Form management and policies and procedures: important? Yes absolutely
Forms are critical to the operations of any organization, whether the forms are paper or electronic. Everyone uses online survey forms, shopping carts, feedback forms or even a fill-in email in the contact section of many websites in their daily life. And paper forms aren’t dead at all. Paper forms are still used when applying for driver’s licenses or completing your car registration or depositing or withdrawing money from your checking or savings account. Physical forms are everywhere.
Business forms are management tools that help write, submit, and report business information. There are two ways to view a form: printed and electronic. A printed form is an instructional document containing 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 screen when needed. Electronic forms can be designed with fields that change in size as text is entered, with drop-down menus, active buttons and electronic forms can even be linked to a database that collects the information entered in the electronic form. However, remember that electronic forms can be exactly the same as printed forms, but also in the case of a printed form saved in PDF editable formats, now possible with the right software.
Forms can reveal a lot about an organization
Forms can tell your customers a lot about your organization. For example, appearance alone can imply that the company is old-fashioned or progressive. Ease of completion can mean the difference between business renewed and the customer going elsewhere. In sectors such as insurance and banking, this can be a significant problem. Since forms are often the lifeblood of an organization, a good forms management department can make all the difference in your company’s strategic direction, vision and mission.
I remember seeing a visitor form roughly made on a typewriter in the headquarters of a major film company. The form projected a bad image of the company. If I were a client of this large company, I would certainly wonder why the company didn’t take the time to create a professional looking form that every potential client should fill out upon entering the building.
Essential Importance of Form Management for Policies and Procedures
Form management is equally important to the policy and procedure writer. In many companies, the policies and procedures department manages either the forms management department and/or the policy and procedures author is also the forms administrator. This relationship is critical because most procedures contain references to forms in one way or another. In my experience, forms play an important role in policy and procedural processes. Note that there can be form processes as well as policy and procedure processes. If the writer does a good job, the process systems will interlock or become integrated.
You can’t write policies and procedures without analyzing the form system FIRST
For years I analyzed and designed 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 forms system was analyzed and streamlined, the policy or procedure fell into place.
DO NOT make this big mistake!
The biggest mistake many policy and procedure writers make is to first write the policy or procedure and then ask the forms management department to adapt it to the content of the published policy or procedure document. This is such a big mistake and it certainly doesn’t promote the buy-in of the systems. The work of the form managers and the policy and procedure writers go hand in hand; there should be no exception to this relationship.
Integrating forms into a policy or procedure
I strongly support that an image of the form and associated form instructions should be included as an attachment to the policy or procedure. In the case of electronic forms, a link can be placed in the policy or procedure, which will open a new window with a preview of the form and/or the actual form for download or printing.
Unfortunately, many policy and procedure writers know nothing about forms and simply refer to a form by its name and number, or worse, just 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 searched or used
- The reader will ask a friend for the form and most likely get an outdated form that may have been sitting on the friend’s desk or drawer for months, if not years.
- The form may be abbreviated with PR and the user may not be able to distinguish the source of the form. For example, is the abbreviation PR, a purchase requirement, or some sort of PR document.
Arguments against the practice of including a form in a policy or procedure
While I’m a big believer in embedding a form image into a policy or procedure, there are a few arguments against this practice that I disagree with:
- READER SAYS: If I include the image of the form in the policy or procedure, every time the form changes, the policy or procedure will have to be reissued. While this may be a true statement, the policy and procedure writer should want to rewrite the policy or procedure, because a form change also suggests a change in one or more processes that are at the heart of a policy or procedure document.
- THE READER SAYS: Why embed the form image when I can reference the form in a forms catalog? So if the form changed, the link would stay the same and I wouldn’t have to change the policy or procedure every time the form was changed. This argument has two problems: (1) the same argument above applies that when a form changes, the content of the policy or procedure must also change, and (2) I’ve found that it’s rare for a company to have the resources to a forms catalog as it should be maintained. Therefore, I agree with this argument if the forms catalog is regularly updated and if the person maintaining the catalog maintains close contact with the policy and procedures writer so that any form change can be analyzed to determine if there is an effect on current policies and procedures using that form.
Resources for 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, call them, attend and attend a conference. One or two conferences will be an eye opener for any policy and procedure writer. A whole new world opens up to them.
The policy and procedures writer should learn from this article and take charge of the forms management department, if one exists. And if a department exists and politics prevents it from taking over, then I advise the writer to build a rapport with the forms management department and work together.
And if there isn’t a forms department, go out and get the training needed to add this position to the policies and procedures department. The policy and procedure writer must take the lead and:
- Think about how you can create attractive, effective forms that enhance the organization’s image and complement the policies and procedures it influences and/or supports.
- Consider how you can work closely with the forms department and/or form designers to ensure that the forms systems complement the policies and procedures system and vice versa.
- Think about how you can best serve the readers of the policies and procedures and write effective policies and procedures that use effective forms.