Forms Management and Policies and Procedures: Important? Yes, Definitely
Forms are critical to the operations of any organization whether the forms are in paper or electronic formats. Everyone uses forms in their everyday life from Internet surveys, shopping carts, feedback forms, or even a fill-in email in the contact us section of many websites. And paper forms are not dead by any means. Paper forms are still used in applying for driver licenses or completing the registration for your car or depositing or withdrawing money from your checking or savings account. Physical forms are everywhere.
Business forms are management tools that help the writing, transmission, and reporting of business information. There are two ways to view a form: printed and electronic. A printed form is a document bearing instructions with repetitive information preprinted in a fixed position to save writing and reference time. An electronic form is a document stored on an electronic memory device that is made available on a computer monitor when needed. Electronic forms can be designed with fields that change in size as text is typed in, with drop-down menus, active buttons, and electronic forms can even be tied to a database that collects the information filled into the electronic form. Remember, though, electronic forms can be exactly the same as printed forms as well as in the case of a printed form saved in PDF-editable formats, now possible with the right software.
Forms Can Reveal Much about an Organization
Forms can tell your customers a great deal about your organization. For example, appearance alone can imply that the company is either old-fashioned or progressive. Ease of completion may mean the difference between renewed business and the client going elsewhere. In industries like insurance and banking, this can be an important issue. As forms are frequently the lifeblood of an organization, a good forms management department might mean the difference in the strategic direction, vision, and mission of your company.
I recall seeing a Visitor's Form in the corporate office of a major film company that was crudely created on a typewriter. The form projected a poor image of the company. If I were a customer of this large company, I would certainly wonder why the company did not take the time to create a professional-looking form that every potential customer would have to fill out when they entered the building.
Vital Importance of Forms Management to Policies and Procedures
Forms management is equally important to the policies and procedures writer. In fact, in many companies, the policies and procedures department either manages the forms management department and/or the policies and procedures writer is also the forms manager. This relationship is critically important because most procedures contain references to forms in one way or another. In my experience, forms play an important role in the policy and procedure processes. Keep in mind that there can also be forms processes as well as policy and procedure processes. If the writer does a good job, then the process systems will mesh or be integrated.
You Cannot Write Policies and Procedures without FIRST Analyzing the Forms System
For many years, I used to analyze and design the forms used in a process before interviewing the users of the policy and procedure system. In some cases, I would even order the forms before the policy and procedure analysis is complete. This method proved invaluable to me because once the form system had been analyzed and streamlined, the policy or procedure fell into place.
DO NOT Make this Big Mistake!
The biggest mistake made by many policies and procedures writers is to write the policy or the procedure first and then ask the forms management department to adapt to the content contained within the published policy or procedure document. This is such a big mistake and it certainly does not promote buy-in of the systems. The work of the forms managers and the policies and procedures writers go hand in hand; there should be no exception to this relationship.
Fitting Forms into a Policy or Procedure
I am a strong advocate that a picture of the form, and its form instructions, must be included as an appendix to the policy or procedure. In the case of electronic forms, a link can be placed into the policy or procedure than opens up into a new window with a sample of the form and/or the actual form to download or print.
Sadly, many policies and procedures writers do not know the first thing about forms and they simply reference a form by its name and number, or worse, only by its name; and then they leave it to the reader to find the referenced form. I found this practice so wrong for several reasons. For example:
- The form will never be sought out or used
- The reader will ask a friend for the form and most likely get an outdated form that might have been lying around on the friend's desk or drawer for months, if not years.
- The form might be abbreviated with PR and the user might not be able to discern the source of the form. For example, is the abbreviation PR, a purchase requirement or some kind of public relations document.
Arguments against the Practice of Incorporating a Form into a Policy or Procedure
While I am a strong advocate of embedding a form image into a policy or procedure, there are a few arguments against this practice, none of which I agree with:
- READER SAYS: If I embed the image of the form into the policy or procedure, then every time the form changes, the policy or procedure will have to be reissued. While this might be a true statement, the policies and procedures writer should want to rewrite the policy or procedure because a form change also suggests a change in one or more processes that make up the heart of a policy or procedure document.
- READER SAYS: Why should I embed the image of the form when I can reference the form in a forms catalogue? Thus, if the form should change, the link would remain the same and then I would not have to change the policy or procedure each time the form changed. This argument has two issues: (1) the same argument above applies that when a form changes, then the content of the policy or procedure should also change and (2) I have found it rare for a company to have the resources to maintain a forms catalogue the way it should be maintained. Therefore, I would agree with this argument if the forms catalogue is regularly maintained and if the person who maintains the catalogue keeps in close touch with the policies and procedures writer such that any form change can be analyzed to determine if there is an affect on the current policies and procedures that use that form.
Sources of Finding Help Understanding Forms
The most important association in the United States is the Business Forms Management Association, BFMA.org. Seminars, conferences, workshops, and books are offered to its members. I highly recommend that you look at their website, give them a call, join, and attend a conference. One or two conferences will be an eye opener for any policies and procedures writer. A whole new world will open up to them.
The policies and procedures writer should learn from this article and take charge of the forms management department if one exists. And if a department does exist and politics get in the way of taking over this function, then I do suggest that the writer develop good rapport with the forms management department and start working together.
And if a forms department does not exist, go out and get the training necessary to add this function to the policies and procedures department. The policies and procedures writer should take charge and:
- Think about how to produce attractive, effective forms that will enhance the organization's image and that will complement the policies and procedures it affects and/or supports.
- Think about how you can work closely with the forms department and/or forms designers to assure that the forms systems complement the policies and procedures system and visa versa.
- Think how you can best serve the readers of the policies and procedures and write effective policies and procedures that use effective forms.