Information Awareness Month: Can we make forms smarter?
Stephen Bounds — Thu, 02/05/2013 - 15:38
During May a.k.a Information Awareness Month 2013, I hope you enjoy this series of reflections on the current state of Information Management.
As anyone who has ever had to deal with a government department or large corporation knows, a large proportion of requests need to be initiated by filling out a form. These can be paper, paper-analogue (ie PDF) or online forms.
The logic of having forms seems impeccable: By making it clear what the organisation needs to know upfront to complete the request, the need for back-and-forth correspondence can be eliminated, leading to more efficient service.
However forms have an unfortunate side-effect. The time taken by people to fill out and submit information is "free" from the perspective of the organisation receiving the forms. Therefore, there is a strong incentive to push as much effort as possible on to the submitter.
This manifests in three ways:
- Requiring entry of standardised or well-known information about an entity (eg name and address)
- Requiring the submitting party to perform calculations or other manipulations on behalf of the recipient
- Showing irrelevant questions and information to the submitter, increasing cognitive workload (eg having multiple if-then questions and statements)
Transferring time costs from the organisation to the submitter is not, strictly speaking, an externality, since the submitter is a party to the transaction. However, the additional costs for people to complete forms is a very real productivity drag on the overall country's economy despite showing "savings" by the department.
This is a classic example of misaligned incentives or as Bob Lewis puts it, where we should suboptimise the parts to optimise the whole. But since the value of these inefficiencies is hidden, no-one has an incentive to improve the situation.
And here's my final challenge: As information management professionals, are we making the problem better or worse?
[As an aside: There is a parallel scenario where regulations mandate the regular submission of information to meet reporting/monitoring obligations. In both cases, the submitting party cannot avoid the form and there is little incentive for the receiving party to optimise the experience of the submitter.]
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