Replacing Paper Forms in the Construction Workflow
Paper forms and the headaches that accompany them are all too familiar in the construction industry. For decades, paper was the most effective solution for capturing data in the field. Digital, mobile solutions were unavailable, hard to use, cost prohibitive or all of the above.
This has changed dramatically. User-friendly electronic forms solutions that leverage the expansion of tablets, smartphones and internet access have allowed many contractors to eliminate paper forms and manual processes. Electronic data capture has proven itself to be easier, more affordable and more efficient – and it is immensely more effective in delivering more and better data.
These are the top 10 advantages of using electronic forms compared to paper forms.
1. Deploy Forms to the Field in Minutes
With paper forms, distribution is difficult and time consuming, particularly when jobsites are spread across a large area. This means driving to and from multiple locations or mailing the forms. What happens when a form must be updated with new information? Often, the process of distributing and getting a form back to the office can take a week or two.
With an e-forms tool, users in the office dispatch forms without having to leave the office, and employees in the field access the forms directly from a mobile device within seconds. With permission, they can make edits and re-publish that form with ease. Foremen spend more time on their actual jobs and less time on the unproductive process of receiving and sending forms.
2. Real-Time Access to Data and Automatic Alerts
Tied closely to #1, once paper forms have been delivered to the correct people, how do you get that data back to the office? Often, employees fill out all their forms for the week and then drive or mail them back to the office at the end of that week. That creates an enormous lag time in receiving data on the forms that can be vital to running the business efficiently, effectively and proactively. Paper forms can also be damaged, illegible or lost. Sometimes, they never show up at the office at all. Alternate attempts to get around the lag time – like phone calls and texts – create an unreliable logistics nightmare, with no record or paper trail.
Once an electronic form is filled out and saved, it can be accessed instantly in the office or anywhere else. Important information, like an incident that has occurred or a piece of equipment that is down, is available in real time. Instant email or text messages can even be driven by the form to let selected recipients know something happened. This important data can be instantly populated into reports to show the most up-to-date analytics, trends and patterns. Access to this data empowers employees to make informed business decisions proactively.
3. Customize Form Templates
Paper forms are inflexible. Once they have been printed, a company is stuck with the template. To make changes, employees have to either edit the form, which can make the information difficult to interpret, or they have to create, print and distribute new batches of forms. That is expensive and time consuming.
Electronic forms can be edited as needed to capture the exact information a company needs about a specific activity, piece of equipment or process. The updated forms can then be immediately distributed.
4. Required Fields
One of the biggest risks with a paper form is that a company cannot ensure if it actually gets filled out or if the person filling it out entered data properly. The term "pencil-whipping" comes up a lot. This means that a form was filled out, but the person did not take the time to input the right correctly.
With electronic forms, a lot of these issues are eliminated by making specific fields required. The form filler will not be allowed to submit a form to an approver unless all required fields have been filled out correctly.
5. Multimedia Capabilities – Photos, Videos, File Attachments
Capturing photos and videos with mobile devices in the field is a big advantage. The headache with paper forms, however, is there is no way to easily include them. Photos or related paper files could be printed and attached, but that is inefficient and time consuming. With videos, you are out of luck. This is another example of how much time is wasted trying to compile all relevant data into one place manually. Then, the challenge of manually transporting that analog data remains.
Multimedia capabilities allow photos, videos and files to be imported directly and attached to an electronic form. All the data is available in one place and in real time.
6. Data Integrity
When a worker is tasked with filling out forms, it’s up to that individual to interpret what should be included in each form field. This can lead to inconsistencies in how vital information is entered. One worker might write a measurement using feet, while another uses inches. One might abbreviate the date, while another spells it out. Illegible handwriting can compound the problem.
This is called "unstructured" data because it is just that – data that is inconsistent or doesn’t follow a set of guidelines as to how it should be entered. The big problem is that unstructured data makes aggregating and interpreting that data a more time-consuming manual process that cannot be automated.
Electronic forms drive structured data. Drop-down menus make it easy to select the correct information. Defined fields, such as feet vs. inches, can be built in to ensure information is entered consistently. Electronic forms also provide options for check boxes, radio buttons and auto-population – all of which make data more accurate and valid. Filling out the forms is easier and faster, as is interpreting the data and turning it into actionable intelligence in the form of reports and dashboards.
7. Capture Electronic Signatures
Paper forms need to be manually delivered, signed and returned, with delays a likely possibility at each stage of the process. Furthermore, there is no way to confirm the form was not modified after it was signed.
Not only do electronic forms allow instant signing with an e-signature function, but there is built-in validation to ensure that if any data on the form changes after it has been signed, the signatures will be marked as invalid. Signatures captured on a form can also be associated with a printed name, a timestamp and GPS coordinates. This makes it clear who signed the form, when they signed it and where they were.
8. Computed Fields
Bad calculations lead to bad business decisions. Paper forms that require the form filler to do manual calculations are time-consuming for that user and do not have built-in safeguards to ensure that the calculations are done correctly. The outcome of a bad formula can be misleading for the user and the business as a whole.
With electronic forms, pre-defining a formula for a field is a not only a huge time saver, but also assures accurate calculations are made. These safeguards obstruct bad data from even entering the system, let alone perpetuating across the organization.
9. Access to Reference Documents and Images
Many processes executed on the jobsite are accompanied with a "how-to" document. Equipment inspections might include instructions on what the operator should be looking for. Toolbox talks often include overviews of the topic and diagrams. In the paper realm, this means lugging around all the relevant manuals, "how-to" documents and other papers or not having access to these things at all.
Establishing electronic access to this relevant documentation directly from the electronic forms being filled out makes things much easier. The need to carry documentation around or worry about keeping these items undamaged disappears.
10. Approve/Reject Workflow
One major complaint is how paper forms block a company’s ability to enforce employee accountability, review forms in a timely manner and keep track of where each form is in the process. This is especially true when it comes to the approval process. When forms are being manually delivered to the office from the jobsite, there is no guarantee that they will even make it there, let alone on time. Once a form reaches the office, it is challenging to interpret who was responsible for what pieces.
E-signatures on an electronic form provide a valid, instant signature. On top of that, defining a set approval sequence for a form is a game changer. When a user submits a form to one or more people, a clear path is defined and there is no doubt about who’s court it is in for review. Approvers get notified via email. Approvers can either approve the form or reject it along with comments on their reasoning and a signature. This lightning-quick speed streamlines business workflows and makes it clear exactly where a document is in the approval process.
Elizah Hulseman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a product manager for B2W Software, an AGC of New Hampshire member. She has had a leadership role in the development of B2W Inform, the company’s unified solution for enterprise-wide data capture and analysis.