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Business Technology

Say Goodbye to Paper

Document imaging solutions can help IHEs save time, space, and money.
University Business, May 2005

Take a large university with several campuses, add a few thousand students, along with their various applications, aid forms, transcripts and other documents, mix in a few dozen departments that need to access those documents for their own reasons, and you have the recipe for file chaos. But document imaging solutions are making the job easier, ensuring that files can be easily located and automatically searched, while keeping them intact and up to date, no matter who accesses them.

Document imaging is the process by which print and film documents are fed into a scanner and converted into electronic documents. The documents can then be easily retrieved and searched from a desktop computer over a network or the internet.

Companies such as DocFinity, Liberty IMS, ATI, Laserfiche, and Information Management Research, among others, offer comprehensive solutions to take the hassle out of file storage and retrieval. It's been a proven time and space saver in the corporate world for a number of years, and now higher education institutions are discovering its value as well.

"Large organizations require access to information on a timely and organized basis to track the efficiency of their internal processes, understand their performance, and stay abreast of changes in their external environments," notes David Tucker of the University of Michigan School of Social Work. As director of the Joint Program in Social Work and Social Science, Tucker heads numerous research projects that incorporate statistical data culled from records.

"The challenge we faced was keeping track of hundreds of students in order to understand who they are and what they are doing. We also needed to generate reports for internal and external reviews, annual reports, research grants and various other activities. For example, the federal government routinely asks for data on students and student performances, and providing this data is key to keeping the university functioning. Also, we report to the university on an annual basis and to external constituent groups."

Unfortunately, says Tucker, with a program that incorporates six different sponsoring units, the information he needs for his research was spread out over several locations, and was often embedded in a wide range of files, documents and other hard copy sources. "We used a hard copy filing system and tracked everything manually," recalls Tucker. "Staff members would dig up a file, scour through it for the desired information, and return it to its filing place, a process that made it difficult to extract data from documents efficiently. It was labor-intensive and frustrating."

That's why a year ago Tucker put in a proposal for a document imaging system that would benefit not just his program but every department in the university.

"Now, it takes minutes rather than
days or weeks to access data."
-David Tucker, U. Michigan School of Social Work

The solution was a product called Alchemy, developed by Denver-based Information Management Research.

As with other document imaging programs, paper copies are converted to digital images that can viewed at desktop workstations.

Alchemy acts as an electronic file cabinet where documents can be securely stored and searched, no matter their original source. The program can handle a variety of formats, including paper files, Word documents, PDFs, and e-mails.

The system also has OCR (optical character recognition) capabilities, so documents--such as meeting minutes or financial reports--can be searched for specific words or numbers.

As a result, Tucker says, research has become much easier. Now a person sits at a computer screen with, say, a statistical application open, calls up the file, finds the relevant information in the file, file enters the data and goes on to the next file.

Document imaging makes file management easier all around, says Tucker. Some of the benefits include:

Multiple employees can access the information simultaneously, at any time, including weekends and evenings.

Tucker estimates his department saved about three months of data gathering time recently when it conducted a review of its doctorate program. "In the past we would have to hire work-study students, train them to search what we needed, have them go to file storage, record the data onto forms, come back and add the data to our database," he says. "Now, it takes minutes rather than days or weeks to access data." The related cost of photocopying files is also eliminated.

"We now maintain four file cabinets where we used to have eight or more in our office alone, and probably at least that number upstairs in another storage facility," says Tucker. "And as far as the master's program is concerned, they would have had 20 to 25 files cabinets--they're all gone now, too." The former file room now houses a photocopier and mailing supplies, he says.

For obvious reasons, the university doesn't want hard copies of files floating around through various offices. Alchemy's required access via password makes the records more secure. Plus, Alchemy acts as a built-in backup system for department meeting minutes, and other official school documents.

With some 13,000 students to keep track of, at least a half-million documents pass through the offices of Western Illinois University each year. The school realized it needed a faster, more efficient way to collect student loans and bills, says David Nelson, deputy director of Business Services. The solution came from Calif.-based Laserfiche Document Management.

"Our goal was to scan all documents processed in the Accounting and Purchasing offices and make those images readily available for our staff. The project has been a great success, and is widely praised by our staff, who now have desktop access to documents from several fiscal years."

The school plans to expand to billing and receivables in the upcoming school year. Now there is no chance of misfiling loan agreements, correspondence or collection information.

The university uses Laserfiche WebLink to retrieve documents internally. "If we want to branch out around campus it will be a lot easier with WebLink," says Nelson. Since the original installation, the school has added satellite operations for the Western Illinois University Foundation and the Vice President for Administrative Services.

Nelson says that, at this stage, return on investment is difficult to measure. "We have a substantial investment in software and equipment, but we have gained enormously in 'ease of access' and data security, and we were able to reallocate file room space for office use," he says. "We plan to upgrade to the newest release of Laserfiche in the next few months."

Growth was also on the minds of registrars at prestigious University of Mary Washington (Va.). The school had long wanted a document imaging system that would give it the ability to add electronic documents to its SunGard SCT student information system.

Document imaging was not a viable investment, however, until they realized that the documents could be instantly shared online between the school's two campuses. "The James Monroe Center for Graduate and Professional Studies is about 10 miles away, and we wanted a way to be able to scan paperwork in to be shared on both campuses as opposed to faxing a piece of paper," says Assistant Registrar Susan Colbow. "We also wanted a backup for all our paperwork and storage."

The school examined nine different systems before settling on Laserfiche, which proved to be a highly efficient and secure way to share files with other departments and campuses. "There is definitely a time savings involved, as well as space savings," says Colbow. "We've replaced several file cabinets of materials and records from our vault. It has been a big help."

Like any worthy technology, document imaging requires an initial investment of money, time, and resources. Besides the software investment (which usually varies depending on the size of the installation) high-resolution document scanners (at least 600 dpi) start at about $1,000 for sheet feed models and many times more than that for high-capacity feed models. The biggest time factor comes from converting old paper documents to digital images. In the University of Michigan's case, Tucker says the document conversion, done by work-study students, was completed in about six weeks. But, he says, introducing document imaging is more than just scanning documents into a computer; it takes some serious planning. Probably the most important task is to clearly identify what is expected from the system and how its parameters will be defined. This will avoid costly mistakes that may not be correctable later.

"You want to be able to define exactly what you mean by a file," he says. "When you say you have a file on a person, what are the contents of that file? How do you conceptualize that file as being organized. That's an important part of the setup, because that also defines how you'll index those files that you don't convert to optical character recognition. The component parts of your file--the keywords and categories--now become more important because they are what you will be using to do searches."

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