Today's organizations create and use massive amounts of information, from sales figures to performance appraisals to purchase orders. Gathering this data is a top priority for teams and organizations.
Currently, many information workers collect that information via inefficient processes such as paper forms, or electronically using documents, spreadsheets and e-mail. Others have built custom in-house applications using Web-based or proprietary forms tools. Because of the difficulty of extracting and reusing information from these applications or tools, information workers often must retype information leading to data-entry errors and inefficient business processes.
Key decision makers are often unable to make informed decisions because the information they need is trapped within documents or databases in another part of the organization. Technologies such as the Extensible Markup Language (XML) and Web services have been helpful in improving business processes from server to server, but to date they have not been connected directly to information workers at their desktops. This has meant that information workers have not had a way to interact with Web services directly to access and use the enterprise information that they need.
InfoPath was designed to address all of these customer needs. It streamlines the process of gathering information and makes it easy to reuse that information throughout the organization. InfoPath is the “premier smart client” for Web services—a user-friendly application that enables information workers at their desktops to use Web services to access and use enterprise information.
The Uses for InfoPath
InfoPath provides information workers with a set of tools that enable the creation of dynamic forms to gather and share information across a wide range of formal and informal business processes. Unlike traditional forms packages, InfoPath provides a high degree of information-gathering flexibility, enabling people to obtain the information they need in a timely fashion and to make well-informed decisions.
For example, InfoPath can help improve the efficiency and productivity of a company’s sales force and sales information. Prior to InfoPath, a salesperson returning from a business trip might have filed a trip report using Microsoft Word, entered new sales figures and pricing into a CRM or ERP application as a separate task, and completed an expense report using a custom-developed Microsoft Excel solution. She would have needed to enter the same information—client contact information, sales figures, pricing—multiple times, in different applications that do not share or cross-validate that information. The information within one business process, such as the trip reports in Word, would be difficult to reuse in the other business processes without manually reentering that information.
InfoPath can improve this error-prone and inefficient process. Using the powerful design tools in InfoPath, a form designer can quickly and easily create a trip report form for the sales force. Before departing on a trip, a sales representative can download the form from the corporate intranet site, put it on her laptop, and add information to the form after each client visit. Because InfoPath enables a user to work with forms offline, a sales representative can complete an entire trip form while on the road. She can submit the completed form as soon as she reconnects with the corporate network. The information submitted in an InfoPath form can be passed directly to an XML Web service that then repurposes the information for all the various reports that the sales person used to complete in separate processes, such as the trip report, the expense report, and the updates to the CRM and ERP systems.
Moreover, the information gathered through InfoPath is now easy to reuse in all of the company’s business processes, such as purchase order creation, fulfillment, shipping, and customer shipment notification—even though these might be different systems in different locations. Finally, InfoPath is a valuable tool for the team’s informal processes, as the sales manager can use InfoPath’s integration with Microsoft® Windows® SharePoint™ Services (WSS) to review the entire sales team’s reports in one convenient summary view.
Information gathered through InfoPath can be stored directly in a database, on a Web server or file share, or on a server running WSS. From there, the information could be analyzed or easily repurposed, eliminating the need to retype the information as it is used in different documents or transactions.
InfoPath provides individuals and organizations with more flexibility than is available in current digital formats, enabling a level of inter-application and inter-process integration that has never before been so easy to achieve.
A Microsoft study shows that as part of the process of gathering and managing information, currently 70 million workers, or 59% of working adults in the United States, complete forms on a regular basis as part of their job responsibilities.