Features: December 17th, 2002

No Pain No Gain – From Paper to Electronic Records

 Housing Associations are currently groaning under the weight of paper they have to store and manage. Charles Willenbrock from Circle 33 and Deborah Putsman from Valid explain how they have set out to tackle it

One of the problems of being a rapidly growing organisation is the huge amount of extra information and paper that accumulates. Tenant files, personnel files, development files, insurance files, property files. The list goes on and on. Have you ever stopped to think how much space all of this takes up and what it costs? Or how many times a tenant file has gone missing, prompting a hunt around the office that may or may not lead to it being found.

As Circle 33 expanded we realised that we were running out of space. We either had to find a better way of utilising existing space or find new offices with all the extra expense that this would mean.

“This last year, in particular, has been one of major growth for Circle 33. We’ve now got more than 20,000 properties to manage and employ around 620 staff as opposed to 487 in 2000. EDM has played a major part in our strategy to accommodate all of the new files and paperwork that have appeared because of our success.” says Howard Cresswell, Director of Corporate Services.

EDM stands for Electronic Document Management, an IT system used to replace paper filing by scanning documents and indexing them electronically. Circle 33 first began to look at this technology for the storage of its tenancy and property files. But closer examination revealed that EDM went beyond the simple storing of scanned documents and could help us to look at departmental processes to improve their efficiency too.

The next step was to select a partner to supply the system. As Charles Willenbrock, Business Systems Manager, explains, “We needed a system that would seamlessly integrate with our housing management software, ArcHouse, as well as our email and finance systems. Key to our selection of Valid’s R/KYV, (pronounced Archive) is the system’s standard open format that permits integration with specialist programmes without necessitating additional training. We’ve been able to implement R/KYV quite easily with our existing infrastructure and remote laptop users have also been able tobenefit from the systems.”

The pain

However, we wouldn’t want to fool anyone into thinking that setting up an EDM system doesn’t involve a huge amount of work. All existing paper files need to be gone through carefully with the key documents being selected to be scanned in and indexed – a process called backscanning. A real benefit of this exercise is critically reviewing what paper needs to be retained and what can be discarded. This discipline is then followed for all new scanning in the future.

In May, Circle 33’s Customer Services department successfully backscanned some 8,500 tenancy files, comprising 1.5 million pages. Admittedly, the job was made slightly easier by the clever use of form recognition software which meant that 26 key housing management forms such as Notices of Seeking Possession (NOSP) and sign up details were automatically catalogued (indexed) without anyone needing to look through those 1.5 million pages to find them. We can now carry out quick electronic skimming of files which is especially useful for tasks such as complaint investigations and missing cheque searches.

The gain

It is making a considerable difference to our working practices. Documents don’t go ‘missing’ and staff in the contact centre, who provide all our core services, can now bring up key housing management documents onto the screen at the click of a button, meaning easy access to NOSPs, harassment reports, sign up details and other key forms. The annual rental increase letters are available on screen and can be printed which has saved a lot of time over queries and removed staff uncertainties when dealing with tenants. Staff have been able to say ” I am looking at the letter now and will send you another copy.”

Whilst it is fair to say that up until now most of the benefits have been felt by housing management, EDM is being rolled out around the organisation. Eventually each department will have their own scanner and Personnel has been the next team to benefit from the technology.

Not only has EDM cut down on the space required to store personnel files for over 600 staff, but the team now has accurate storage and instant retrieval of all records and a simple means of capture of new documents.

The benefits don’t stop there either. As Deborah Putsman from Valid, says, Confidentiality of personnel information is guaranteed through R/KYV’s sophisticated security protocols that can identify and secure an individual page within a 200-page file. Access, naturally, can be rigorously enforced complying with current data protection legislation. Eventually, individual employees will be able gain remote access to their own personnel records using a unique personalised security code.”

Circle 33’s Insurance and Pensions team, who uses EDM to manage claims, has also benefited from the extensive security functionality. Many of the files that the team works on, on a daily basis, are property files that are used by the whole organisation. However, R/KYV permits the Insurance and Pensions team exclusive secure access to confidential aspects of the file while other non-contentious areas of the file are simultaneously made available to the whole organisation. R/KYV’s integration with the Trust’s email system ensures that emails, which form a large proportion of this team’s correspondence, are correctly filed and can be immediately accessed by appropriate personnel, regardless of location. The importance of this capability is clear given the financial and legal implications of poorly handled claims.

One of the major benefits that EDM will bring to the Trust is in the handling of cheque logging and the invoicing and payments process. The current process by which invoices are processed is particularly paper intensive and one that we have made a priority to reengineer.

A workflow system is being developed in which paper invoices are scanned on arrival at the office and indexed to identify their type. The system will define who the image should be presented to for checking and posting via workflow. It will also provide us with the ability to pass an invoice to another staff member, should there be a query, incomplete authorisation, or a response required. In the future, there is also the possibility of reading text from the invoice in order to automatically update our Finance or Housing Management systems with the posting.

The process will also make a massive difference to rent and Housing Benefit (HB) logging. The new system will allow us to scan supporting documents and batch them and workflow will be used to ensure that images passed to the correct member of staff. Our Finance team will then be able to view these in order to post the cheque payments correctly. The log would also be captured in the archive and linked to the batch of documentation. If required we may be able to further develop the system to read such documents as HB schedules, in order to automatically create load files for the housing management system.

A comparison of the 80 or so sites in our housing management system user group shows that most organisations are only now starting to look at EDM. We would encourage more to do so. It is certainly clear to us at Circle 33 that the enormous benefits do outweigh the hard work involved.