Making short work of forms via SharePoint lists

By Samuel Conway

One of the big attractions of SharePoint is that through a list you can generate a form, hence you can take a process that could be paper based and automate it. When talking to organisations about SharePoint this is often one of the deal clinchers when considering if SharePoint is the solution for them. Especially if they have no form automation or Access database setup.

The real question here is “Is it just that simple?” Like everything in SharePoint the answer is yes and no! The actual execution within SharePoint can be tricky if not thought through.

SharePoint is only as good as the design of the system, hence if you start with a process that is not efficient; replicating it in SharePoint will not make the process any better. When moving a form into SharePoint, it’s a great time to think about what business value can be derived from the data, also are they the right questions for what you are trying to achieve.

So let’s look at how forms can be used within SharePoint. When you build a list within SharePoint a form is generated which is used to gather the data for the list.  The columns in the list then become the fields in the form and thus can be used as questions in the form.

This simple fact really highlights the power that SharePoint provides; which is what you can do with the data once you have established the optimal questions that need to be asked. These carefully crafted questions need to drive data capture that can be used to allow data-related decision making within the organisation.

A typical example would be creating a leave request form to alert a manager that one of their employees wants to take leave and it needs approving. Once alerted the manager can then go back into SharePoint and approve the leave. This may then trigger another workflow to alert the HR department.

If you want further advanced functionality, that information could then be fed into a payroll system. This is a fairly standard use of forms within SharePoint that any Google search will return countless “How-To’s” and blog entries.

The opportunity that many organisations are missing out on is once these forms have gathered up the data into a list, the information is being used in a very simple linear way. Ask any self-respecting analyst where the real information lives within a company and they will always tell you that the devil is in the detail.

Various business intelligence (BI) tools such as Excel services and chart Web parts can really start to pull out information that previously wasn’t available or wasn’t reported on, especially by  those lucky enough to be running enterprise edition and with a business analyst on staff!

But it doesn’t need to be that complicated. One great example that I have built recently within an aged care facility relates to an incident form.

We were automating the resident incident form and working through its structure and question order. I was analysing the allowable user choices to ensure that we were gathering the right information to enable the organisation to automate the reports that the auditors require.

I asked the management team if there was a particular graph or statistic that they would like to report on that they currently don’t. The answer was swift and decisive, they had always wanted to know when the most dangerous time was for a resident in the aged care facility.

“Well that’s easy” was my reply, we know what time the incident occurred it was one of the questions, we also knew what type of incident (that was a drop down box) and we even knew the location (another dropdown box) hence we could create a count of the incidents based on the time and then put a couple of filters over the graph to enable the users to filter by incident type and location.

As the data was entered into the list trends began to appear. This allowed the organisation to consider and act on where the most dangerous places and times were within the aged care facility. This has led to an opportunity for improvement which was raised in another SharePoint form and a task allocated and assigned to a committee.

So don’t be afraid to use the information you gather from a SharePoint form to influence real change within your organisation.

Samuel Conway is managing director of Business Process Visualisation Australia (BPVA). Email him at