Using Technology To Do More with Less
- By Bridget McCrea
With IT budgets shrinking and challenging economic conditions persisting, an increasing number of higher education institutions are being forced to do more with less. The University of Michigan-Flint, one of the university's two regional campuses, is no exception.
With 7,200 students, the campus has felt the direct effects of the auto industry decline and the resultant job losses in the northern Michigan region. State budget cuts, for example, have prompted the school to increase productivity and efficiency with no additional resources.
That's where technology comes in. Historically, all of the student services offices at Michigan-Flint had one common factor: too much paper. Managing that paper and the manual processes that generated it often resulted in lost files, inefficiency, wasted time, costly processing, and increased storage needs. To streamline those manual processes, the institution implemented ImageNow, a document imaging and management system developed by Shawnee, KS-based Perceptive Software.
Used by more than 2,000 organizations in 30 countries, ImageNow lets users capture and organize all types of documents, and then allows them to route and retrieve a precise page with a single click from within any business application. More than 350 higher education institutions and 900 campuses use ImageNow.
Michigan-Flint started using the system in its financial aid office and has since expanded its use to 11 campus-wide departments, including the registrar's office, graduate admissions, undergraduate admissions, human resources and purchasing.
"We've slowing been expanding it across our entire campus over the last decade," said Jay Gandhi, senior systems analyst.
Flash back to 1999, and the school's financial aid office relied on a system of circular "retriever" drawers (the type you normally see in doctors' offices). "There were three huge retrievers filled with student financial aid files," explained Gandhi. "Not only did they take up a lot of space, but it took the staff forever to process files." Files would get lost while being shifted from one desk to another, frequently causing delays in the financial aid award process.
"Customer service is our primary focus, and the manual system was taking its toll on that aspect of our operations," recalled Gandhi. "In 1999, we decided that it had to stop." To find the right solution, she made a call to the school's Ann Arbor campus, which for years had been using ImageNow in its financial aid office. "They were pretty happy with it, so we went with it," said Gandhi. "That saved us from having to shop around."
ImageNow works with the school's existing Banner student information system to capture, organize, retrieve, view and route documents. According to Gandhi, the system helps staff members work faster and more accurately, thus resulting in enhanced student service, and faster processing and approvals. The school is also using ImageNow Work Flow, which directs documents automatically to the right individuals, departments and locations at the proper time, thus simplifying the institution's document-intensive processes.
With limited internal IT resources, Michigan-Flint relied on its vendor to set up the system, establish the workflow and train staff members, the latter of which was particularly important.
"People who were used to looking at and touching paper files were suddenly having to do all of their work on the computer screen," said Gandhi. "The first few months were challenging, since any change is always unwelcome, but everyone is doing just fine now."
Michigan-Flint's total return on investment for going paperless has been significant. Gandhi said the institution realized payback within 18 months, recorded cost savings of more than $5 million since implementation and posted total ROI of 1,550 percent.
More importantly, the school's customer service component has improved significantly since going paperless, said Gandhi. With the financial aid, admissions and academic departments using desktop computers to access files that used to be shuttled around campus in file folders, decisions can be made quickly and students aren't left hanging. "Every piece of paper that arrives on campus is immediately scanned into the system, and fed into the workflow," explained Gandhi.
The system then electronically routes the documents to the appropriate staff members via a pre-determined sequence that holds the materials in queue until they are approved for forwarding. That process alone has helped Michigan-Flint's financial aid office shave about 75 percent off the time it takes to process files, according to Gandhi, who said, "The amount of time and aggravation that we save is just phenomenal."
Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.