The Forms Hot Potato: Who Should Take the Handoff?

The start of the new semester finds me doing two things: 1) looking ahead to November’s EDUCAUSE  Annual Conference, the major event for higher education IT professionals; and 2) looking back to a theme I recently commented on: student service. What connects these two dots in my late summer thinking?  It’s the relationship between central IT and key student-supporting administrative offices. As the writers of the EDUCAUSE report Top-Ten IT Issues, 2012 acknowledge, “Process optimization occurs at the intersection of functional (administrative, academic, research) and technical domains, and it drives their synthesis.”

A critical place for functional and technical domains to align in the service of students is in the Registrar’s Office. When it comes to administrative processing demands, few – if any – other offices on campus can match what needs to get done day after day in a registrar’s office. One key indicator of the office’s performance is how it handles student forms processing. In an electronic processing world (which is where your Registrar’s Office needs to be, if it isn’t already), this is where the rubber of processing needs hits the road, or the roadblocks, as the case may be, in terms of IT support.

Why roadblocks?  In a word, volume. Keeping students on track to degree completion requires that a large number and diverse range of student form types be created, maintained and potentially updated. These include Change of Information, Change of Major, Add/Drop, Petition to Graduate, Academic Reinstatement and dozens or more additional form types.

In addition to design and maintenance, these electronic forms must be made available for online submission. Then, for routing and approval purposes, they must be associated with various, specific and often complex business process workflows. So, where should the primary responsibility and capability for creating and managing electronic forms reside?  On the surface, it sounds like IT work – probably central IT work. But, does it have to be? More importantly, can it realistically continue to be?

The short answer to the first question is “definitely not” and to the second, “probably not.” Add to the dozens of form types processed in a Registrar’s Office the hundreds, if not thousands, of other forms used across campus, and the overwhelming burden of centralized forms design and administration becomes clear.

For that reason, institutions should consider having core functional area personnel – operations managers, system support staff, business analysts and the like – at least share the responsibility for forms creation and management. In many cases, it will even be feasible for the functional departments to take a complete handoff from central IT. Facilitating the sharing or transfer of expertise will of course require utterly intuitive forms design and editing tools. And, ideally, those tools will be a native component of the workflow engine through which the user-completed forms will eventually be submitted, processed, managed and approved.

Once such tools are in place, don’t be surprised when users in forms-intensive departments on the front lines of student service, such as the Registrar’s Office, quickly and eagerly embrace the decentralization of the formerly IT-reliant task. They’ll enjoy the flexibility, convenience and, most importantly, service-bolstering responsiveness that come with bringing forms-building capabilities “in-house.”

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