In my last post in this series I highlighted OneNote and SharePoint as being tools provided with O365 that can significantly enhance communications within any organization. This post will focus on InfoPath and SharePoint and on the ongoing themes of capability and linkage.
InfoPath has been around for a long time and, in fact, Microsoft has announced that the current iteration will be the last version. That does not reduce it’s usefulness nor does it mean it is something that you should “ignore”. There are a few years kicking around in it at this point and it can do some pretty amazing things for you when combined with O365’s SharePoint.
InfoPath is, in essence, “smart forms”. When combined with SharePoint it becomes “very smart forms” that can radically alter how you manage business processes. There is work that is involved with utilizing InfoPath, considerably more than that involved with utilizing OneNote, so it is not as quick and easy a process to set up. However, the effort involved has definite payback that can be easily quantified in terms of the “cost” involved with designing, “coding” and implementing an InfoPath solution.
Case in point: Many organizations utilize Excel as a data capture tool that drives many varied business processes. There is nothing inherently wrong with this when the Excel sheets are properly designed but, often, that is not case. Many times the Excel sheets are poorly designed, data entry can be confusing (too many cells, bad layout, no “masking” or edit controls are in place), data can be mishandled, changed on the fly or even lost and the Excel sheets are often a “use once, store forever” object which is both costly and inefficient. Using InfoPath forms in place of Excel can eliminate all of the problems just highlighted and lead to greater efficiencies. Let me use a few examples to illustrate my point.
Example 1: Employee Time Sheets
Time sheets can be the bane of all concerned. No one particularly likes them, data collection can be “messy” and paper forms and/or single entry Excel forms can be hard to manage. So why not use an InfoPath form instead? A well designed InfoPath form that also takes advantage of O365’s SharePoint “workflow” functions can make this process pretty painless for everyone.
The following example is from our own (itgroove) internal Time system. I’ll state up front that it is hosted on our internal SharePoint rather than our O365 SharePoint but there is nothing about it that could not be implemented directly on O365.
The system consists of an InfoPath Form, a SharePoint list to hold the InfoPath data and SharePoint workflows that manage the data flow through our system from entry to export into the accounting system. I will not go through the nuts and bolts as that is beyond the scope of this post but I will give a “feel” for how it works.
The core element of the system is the InfoPath form:
It’s almost deceptively simple and that is the beauty of using a form like this rather than a cluttered spreadsheet. The Client section is driven by a drop down SharePoint list (so we can enter time against clients), Charge, Activity Date, Hours and Minutes are self explanatory. The Related SOW section lets us define if the time entry is a normal Time and Materials billing ore is this time being entered against an open Statement of Work (also driven by a SharePoint list). The Description part is interesting as the padlock has to be clicked to open up the entry field, the reason for this is simple: at some point in the time processing this information will become “locked” so that it cannot be changed. In fact, everything on this form will become locked at some point and this is one of the compelling reasons to use InfoPath with SharePoint – you can control the data over its lifecycle! The Status choice is also pretty self explanatory.
Clicking the box with the double-headed arrow reveals some more interesting choices:
So now the time entry form becomes more than just time entry, it becomes an alerting tool to management about concerns or issues.
Once the form is filled in and the SAVE button is clicked, the form data is saved in to a SharePoint list and the list can be displayed back in any number of views. I have a view of the data that is specific to me (just my time entries) and I can make edits and changes as required to data that is not yet “locked”. Workflows run in the background to do things like simple time calculations as well as perform the “alerts” to management that I referenced a little earlier. Here’s a sample of what I see:
Once the workflow runs that captures the data for accounting the form data is “locked” and cannot be manipulated any further. However, it is available for me to reference at any time which can be very handy.
What this InfoPath form and backend SharePoint processes accomplish is pretty amazing: required data is captured in a standardized format, the data is “locked” once certain processes have run yet is still available for reference, the data is stored in SharePoint which is more efficient that a series of saved Excel sheets AND it is searchable, and entry can be made on any device that has a browser and can access O365. Moreover, the InfoPath form can impose data entry masks and perform certain data validation checks BEFORE the form can be saved thereby greatly reducing the amount of bad or malformed data captured. Frankly, this beats the pants off using Excel for this kind of thing. Yes, there is a cost to setting it all up but that cost is probably mitigated very quickly by the simple fact that clean, managed data is now in your system rather than chaotic, unmanaged data that someone has to sort through and manage after the fact. Believe me, there can be a very high cost to the “after fact” management; a cost that is arguably much higher than the cost to develop the InfoPath/SharePoint solution.
And that brings me to example number two …
Example 2: Cash Management System
This is a very interesting variant of what I described in the first example. Our SharePoint team did some work for a regional grocery store chain in the southern US that had a real problem with their cash management reporting system. In a nutshell, their system consisted of a confusing array of Excel spreadsheets that each store manager had to fill in and submit to head office on a weekly basis. The system was confusing and error-prone and, frankly, pretty much didn’t work. The spreadsheets were poorly designed and each user was able to make changes to the sheets that made data not “match up” with data from other stores. And there were many ambiguous entries that were open to interpretation by the individual managers. The end result was a management headache for head office and pretty much an “electronic migraine” for the poor accountant tasked with sorting through all of the sheets in order to produce the overall cash management reports.
The customer was already an O365 user so we suggested looking at InfoPath and SharePoint to provide a better platform for the Cash Management process. A number of design discussion meetings were held and out if it came a very elegant InfoPath/SharePoint solution that now provides a “clean” set of data entry forms that standardize all of the cash management categories across all of the stores. No individual user can make changes to forms themselves meaning no individual user can enter “bad” or incorrect data. The data is collected via the InfoPath forms and a series of workflows run in SharePoint in the background to manage the flow of the data through the system. Each store manager can see the data, current and historical, for their store online at anytime (much like the time reports in my previous example) while the accounting staff can see similar data across all the stores. More importantly, the workflows aggregate the data and produce management reports that eliminate a large percentage of the “grunt work” that the accountants had to perform with the old system. Data is current, valid and clearly presented and can be accessed by authorized users from any device of their choosing that has a browser.
The cost to produce the InfoPath/SharePoint solution was a fraction of the cost associated with managing the tangle of data produced by the old Excel-based system. And it was all built using tools provided by O365 and Office as part of the customer’s O365 subscription. I think it’s a perfect example of leveraging the capability and linkage provided by O365. (Sorry that there are no example screens, there will be a case study posted on our website in the not too distant future that will highlight this project.)
What is required to do all of this?
You need to be at the “E” level O365 subscription level to make all of the InfoPath magic work, Small Business subscriptions don’t provide the necessary backend bits and pieces. While it may seem a bit of a jump in subscription cost up front, the payback can be enormous and far eclipse the additional subscription cost if you leverage the capabilities of InfoPath. I think these capabilities are another under-appreciated part of O365 and I urge you to investigate what can be done with InfoPath and SharePoint as part of your overall O365 experience. You’ll be pretty amazed at what can be done if you sit down and analyze some of your more critical business processes using InfoPath/SharePoint as the “analysis lens”.