Electronic Forms for Paperless Processes

Elspeth Wales

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SAP and Adobe are working jointly on a global technology and strategy to automate and streamline documents based business processes through the delivery of a new interactive forms solution.

The partnership of Adobe and SAP results in the integration of PDF (Portable Document Format) technology into SAP solutions, initially SAP NetWeaver and the mySAP Business Suite, providing support for offline and online collaborative business scenarios which will serve to replace the use of paper documents within organizations. In choosing Adobe as the SAP partner for this project results from the company’s acknowledged expertise in PDF technology and electronic Forms. Adobe PDF files are readable across all major computing platforms and more than 500 million copies of Adobe Reader software are in use worldwide.

Streamlining business processes paperless

The primary driver behind this development is to help customers reduce their total cost of ownership (TCO), said Christoph Wachter, Head of Project Office, GBU SAP NetWeaver Lifecycle Management at SAP. “Form based business processes right now can be costly for customers and most times they are also inefficient, especially paper-based processes. A lot of our customers have business processes which use a variety of forms such as legal forms from the government, or forms from other organizations, or they may be customer developed forms. Many business processes right now are using paper forms which are error prone and also easily become outdated.”
Using interactive forms, as SAP calls electronic forms, speeds up and streamlines business processes with the idea to use dynamic or static interactive forms which the user can complete online or offline. Wachter explained that the data the end user puts into such interactive forms can be extracted automatically using modern technologies like XML. Using a piece of paper requires somebody to rewrite the information contained into the computer system or re-enter the data into the system which introduces errors and is time-consuming. The use of interactive forms can also improve customer relations since they not only speed up processes but also offer flexibility and convenience to users.

Overcoming HTML restrictions

The Interactive Forms Solution powered by Adobe allows an end user to fill in data using textboxes, checkboxes or list boxes, first of all to another end-user who can input some additional information then sending the form to a computer system. The form can then be accessed by another end user who sends it back to the SAP solution which extracts the data that has been filled in automatically using XML data structures. “So here we have really enabled full automation of form based business processes and at the very end what we are doing is reducing the total cost of ownership on the customer side which is why interactive forms are now a hot topic for customers,” added Wachter.
Until this solution, users wanting electronic forms have had to produce them for example using HTML or Microsoft Word but the drawback with these methods is that they tend to be less integrated in systems and do not support the functionality of extracting data automatically in a structured way. Using HTML generated forms also presents difficulties in printing, especially from the Internet when often the printout version is not the same as that which appeared on the PC screen. The new Interactive Forms Solution powered by Adobe overcomes this by providing an enhanced printing solution which produces an exact replica of the screen version and has the functionality to print logos and bar codes.

Multiple security layers

“It is very important to say that we at SAP can support offline interactive forms meaning that you can pre-fill the form with data from the SAP system then send it to an end user who has no physical connection to an SAP system at the moment but he has the data in a form and can put in offline new, additional data into the form and can send it back to the SAP system” pointed out Wachter. In doing so SAP is reaching out through new collaborative business processes to more end-users. The security of these interactive forms will be assured through multiple security layers including the use of digital signatures and encryption.
The development of interactive forms is largely in response to SAP customer demand who wish to streamline their business processes. “They know that we at SAP, as a trusted innovator for our customers, understand how business processes work, how they should work and how you can streamline them and now they are asking how they can streamline their own, specific paper-based processes using a standard solution,” Wachter added. Most of the paper-based processes in question are customer specific processes such as forms for travel expenses or others in the human resources area where a generic solution cannot be provided because every customer has its own way of doing these processes. Increasingly customers are asking for SAP to provide them with a solution that can be integrated in that area and that is also integrated into an SAP solution.

Tremendous benefit for public sector

SAP expects public sector organizations in particular to benefit from the use of its Interactive Forms Solution as they speed up the process of matters relating to citizens and their needs concerning taxation, passport, driving licenses and child support as well as by organizations and enterprises in the banking/insurance area as form based processes are key for their business. A good example of a process that will benefit from the use of interactive forms is the generation of an RFP (Request for Proposal) which is a historically paper intensive process used by governments and large contractors to secure bids for major projects.
The new solution allows for forms to be used in offline mode and sent on a “round-trip” from user to system to user automatically based on open standards such as XML and SOAP. Wachter explained: “We are talking about mission critical processes, for example, the salary increase process, here we can now support a scenario where a manager can download a form from a portal to do a salary report, put it on his laptop locally and if he is on a business trip or is working from home he can fill in all the data there. He is offline and does not need to have access or a line to the SAP solution. He can fill in the data in the form and if he is then connected the next day or after two days then he can upload the form automatically in a portal and the data would be extracted and stored in the database. So here we really have more possibilities, more capabilities to support different and new, collaborative business scenarios for our customers.
This Interactive Forms Solution powered by Adobe will be delivered with SAP NetWeaver, SAP’s open integration and application platform, with the ramp up starting in Q1 2004 . SAP applications which will use that solution are those in the HR area (manager self services and employee self services), product lifecycle management, manufacturing and so on which will be shipped with the mySAP ERP release in Q2 2004.

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