Office Hours: Yes, Virginia, your small team can use InfoPath

Anneliese Wirth August 20, 2007

Anneliese Wirth

The technical folks in your company can do a lot of complex and tricky things with InfoPath forms, but you don't need to work in an IT department to benefit from InfoPath. In this month's column, Anneliese Wirth shows you how her team uses simple forms to collect and share data more informally.

Applies to
Microsoft Office InfoPath 2007

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Microsoft Office InfoPath 2007 is relatively new to the scene, and not everyone knows about it yet. Let me describe what it can do, with minimal techno-babble:

InfoPath is an Office program for designing and filling out business forms.

I won't bore you with a long tome on all the ways that InfoPath is useful. Suffice it to say, we all have to fill out forms — and some of us have to actually create them — so it's nice to have an Office program that's intended expressly for this purpose.

Consider a form whenever you want to collect data on an ongoing basis or communicate with others consistently.

Here at Microsoft, we fill out our fair share of InfoPath forms.

Many of these forms are used by everyone in the company. For example, more than 70,000 employees around the world use an InfoPath form to complete annual performance reviews. This form interacts with existing databases and business systems, and the data collected from employees is reused in various ways throughout Microsoft. As you might imagine, developing a form of this scale is no small feat. It requires heavy-duty coordination by many different departments, including IT and human resources.

Other forms are used informally by individual teams to boost productivity. These forms are more about improving team processes than collecting data for reuse elsewhere.

When should you use a form?

Consider an InfoPath form whenever you want to collect data on an ongoing basis or communicate with others consistently. Status reports, meeting minutes, absence requests — you can use a form for any of these things. To determine whether a form is the right choice, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I need to gather information in a consistent, standardized way?
  • Does my present method of collecting data result in missing or incorrect information?
  • Do I have existing documents that would be better suited as fill-in-the-blank forms?
  • Do I want to save time by improving team processes?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, an InfoPath form may make your life easier. Let me show you some of the simple forms that we use on my team. In a perfect world, they might inspire you to create some forms of your own.

How my team uses InfoPath

My immediate team consists of 7 writers, 2 editors, 1 manager, and 1 stuffed giraffe (don't ask). The team uses simple InfoPath forms to stay focused and consistent. Since we don't need to reuse the data in the forms elsewhere in the company, our forms aren't connected to corporate databases. Instead, we just store the forms in a library on a SharePoint site. If we need to refer to the data in those forms, we always know where to find them.

Example 1: Meeting notes

Every other week, I meet with a group of people to discuss InfoPath documentation needs. During the meeting, the assigned note-taker uses an InfoPath form to fill out and share detailed meeting notes. The form includes sections for action and agenda items, discussion notes, and meeting attendees.

Here's how a filled-in form looks:

Meeting minutes form

There's nothing fancy about this form; it's not connected to a corporate database or integrated into a larger business process. It's just a utilitarian tool that enables anyone at the meeting to take and send consistently formatted meeting notes.

Before the team started using a form for this purpose, we'd receive meeting notes in all kinds of inconsistent formats, if we even received them at all. By using a form, information is kept consistent and it's easy to see at a glance what the action items are and who owns them. We can also easily refer back to the meeting's agenda and discussion items.

The Meeting Notes form is published to a library, which is a place on a SharePoint site where we create, collect, and update the forms. To take notes, people browse to the library, and then click a Fill Out This Form button to open a blank form. After they complete the form, they send it in an e-mail message to meeting attendees, and then save the form. Their changes are stored in the library, not on their own computers.

Forms stored in library on SharePoint site

You can set up the columns in your library to show data from each form. This is useful when you want to view important information in the form without having to open each form individually. In our case, we decided to show only the meeting date, which comes from the first field in the Meeting Notes form.

Example 2: Technical review requests

Whenever anyone on my team writes an article about InfoPath, we ask people from the product team to review the content to make sure that it's technically accurate. We use an InfoPath form to streamline the repetitive task of sending review requests. Once we fill out a request, we send it in an e-mail message to reviewers. Completed forms are saved in a library on the writing team's SharePoint site.

The form looks like this:

Technical review request form

You may wonder why we go to the trouble of using a form. Why not just send a regular e-mail message? The answer is simple: When we use a form, we can keep things consistent. And consistency means that reviewers always know where to look for things such as the due date or the name of the review document.

