to be modified."

Consequently, the digital signature features helps build users' trust in the new electronic forms and processes.

Another benefit of InfoPath, according to Campbell, is the reporting capabilities it enables. Since his IT group created an electronic form for researchers to request histology services (e.g. stained slides), the histology department has been using the data InfoPath culls from those forms and pulls into an SQL database to report on the number and type of tissues it processes each year and for each lab. Campbell says this kind of reporting, which the histology department used to have to do manually using spreadsheets, helps the department with its capacity planning and helps it justify the need for additional staff.

Campbell adds that the histology department also uses the data culled from the forms to generate reports they used to charge the individual labs that requested their services back for the cost of those services.

Finally, InfoPath helps Van Andel Institute get data into its enterprise system without having to key it in manually.

"I'm excited we have tools that we can use to automate business processes that aren't associated with another system," says Campbell. "We have a facilities management system, an ERP system and a separate registrar's system. There are pieces of information we need to gather to populate those systems. InfoPath is a good tool to bridge that gap."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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