Thursday, 5 January 2012


You have to be pretty old to remember the first touting of ‘The Paperless Office’.

It has been found though that people were actually more attached to paper than any computer scientists ever thought. The way we have an habit of printing emails, printing and filing letters, orders etc that have already been archived and backed up by Skylabs and across the company archiving servers Garibaldi and Ginger_Nut.

It’s not just an old age thing either.

Many means can be found these days of reducing paper, there is of course a price for such things, including direct use of web access (eg to log an ASB incident or a request for repair), interconnection of systems (eg interfacing your main supplier systems into your purchase ledger) or increased use of direct entry of information into the main systems. Although, even after these measures have been taken, your organisation will still be generating and dealing with vast quantities of paper. A lot of that could be classified as ‘waste work’, although let’s put that matter to one side for the moment.

Electronic Document Management (or EDM) has been around a long time. It’s probably fair to say that most early incarnations suffered from some of the following shortfalls:
  • Systems could be oversold. Character recognition and other snazzy features rarely lived up to expectations in a practical environment.
  • EDM applications could be very complicated, too so for the end users expected to work efficiently with them.
  • Stories of poor implementation abound, many never really got further than the starting blocks or beyond a single area or department.
  • Interfacing with peripheral systems was not often considered at the time the EDM system was selected, consequently more work is created in batching, scanning and re-entering data.
  • Often existing documents had not been completely back scanned, so users were often having to look in at least two places for a good number of documents. When available, specialist equipment was needed to view.

Well, fast forward about twenty years and our offices are increasingly bulging with paper. The average housing tenancy file has over 85 items in it. Is it worth looking at EDM in the light of the costs of maintaining, moving this paper around and finding it when it goes missing? Considering that EDM systems have improved, are more economical to procure and there are some models of good practice out there to learn from, it might just be worth it.

According to the Gartner Group, the costs of processing a housing purchase invoice is around £4. This increases if it has to be passed through a few hands, as is often the case for it to authorised, then passed to be added to the purchase ledger payment pre-list. Just the time taken to file documents all adds up. If that were five minutes just four times a day, which equates over a month to around seven hours. Staggering!

Since only one person at a time can work with a document, they resort to photocopying it and printing it (45% and 35% of usage). We all have some idea of our pence per copy of our photocopiers, add on that the time spent standing over these devices, collecting even more paper? Once you lose an important document, it can cost from £50 to over £200 to find or obtain a duplicate of it. It is not that tricky to quantify all this and develop an outline business case for looking at an EDM application.

Some of the points to be aware of are:
  • Consider that you have a choice of suppliers, it need not be your main housing management system supplier, although possibly options they provide might include superior interfacing features.
  • Decide if your organisation would prefer to host the solution and its document data or are you comfortable for your supplier too (possibly in the ‘cloud’). Personally I prefer the former, so my data protection boxes are ticked. A good deal of EDM suppliers prefer the latter, it promotes longer lock in. Ensure you can witness the mode you chose working successfully at a similar site to your own.
  • Look into the EDM interfacing features carefully and of course see them demonstrated, working with your target system(s). Many suppliers have told me ‘Its SQL Server, no problem to interface’ and I generally tell them to pop back when they can show me, would two weeks be enough?
  • Through edicts much of the local authority services have now got EDM and many EDM suppliers are turning to housing as the next market sector. Ensure that each of your shortlisted EDM suppliers have a proven track record in housing. Ask them to share their full customer list with you, then choose some to contact similar to your organisation.
  • Think how you will organise the back scanning. Will your chosen supplier take it on? How long will that process take? Can any space freed up after the original documents have been destroyed be put to better use? I know of one site in Scotland where they created a gym for staff, from the extra space created.
  • When you contact reference sites, ask how the project actually progressed. Was it on time and to budget? Did they have everything delivered that was originally promised? Also find some sites that are currently in an implementation. These will be the best indication of how well your project might go.

Read on to: Are we really so Agile, can we be more so?

Talking Heads had this to say on the subject.

(c) Tony Smith, Acutance Consulting

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