Sutherland's paperless vision comes good

If all goes to plan, this year Australia's fourth-largest local council will kick the paper habit once and for all.
Written by David Braue, Contributor

Assuming all goes to plan, this year Australia's fourth-largest local council will kick the paper habit once and for all. Getting to that point, however, has been less about cold turkey than about gentle weaning, as David Braue explains.

As people all over the world swore off cigarettes and chocolate for the new year, staff at Sutherland Shire Council (SSC) were staring down a completely different kind of resolution: to finally help the council rid itself of paper files.

That desire was the culmination of a decade-long move towards the paperless office that has seen SSC -- which with 215,000 residents and 1,500 staff is the second-largest council in New South Wales and fourth-largest in Australia -- gradually replace its paper filing systems with a document scanning and electronic document management environment.


source:Sutherland Shire Council

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Australia's fourth-largest local government, Sutherland Shire Council administers services for 215,000 residents in Sydney's outer southern suburbs

SSC has already been saving nearly AU$600,000 annually in productivity benefits with 90 percent of staff on the system last year, and the final effort this year will pull the rest of the organisation across the line. That should deliver even more benefits, with additional productivity and savings relieving some of the budgetary pressure and procedural scrutiny that constantly shapes local government IT evolution.

The road away from paper
That evolution began in earnest in 1996, when SSC introduced CRMS (Customer Request Management System), a Lotus Notes-based customer interaction system that helped smooth the handling of customer interactions that were previously managed using paper files.

Two years later, a revised State Records Act spurred thinking about how the council, like its many peers around the country, could reconcile its increasing volume of electronic communications with established paper-based recordkeeping practices. -Increased use of electronic documents was transforming the way records management was provided at the council," says Chris Fripp, corporate records and archives manager with SSC.

Chris Fripp, Sutherland Shire Council

-Managing information in hardcopy format meant we had lots of files around the place; they were only usable by one person at a time, and were prone to getting lost. We had to look at systems to be able to maintain not only a hard copy of the information, but also electronic documents -- and it was important to have both [managed] together. We wanted a system that would make peoples' lives easier, and fit in with what they were doing rather than making them fit in with the system."

By 2000, SSC had laid down plans to introduce an automated system for indexing and archiving its electronic information. In an effort to avoid replacing its legacy messaging system, the council worked with systems integrator Cri-Tech Consulting to implement Innovative Ideas Unlimited's Domino Document Manager (DDM).

DDM, which was chosen over other third-party document management products because of its seamless integration with Notes, interacts with the Lotus Notes workflow environment and IBM DB2 back-end database. That database provides a common repository for council information that is also accessible from systems such as its Proclaim One property management and MapInfo geographical information system.

Building a scanning culture
With 47 different business units across its operations, putting the boot into paper files took more than just a passing effort.

One major improvement came from introducing a scanning infrastructure that would facilitate the entry of paper documents into the DDM system. Early on, the decision was made not to retrospectively scan the nearly 600,000 pages contained within SSC's paper files; rather, introduction of scanning would gradually shift the majority of operational files into electronic form as they were used.

Replacement of previous photocopiers with newer models meant employees could easily scan documents into DDM for use, rather than making endless paper copies. This technology provided a bridge between the old and new worlds, allowing employees to begin stocking the document management database using a device with which they were already familiar.

Reinforcing the importance of scanning has increased employee participation significantly over the years. -We're scanning everything now," says Fripp. -It has been a progression over the 10 years, and initially we would say we would only scan this or that type of record -- say, if it was related to a complaint or request. Now, all photocopiers have scanners on them and I think we're just getting better at doing more of it."

As SSC moves to a completely electronic environment this year, recently introduced high-speed scanners are ensuring that incoming mail is scanned as soon as it's opened. An e-mail is then sent to the recipient, who opens it using an embedded link that lets them categorise and view the electronic version of the document.

Since employees interact with document images and only print them occasionally -- for example, when they need some pages for a meeting -- they have very little scanning to do anymore; only printed file notes, memos and the like need to be manually scanned.

Addition of electronic documents to the system has also been automated, with applications set up to automatically save new documents into the right part of the DDM hierarchy. -The user doesn't even have to think about it," says Fripp.

The high volumes of e-mail coming into the council have made it a bit more demanding on employees, who have been directed to keep every piece of relevant information but are given the discretion to weed out personal, spam and other unrelated mail.

That flexibility hasn't been problematic, however. -The idea is to put the emphasis back on the users that they're responsible for recordkeeping, and the user gets to determine whether [a document] is part of a business decision that needs to be part of a file," Fripp explains. -Most are pretty good at it, and have been printing and filing e-mails in the past anyways."

Benefits speak volumes
Despite efforts to introduce technology easing the use of the electronic document management system, training has remained critical. That has been particularly true this year, as SSC moves to bring the remaining 10 percent of its employees -- many of whom have long resisted the technology -- out of the technological darkness.

-Some users need a bit of handholding," Fripp explains, -and we take that on as a challenge and give them more personal attention. The challenge is convincing people that [electronic document management] is good for them. People get warm fuzzy feelings out of paper, and we're trying to duplicate what a paper file used to do, in electronic format. We're trying to make the process as friendly as possible."

Resistant users cite a range of concerns about the technology, all of which have come out into the open through ongoing training. Some employees are concerned, for example, that it will be difficult to get documents back again once they're stored electronically. Others worry that their co-workers will be able to modify or edit documents they created, or that confidentiality will be compromised by making the documents available across the organisation.

Clarification of information management policies quickly alleviates these concerns: for example, access to SSC documents can be controlled centrally or at a business unit level, with individual managers able to request changes but those changes funnelled through a formal change management process. That approach has retained the ability to quickly change content, without turning the document management system into a free-for-all of conflicting changes.

Whatever the reason, Fripp says, addressing such concerns head-on -- and countering them with a list of benefits from the new system, which is now based on Lotus Notes 5.4 -- has proven remarkably effective in dispelling any lingering concerns.

As with any project, the proof of SSC's document management success has been in the proverbial pudding. Users no longer struggle to reconcile different versions of policy or other documents, and productivity has increased as the system slashes the time to retrieve relevant information (estimated, in Fripp's ROI estimate, at 20 minutes per day before the system and 10 minutes or less now).

Future initiatives are expected to provide other benefits, such as the formalisation of long-term archiving using formats such as PDF and XML, and the provision of Web-based access to corporate information where relevant.

-People get information straight away rather than having to run around the office for it," says Fripp. -They have the ability to locate information from a single search screen, without knowing who wrote it or where it's stored and in what format. They've never had that before."

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