In-Depth

Diamond in the Rough

Office users say Microsoft's electronic forms tool is a hidden gem -- easy to use but lacking certain scanning, security and Web features.

InfoPath 2003 seems like the forgotten stepchild in the Microsoft Office family. Although it first came out several years ago, few users have taken the time to try it out or delve into it too deeply. Those who have, however, report tangible productivity gains in collecting, storing and sharing data using electronic forms.

"We used to get purchase orders turned around—if we were fortunate—within a week," says Diana Hawbaker, an IT application specialist for Eastern Connecticut Health Network (ECHN), a hospital group based in Manchester, Conn. "With InfoPath, we get a 24-hour turnaround. It's wonderful."

Before InfoPath, ECHN used paper purchase orders distributed for approval via interoffice mail. The process was manual, time-consuming and difficult to track. When the healthcare group rolled out Office 2003 a few years ago, Hawbaker noticed InfoPath and gave it a try.

"It was easy, very intuitive," she says. "It works just like any other Office program, so I didn't have to take any training classes." Now all of the group's purchase order forms are electronic and posted within a SharePoint Portal document library. Because InfoPath stores data in XML format, reusing it for different users and different purposes is a snap, she says.

"The advantage of the XML format in InfoPath is that it's so easy to create a view," Hawbaker says. "Some people need to view [forms] by vendor name, while some need them by purchase order number and some by department. Using InfoPath, we can repurpose [the data] pretty easily."

InfoPath 2003

$199 (bundled with Office Professional 2003 Enterprise Edition through Microsoft Volume Licensing)
Microsoft Corp.
800-426-9400
www.microsoft.com

Now that purchase order data is electronic, she says, it's far easier to track expenses for budgeting and other purposes. "We just went through our budget process, and now that we've had purchase orders online for over a year, I was able to do analyses on each vendor and what we've paid to make sure we have correct budget figures for the upcoming fiscal year," she says. "That's something we used to have to calculate manually, so InfoPath has really brought us some unexpected fringe benefits."

Other organizations have experienced similar productivity gains. For example, Apex Microtechnology Corp., a power amplifier manufacturer based in Tucson, Ariz., uses InfoPath for a variety of tasks—from tracking network events to managing internal documentation for quality control.

"Since we implemented InfoPath, DCAs [document control authorizations] don't get lost anymore and they get completed faster," says Doug Porter, a systems analyst at the company. "And everybody has more visibility and can see exactly where each form is. It eases the whole process."

As with ECHN, Apex's previous DCA process was manual, in which documentation changes and their associated change forms were walked around to designated employees for sign-off. This part of the process ensured that all stakeholders knew what had changed and why. Unfortunately, it was also time-consuming and occasionally resulted in lost DCAs. Now, DCAs are created in InfoPath, and all stakeholders can view, approve or track them according to their role in the authorization process.

Share and Share Alike
Although InfoPath is powerful on its own, most users say teaming up with SharePoint Portal Server 2003 is the key to getting the most value. This is especially true for the workflow and security gains.

"The value we've seen in InfoPath was inherently tied in to SharePoint," Apex's Porter says.

Hawbaker agrees. For example, she says combining InfoPath with SharePoint is compelling because SharePoint ensures everyone can access the forms. It also kicks off e-mail alerts as the purchase order winds its way through the process, automatically alerting designated users.

Diana Hawbaker, IT Application Specialist "[InfoPath] works just like any other Office program, so I didn’t have to take any training classes."

Diana Hawbaker, IT Application Specialist, Eastern Connecticut Health Network (ECHN)

Hawbaker uses SharePoint to secure InfoPath files, which works as well as with any other Office application. "We do the [access] rights through SharePoint Portal and that works fine," she says. "But even if we weren't using SharePoint and the forms were in a LAN folder [for example], it could still be secured with the standard read-write folder access on the network. It's just standard Windows security at that point."

Another layer of security is that only users with InfoPath loaded on their machines can open and edit InfoPath forms. Those without the program have read-only access. This helps secure the forms, because only authorized users should have the programs installed.

"If they're not authorized and don't have the application installed, they're not an approved user," says David Romig Sr., CTO and founder of The Computer Solution Co. (TCSC), an ISV in Midlothian, Va. TCSC has used InfoPath as the basis for a crime lab application that helps forensic scientists collect, organize and track evidence testing data. "If they're not supposed to be using the application, then not having a license really helps them implement their policy. It's not a problem, it's a solution."

On the Right Path?
Although users extol InfoPath's data collection and organization capabilities, it does have the downsides you'd expect in a version 1.0 tool. Hawbaker, for example, decries InfoPath's lack of an integrated scanner/conversion tool. "The templates that come with InfoPath and the downloads you can get from the Office Web site are great, but I work in a hospital where there are preset forms. You just can't change them," she says.

In order to use her existing paper forms with InfoPath, Hawbaker had to purchase ScanSoft's OmniForm, which scans and converts paper forms into InfoPath format. "OmniForm was well worth the $1,500 we paid for it, because it saved us so much time," she says, "but if InfoPath had its own tool, that would negate the necessity for a third-party vendor, and that would be great."

InfoPath Wish List
Here are five things users would like to see added to the next version of InfoPath:

Better Security: Users say InfoPath needs tighter security, beyond simple Windows-level security or security inherited from other applications like SharePoint Portal. “You should be able to lock down the raw XML data, in addition to the form itself,” says Doug Porter, systems analyst at Apex Microtechnology Corp. “The way it is now, users can open it up in Notepad and change whatever they want.”

Improved Forms Sharing: Right now, only users running InfoPath can access and update forms. Most users say the ability to let non-InfoPath users update forms would be helpful, especially for dealing with users outside the company.
More Formatting Features: InfoPath includes a great deal of layout capabilities, but they’re forms-focused. It would be even more powerful if users had greater control over pagination, headers and footers and other formatting features.

Integrated Scanning: Right now, Microsoft provides no integrated tool for scanning and converting paper-based forms to InfoPath, which means users looking to convert a large library of paper forms are forced to look to third-party suppliers.

Browser-Based Access: Most users would like to be able to update InfoPath forms via the Web from just a browser, without needing InfoPath loaded on the client. That way, forms data could be gathered easier and on a broader scale.

— J.C.

TCSC's Romig would like to see more document formatting capabilities added to InfoPath. His application currently gathers data with InfoPath, and then imports it to a Word document for greater formatting control. "I'd like to see better printing and pagination, because if it had the kind of features for doing things like preparing a table of contents or building headers and footers, we wouldn't need to invoke Word at all," he says.

Others say InfoPath would be far more useful if there was a better way to share forms with non-InfoPath users. For example, both ECHN and Apex convert InfoPath forms to Adobe PDF files when they need to share form data with users outside their companies. "Most people have PDF, but not everyone has InfoPath," says Porter.

TCSC's Romig agrees, and says that if InfoPath's Web capabilities were shored up, it would be easier to share information beyond the company walls. "I would like better capabilities with respect to being able to … enter data into an InfoPath form directly from the Web," he says.

Rumor has it that this last feature—browser-based access—might be added to InfoPath in Office 12, due out this fall. Romig, who has signed a non- disclosure agreement with Microsoft about Office 12, declined to comment. He did say that, "There are products out there that do that, and if I were a product manager of InfoPath, it would certainly be a target market that would intrigue me."

Until then, InfoPath 2003 users say the tool is still well worth the investment, especially because it's included free within the Office 2003 suite. "You can't beat it," says Apex's Porter. "There's a cost because you have to have Office. But it's not an additional cost because everyone has Office anyway. It's a great tool."

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