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The Chinese are credited with inventing paper nearly two millennia ago,
and in spite of more recent inventions, such as the integrated circuit,
computerised storage, and networking, it is still heavily used. So is
the world moving closer to ushering out the old in favour of the new?
The paperless office has long been a dream, but can it be achieved?
Direct is doing its best. The company is a partnership between BT and
Liverpool City Council, which at the turn of the decade was seen as one
of the worst councils in the UK at revenue collection and benefit
payments. ‘The service was deemed to be failing’, says David McElhinney,
chief executive of Liverpool Direct, which was formed in 2001 to help
modernise the council’s operations. ‘The average time to turn around a
benefit claim was 140 days, and there was a backlog of 50,000 cases.’
The paper was holding everything up. Each week, 20,000 pieces of mail
would arrive at the benefit office, including everything from benefit
claims to notifications that an individual’s circumstances had changed.
The mail would be stamped, and filtered through different teams
depending on what information it held until it reached a file. It would
then be sent to more people for manual assessment. Bottlenecks would
delay the paperwork, and files would be buried on someone’s desk when
they were needed most. ‘A claimant might pay a personal visit, and we
wouldn’t be able to locate their file’, Mr McElhinney says. ‘The average
wait was about two hours.’ Not only did the paper cause significant
delays, but also took up £750,000-worth of office space a year. Ridding
the office of paper began with refocusing the system around the
end-user. A series of ‘one stop shop’ contact centres was set up to
handle customer queries and visits, and the organisation opted for what
Mr McElhinney calls a ‘single version of the truth’ – a single
electronic document thatcan be referred to by all parties at any time.
Now, when a document is received, it is scanned and put into a digital
file. Data can be attached to the documents, which is archived into
different folders by a dedicated team, based on the content.
Software-based flags can then be set for the document that can trigger
actions necessary for that letter. One trigger might cause a letter with
a particular response to be generated, for example.
One of the
biggest challenges when re-engineering a paper-based system is to
minimise disruption, but some interruption is inevitable. ‘It’s one of
those systems where you can’t run things in parallel’, explains Mr
McElhinney. The systems were turned off for six weeks, and buildings
including 15 post rooms where closed; one post room was retained to scan
all incoming correspondence; the paper storage building was sold in
March 2006, generating £4.5m for the city. Stripping away old ways of
working was an important part of the project’s benefits: ‘Know your
processes, and challenge them to make them more efficient’, says Roddy
Horton, central systems manager at the Hyde Group, a housing association
with 1,200 employees serving more than 75,000 people. This month, the
Hyde Group computerised its recruitment process, stripping 58,000 sheets
of paper a year out of the system.
Before the recruitment
process was digitised, candidates would receive an information pack and
application form in the post. They filled in and returned the form and
copies were sent to the recruiting manager and up to five people on the
review panel. The recruiting manager would then fill out various forms
following the interview and return them to human resources, which would
then send a decision letter to the candidate. ‘Now, all the details are
on the website’, explains Mr Horton. An online application form is
logged in a database and sent to the recruitment manager, who then
electronically forwards it to the interviewing panel. Once the decision
is reported to human resources, the candidate receives an e-mail.
recruitment application is built on a database from Northgate HR that
the company had bought in 2001 to manage some human resources
information. It then purchased ePeople, a human resources application
from Northgate that enables the company to provide a self-service front
end to the database. The developers built workflow rules into the system
that coordinated these communications electronically. The recruitment
applications join an already-deployed paperless expense claims and
training request application, also designed to strip paper from the
system.Before the introduction of that system, paper-based expense
claims and time sheets needed to be signed by a manager, who would often
be out surveying sites, dealing with housing issues, or visiting other
offices. ‘It might be weeks before you saw your manager’, says Mr
Horton. ‘Staff were not being paid on time, and they were also going to
huge amounts of effort to claim those payments.’
system handles those communications digitally, so staff enter their
expenses claims directly into the computer. The Hyde group also refined
the expenses process by making it possible within the system to request
that another person sign a document, if the first choice of manager was
absent, for example. Both Liverpool Direct and Hyde’s projects had a
common challenge in getting people to change the way they work –
especially senior staff used to do things a certain way. Mr Horton found
that electronically signing documents was counterintuitive for many
staff: ‘I had problems proving that an electronic signature is just as
sound as a paper one’, he says, explaining that employees ‘sign’ an
e-mail in the workflow system by e-mailing it to the server, which then
e-mails the next person in the workflow chain.
can also be nervous of introducing efficiencies because they see it as a
job threat’, Mr Horton warns. He had to reassure several people as
systems were roiled out.
But how much paper do such projects
really get rid of? Neither of these organisations are yet paperless.
Liverpool Direct has achieved the greatest success, having stripped
about 70 percent of the paper from the process. None of the paper that
is personally bought into the one-stop shop centres and scanned is
retained, but any postal correspondence is retained for 30 days after
being digitised. The Hyde Group’s attempt at digital deforestation has
been more muted. Since the recruitment system was digitised, about
one-third of its paper has been eliminated. It hopes to increase that to
80 percent by digitising supplier invoices, tenancy agreements, and
possibly tenancy repair requests, Mr Horton says.
even though an entirely paperless office may not be plausible, stripping
even this much paper out of the system can have positive effects. For
example, in Liverpool the caseload backlog has been reduced from 50,000
to zero, while the average processing time for benefit claims has
dropped from 133 days to 19. Abandoned call rates to its contact centre
have dropped from 50 percent to just 5 percent, and the waiting time for
personal visitsconcerning benefit claims has been reduced from the
original two hours to four minutes. Hyde will always have some paper,
even if it is not strictly speaking in the office. The company is
reluctant to get rid of paper-based tenancy agreements altogether, and
keeps them stored in an off-site location for legal purposes.
Nevertheless, with the paperless recruitment system now in place, and
with its previous paper saving efforts, it has eradicated 153,000 sheets
of paper a year from its operations.
In reality, the totally
paperless office may still be as far off as the paperless newsagent –
but organisations can go a long way towards reducing what they use and
increasing the efficiency of their work along the way.
o Why is it important to strip away old ways of working when
introducing systems such as those brought in by Liverpool Direct and
Hyde? o Using the Internet as a resource, locate information
regarding a simple document management system, such as Scansoft’s
PaperPort Office. How useful is such a product likely to be within a
department of a large company or a small business? o What is the likelihood that the paperless office will ever be achieved?
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