We found that when we used e-mail messages instead of forms, one of the following generally occurred:

  • Writers typed the whole message from scratch in the body of the e-mail message. Often, they forgot to include important information, such as the due date for feedback. Each writer sent reviewers a different subset of information, worded in slightly different ways.
  • Writers copied the text from an old review request and pasted it into a new message. In doing this, they often forgot to update some of the original text. The result? Reviewers often received one or more "correction" messages in addition to the request itself.

Needless to say, the spontaneous e-mail approach wasn't very efficient or professional. Since we've switched to InfoPath, the process of sending requests runs more smoothly. Plus, all requests are stored in a single library on our SharePoint site, so it's easy to locate past review requests, double-check due dates, and so on.

Example 3: Asset tracking

Keeping track of business assets is a thankless task, but it's an important one. In our department, the form we use for asset tracking is slightly more sophisticated than the forms I showed you earlier, and it's used by at least 200 people — not just my immediate team.

Until recently, Margaret, the business administrator in my department, used an Excel workbook to keep track of everyone's equipment. She would send an e-mail request to the team asking for computer statistics, and we would respond by crawling around under our desks in search of the asset ID stickers on each piece of hardware. Once we found the sticker (usually in the very back, next to all the dust bunnies), we would enter the ID number into the workbook, together with the computer's name, make, model, and other identifying information. Frankly, it was a hassle for everyone. People often transposed numbers or otherwise entered the wrong thing in the workbook. Sometimes they left out key bits of information. It was then up to Margaret to make sense of it all.

Things are much easier now. Instead of a manual tracking workbook, Margaret uses an InfoPath form to keep track of our computer equipment.

Asset tracking form

The form consists of some identifying fields, such as e-mail address, name, immediate manager, group manager, and so on. When I first open the form, InfoPath automatically fills out these fields for me based on my network credentials. When I enter a computer name, the form can automatically detect the specs for my computer over the network and fill in the corresponding fields. Now all I have to do is glance at the summary to verify the information before sending it on. If I happen to be working offline, I can enter the specs manually, by following the detailed instructions in a task pane that is part of the form.

Technically speaking, this form is more involved than the other two. Still, if you have an idea for a form, it's possible to start a grassroots campaign to bring your form to fruition, even if you don't happen to have the required technical expertise. If you can make a business case for the form, you can get management buy-off. Once you have that, you can work with your IT department or whomever else to identify any design issues and technical requirements.

Other ideas for forms

There's no hard-and-fast rule about when to use a form instead of another type of document. You can use a form whenever it makes the most sense for your team. Here are some additional ideas for forms, from a variety of industries.


Industry

Type of form

Medical

  • Patient diagnostics
  • Medical drug interactions
  • Medical history

Human Resources

  • Benefit changes
  • Awards and recognitions
  • Job descriptions

IT

  • Equipment receipt/sign off forms
  • RFPs
  • Work orders
  • Office moves
  • Shipping forms

Police

  • Arrest reports
  • Accident reports

Sales/Service

  • Order forms
  • Call tracking
  • Demo requests
  • Service requests

Accounting

  • Check requests
  • Timesheets
  • Expense reports
  • Purchase orders
  • Billing statements
  • Charitable gift match requests
  • Payroll
  • Sales tracking
  • Customer billing

R&D/Manufacturing

  • Engineering change requests
  • Accident reports
  • Quality control forms
  • Supplier inventory tracking forms
  • Product evaluations

Marketing

  • Leads
  • Information requests
  • Press requests
  • Event registration forms
  • Customer visit reports

Government

  • Permits and licensing
  • Tax returns
  • Passport/visa applications
  • Address changes

Education

  • Class registrations
  • Applications for admission
  • Financial aid forms

Financial services

  • Loan applications
  • Insurance claims
  • Bank account transfers

About the author

Anneliese Wirth is a Senior Writer in the Office User Assistance group at Microsoft. She currently writes about InfoPath 2007 and Excel 2007 for Office Online. In her spare time, Anneliese enjoys a healthy mix of high and low culture. She also enjoys talking about unicorns, ponies, and rainbows with her four-year-old daughter and debating about who exactly is the boss of whom.

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