Registration for Kuali Days is now open!

Which is Better? Forms & Workflow vs ECM Forms Tools

August 19, 2021

Today, higher education administrators and IT departments are asked to do more with less. Since the onset of the coronavirus, many institutions have seen budget cuts and workload increases. Process automation can significantly remedy the situation, and it is becoming a major area of interest for higher ed leaders. 

As you look to automate processes in or across departments, keep in mind process automation software typically can’t be found in one single product. Higher ed institutions often have a portfolio of automation technology, averaging from three to five products. Each software has a specific use case, and no software can meet the needs for every use case. Let's dive into the functionality and use cases for forms tools in ECM platforms versus forms and workflow platforms. 

Functions of an ECM Form Tool

ECM platforms, such as Perceptive (previously ImageNow), Hyland's Onbase, or Laserfiche, serve the primary purpose of being the primary information management hub in your institution.

These platforms are often incredibly feature rich and support your institution in its ongoing knowledge management, transfer, and archival processes. Platforms typically serve as the core hub for many documents, include rich scanning and optical character recognition technology, support with records retention and retrieval requests. In recent years, platforms have seen the addition of business process management (BPM) functionality such as basic digital forms, automated routing workflow, in some cases, robotic process automation.

For the purposes of this post, we will primarily explore the use of these additional BPM features as they relate to the capturing of information and routing of approvals across campuses.

When to Use: 

The University of Hawaii has a range of process types for its 10 campuses across six islands. For less flexible, more integrated, and “long-lasting” processes, Hawaii may choose to use their Enterprise Content Management solution, Onbase's Unity Forms, according to Garret Yoshimi, CIO and VP of IT. For processes that require higher-powered integration and configuration abilities, but not excessive customizations, the institution uses a forms and workflow platform, which we’ll dive into later on. 

To better understand forms & workflow platforms built into ECM tools, these are the pros and cons that you’ll see in a tool like Onbase's Unity Forms: 


  • Connected with your ECM out-of-the-box so can route pre-existing scanned forms or other documents for approval
  • Easily integrate completed form submissions with your document lifecycle flows
  • Enhanced coding-based customizability of forms and workflows
  • Advanced security options such as redactions, permissions, and audit trails
  • Robust integration capabilities through extensive API capabilities


  • Very difficult for a non-technical user to use due to primary user audience being IT developers
  • User-based licensing and complex pricing can cause costly access to form development and / or participation
  • Integrations often require development setup support and ongoing maintenance
  • Expensive to upgrade or change solution quickly

Functions of a Forms & Workflow Platform

With a forms and workflow software, you can create forms and route them through a custom approval process. We’ll use Kuali Build as our forms and workflow platform to understand the pros and cons. 

When to Use:

The University of California San Diego uses a portfolio approach to process automation. They use Kuali Build for local and departmental forms and workflow. Brian DeMuelle, Executive Director of Enterprise Architecture and Infrastructure, calls this category of processes “general-purpose workflow.” For example, UCSD might use Kuali Build to automate reimbursements or purchase requests. 

These are the pros and cons you can expect from Kuali Build:


  • Create smart forms that expand or minimize sections on the fly according to the user’s input.
  • Robust integration with identity systems, giving you the ability to assign approvals to specific roles, like the VP of Athletics, without manually inputting names or email addresses. 
  • Strong integration with campus systems. This means you can integrate a change of major form with the student information system or a reimbursement request with the financial system. When a reimbursement request is approved through Kuali Build, it can be simultaneously pushed to the financial system. 
  • The approval process, or workflow, can be as complex as needed, ranging from a one-step approval to 100+ steps.
  • Use parallel branching in the approval process so multiple stakeholders can weigh in before moving to the next step.
  • Reports that show status and highlight bottlenecks. 
  • A variety of flexible pricing plans including unlimited campus-wide development and submissions.
  • Kuali Build include the option to add an eSignature field on your form.


  • Due to the ability to easily complex forms and approval processes, it isn’t as customizable as an ECM-based form tool.
  • Integration with core campus systems, like an ECM, may require middleware to support.

ECM tools were built to manage the capture, flow, and retention of campus-wide information, and tools like Onbase operate well in that role. However, the robust capabilities of many ECMs cause their no-code form components often to be inaccessible and difficult for non-technical users to use. Many departments rely on IT currently to automate processes due to the lack of robust tool access they currently have; a general-purpose easy-to-use forms and workflow solution helps to solve that need.

There is a time and place for both a ECM-based forms and general-purpose forms and workflow software. Many of Kuali Build customers use both regularly. A tool like Onbase's Unity Forms is best used for complex, document-heavy processes with strict compliance and retention regulations that rarely change in nature. Examples of great ECM-based form processes might include those such as an employee onboarding or invoice processing application.

General-purpose forms and workflow solutions are best for either frequently changing or small, but meaningful, processes across campus, where non-technical users are often leading subject matter experts, approvals are required across multiple campus groups, and the process needs to be quickly modifiable.

Check out how the University of Hawaii used Kuali Build, even with an eSign tool already in place, to cut approval times to under 24 hours. Read their success story here.


Higher Education's Guide to Process Automation eBook
True Cost of Paper & PDFs on Campus Infographic

Become a partner, not just a customer.
Connect with Kuali