Management of Forms and Policies and Procedures: Important? Yes, definitely
Forms are critical to the operations of any organization, whether they are in paper or electronic format. Everyone uses forms in their daily lives, from internet surveys, shopping carts, feedback forms, or even an email to fill in the contact section of many websites. And paper forms are by no means dead. Paper forms are still used to apply for driver’s licenses or complete your car registration or deposit or withdraw money from your checking or savings account. Physical forms are everywhere.
Business forms are management tools that help write, transmit, and report business information. There are two ways to view a form: paper and electronic. A printed form is a document that contains instructions with repetitive information pre-printed in a fixed position to save typing and reference time. An electronic form is a document stored on an electronic memory device that is available on a computer monitor when needed. E-forms can be designed with fields that change size as text is entered, with drop-down menus, active buttons, and e-forms can even be linked to a database that collects the information filled in the e-form. However, remember that electronic forms can be exactly the same as paper forms, as well as in the case of a paper form saved in editable PDF 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 renewing business and the customer going elsewhere. In industries like insurance and banking, this can be an important issue. Since forms are often the lifeblood of an organization, a good forms management department can make a difference in your company’s strategic direction, vision and mission.
I remember seeing a visitor form in the corporate office of a major motion picture company that was crudely created on a typewriter. The form projected a bad image of the company. If I were a client of this great company, I would no doubt wonder why the company didn’t take the time to create a professional-looking form that every prospective client would have to fill out when entering the building.
Vital importance of managing forms for policies and procedures
Form management is equally important to the policy and procedure writer. In fact, in many companies, the policies and procedures department manages the forms administration department and/or the policies and procedures writer is also the forms administrator. This relationship is vitally important because most procedures contain references to forms in one form or another. In my experience, forms play an important role in policy and procedure processes. Note that there may also be forms processes as well as policies and procedures processes. If the writer does a good job, then the process systems will be combined or integrated.
You cannot write policies and procedures without looking at the forms system FIRST
For many years, I used to analyze and design the forms used in a process before interviewing users of the policies and procedures system. In some cases, she would even order the forms before the policy and procedure review is complete. This method proved invaluable to me because once the forms system had been 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 writing the policy or procedure first and then asking the forms management department to adapt the content of the published policy or procedure document. This is a huge mistake and certainly does not promote acceptance of the systems. The work of forms administrators and policy and procedure writers go hand in hand; there should be no exception to this relationship.
Adaptation of forms to a policy or procedure
I am a strong advocate for including an image of the form and its instructions as an appendix to the policy or procedure. In the case of electronic forms, a link can be placed in the policy or procedure that opens in a new window with a sample of the form and/or the actual form to download or print.
Unfortunately, many policy and procedure writers know nothing about forms and simply refer to a form by name and number, or worse, just by name; and then leave it to the reader to find the referenced form. I found this practice so bad for several reasons. For example:
- The form will never be searched or used.
- The reader will ask a friend for the form and will most likely get an outdated form that could have been lying around in their 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 discern the source of the form. For example, it is the abbreviation PR, a purchase requirement or some kind of public relations document.
Arguments against the practice of incorporating a formulary into a policy or procedure
While I am a strong advocate of incorporating 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 insert the image of the form into 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 make up the heart of a policy or procedure document. .
- READER SAYS: Why should I embed the form image when I can reference the form in a form catalog? So if the form were to change, the link would stay the same and then you wouldn’t have to change the policy or procedure every time the form changed. There are two problems with this argument: (1) the same argument above applies that when a form changes, then the content of the policy or procedure must also change, and (2) I have found that it is rare for a company to have the resources to maintain a catalog of forms the way it should be maintained. Therefore, I would agree with this argument if the forms catalog is maintained regularly and if the person maintaining the catalog is kept in close contact with the policy and procedure writer such that any form changes can be analyzed to determine if there is an effect on the current policies and procedures that use that form.
Sources for Finding Help Understanding Forms
The largest association in the United States is the Business Forms Management Association, BFMA.org. Seminars, conferences, workshops and books are offered to its members. I recommend that you visit their website, call them, join and attend a conference. A conference or two will be an eye-opener for any policy and procedure writer. A whole new world will open up to them.
The policy and procedure writer should learn from this article and take charge of the forms administration department, if one exists. And if there is a department and politics gets in the way of taking over this role, then I suggest that the writer develop a good relationship with the forms management department and start working together.
And if there isn’t a forms department, go out there and get the training you need to add this function to the policies and procedures department. The policy and procedure writer should take charge and:
- Think about how to produce attractive and effective forms that enhance the image of the organization and that complement the policies and procedures that it affects and/or supports.
- Consider how you can work closely with the forms department and/or forms designers to ensure that the forms systems complement the policies and procedures system and vice versa.
- Think about how you can better serve policy and procedure readers and write effective policies and procedures that use effective forms.