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Google Forms can unclog company data bottlenecks

Challenge: In many organizations, filling out and processing business forms is a painful, messy and costly nightmare – the Guantánamo Bay of modern management.

You know these corporate detainees too well: travel expense claims, sales reports, satisfaction surveys, budget forecasts, employment applications and countless other "fill in the blank" documents. Yuck.

Forms are a necessary part of any business, but they're typically horribly designed, a soul-sucking chore to complete and constantly divert you from your "real" work. They're also expensive beyond measure: paper-based forms (which still inexplicably flourish) are often hastily completed, error-filled and manually rekeyed at least once (sometimes two or three or more times to different database silos).

All this adds hidden costs and time delays to critical business information flows. So how do you quickly transform all these data capture negatives into a more positive and efficient process – and all without spending a penny?

Solution: Google Forms at http://bit.ly/googleonlineforms may be your answer. Free when you register for a Google account, the service allows you to develop customized web forms with a few simple clicks.

To get started, choose from seven question types – such as multiple choice, free answer, check box, scale and grid. Add as many questions as you like in whatever type and combination. Embed explanatory text if necessary. Make the form short or long. Tailor it exactly to your information-gathering needs. Even spice up the look and feel of the form by selecting from more than 60 colourful themes.

Once your form is finished, send it out as an email, automatically generate it as a webpage or embed it into your website or blog. Invite whomever you want to respond, whether one person or thousands. Now sit back and watch as the data flows back into the spreadsheet in real-time.

You can even download and share the form data in Excel, pdf, text and csv formats.

How Google Forms can help your business: The tool has the potential to lower your paperwork costs and speed up information workflows. At last, you can reduce or eliminate the hassles of handwritten, paper-based, pain-in-the-you-know-what forms.

Being a Google tool, the service and all your forms are stored "in the cloud," or online. This means no more data silos: the forms are available any time, anywhere from any web-connected device. All data is accessed through secure connections, stored redundantly and automatically backed up. Can your existing system do that now? Didn't think so.

Usage tips: Start by looking at all your paper-based forms. Use Google Forms to capture that data online if possible.

Receive any updates by email or in Excel spreadsheets or pdf attachments? If so, create web forms that allow your colleagues to input that data directly on the web. You'll reduce errors, save time and speed up your workflow.

Also check out the "show summary" button, which automatically generates sophisticated charts and rich visuals from your data.

Bottom line: While Google Forms lacks some key features – a calendar date picker and an image upload capability that would allow you to add your own logo to the form and show pictures as options – the tool still packs a powerful punch. It allows you to instantly and easily create your own customized electronic form processing system at no cost. That's amazing when you think about it. Until recently, this capability was hugely expensive and available only to elite companies with big budgets. Thanks to Google Forms, small businesses of all stripes now have this power at their fingertips – power which can be used to improve online collaboration, transform data capture and optimize business performance.

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