Article: An Introduction to ECM, Imaging, and Paperless Processing for Independent Schools
“Establishing electronic workflow processes allows you to serve parents, applicants and students more quickly and with greater accuracy.”
Applying to an independent school marks the beginning of a very important chapter in the life of a prospective student. Similarly, each application marks the start of a new student record at the institution to which the student has applied. During the lifecycle of this record, various departments, including registrar, financial aid, academic advisement, athletics, and alumni relations may require access to it and may add new files. And, as anyone who participates in this lifecycle can attest, this record can include a variety of documents in addition to the application, such as transcripts, exam scores, letters of recommendation, student records, financial aid requests, and other supplemental materials.
It can be a challenge for boarding and other preparatory schools to manage these files. Security and accessibility are important considerations. If an institution receives materials in both paper and electronic format, the challenges can increase—especially as institutions make strides toward records retention and compliant disposition.
One of the most effective ways to centralize and manage information efficiently is by implementing a web-based enterprise content management (ECM) system. ECM software—which can be deployed on premise or via the cloud—provides greater functionality than a simple imaging or document management system. It stores electronic files and makes them accessible to multiple departments and individuals who are authorized to access the information, and helps staff to manage the various documents effectively. When coupled with automated workflow, a school can standardize and improve the processes related to these documents, boost employee productivity, and even increase enrollment.
Every school strives to offer the best level of service to students and applicants. An ECM system with robust workflow functionality can shorten the application-to-decision timeframe. Accelerated application processing speed correlates to higher enrollment. As private schools continue to become more competitive, being able to make a quick offer to an undecided applicant can determine whether or not that applicant enrolls in your school.
The first step: Eliminating the paper
ECM allows your organization to store all of your documents and related information in a single, central electronic storage repository. It allows departments and entire campuses to become truly paperless. Original paper documents can be imaged and added to the repository, verified for accuracy and readability, and indexed for easy retrieval. Data in your student information system can be integrated with the ECM system to allow for indexing with less data entry and to ensure data integrity. Related documents can be grouped together to create holistic electronic student files. This simplifies retrieval, communication, and processing.
Below are some of the ways you can benefit from storing documents electronically:
- Access information instantly. Having files at your fingertips electronically allows you to stop shuffling papers from one person to the next, and lets you get down to business faster and more efficiently. When an applicant calls with questions or sends additional information, you can access his or her files immediately from any web browser. With electronic storage, the chances of misfiling are also greatly reduced.
- Reduce your need for printing. Working with and sharing files electronically results in fewer files that need to be printed out for reference. Instead of printing or copying files for everyone who needs to see or sign a paper, you can share it with them all electronically and simultaneously.
- Simplify storage and reduce associated costs. ECM helps institutions save money on physical storage space—both on- and off-site.
- Manage “orphan” records. An ECM system can help alleviate the common file storage headache that results from “orphan” documents. Files of applicants not offered admission or who do not enroll can be effectively managed by the ECM system until their retention period expires. ECM can also assist with re-enrollment. Students who re-enroll can be easily reactivated without the cumbersome search and movement of files, or, even worse, their recreation.
A good ECM system also enables improved information security. The software can be configured to allow access only to those who need specific information or types of documents, or even block out sensitive information so that certain users cannot view it (such as financial information that should not be accessible to everyone). A robust web-based system can enable authorized users to access files from remote locations securely, instantly, and simultaneously.
Other benefits of ECM include:
- Decreased overhead and increased efficiency. ECM enables users to retrieve, track, share, revise and distribute documents electronically throughout an institution to improve productivity and efficiency. Rather than an Admissions representative spending time preparing a paper copy of an applicant’s file to send to the Financial Aid office, Financial Aid staff can be granted online access to the relevant files. ECM even allows information and application processing to be done via remote access.
- Improved stakeholder satisfaction. ECM allows you to offer better service to students, parents, and other departments. With an ECM system’s improved retrieval capabilities, you are able to answer questions about a specific application immediately.
- Simplified compliance. The electronic storage and backup of files, audit trails provided by the ECM system, and the automated management of retention schedules aid in compliance with regulations such as HIPAA. They also help information recovery efforts in the event of a disaster.
The second step: Using workflow to process enrollment information more quickly
While ECM can help your school reduce paper, save on storage costs and space, and improve the access to and sharing of information, automating your workflow process can multiply these benefits. Automated electronic workflow complements and expands upon the capabilities of the ECM system, enabling you to circulate documents that require review, approval, signatures, or other actions, and process applications more quickly. Documents that require days or even weeks for review and action within a paper-based environment can be processed in a matter of hours or minutes, all from the convenience of your desktop or tablet.
Several benefits of workflow are detailed below:
- Automatically trigger process with receipt of file. When you are using a powerful workflow system, workflows can be configured to automatically launch when new items are added to the system or “attached” to a student’s electronic record. In fact, different workflows can be designed to start a process automatically, depending upon the type of document that is received. Then, during processing, items can be sent to various users’ queues for additional work. Relevant documents pertinent to the process can be forwarded electronically via workflow. For example, if you are processing an application and more information is needed, the item can be flowed back to the last person who worked on the job, or to whoever needs to add input or render approval. When an item is ready be moved along in the process, a simple mouse click can update its tracking.
- Automate processes. Electronic workflow can assist in improving and streamlining processes, while ensuring that your existing business processes are executed efficiently. Well-defined, repetitive business processes that follow a series of steps (such as application review, financial needs assessments, and transcript evaluations) can be transformed into electronic workflows that duplicate these manual business functions. A system with a robust workflow capability will allow you to set timelines for processes that can include time limitations for individual tasks, as well as for the entire business process. You can incorporate the application processing timelines you already have in place for your manual process into the workflow when it is created, and ask the system to notify your employees when deadlines are approaching, or to inform management if important deadlines have been missed. As your process becomes faster and more efficient, you can adjust the timelines you set for individual steps or for the whole process, enabling your staff to process an even greater volume of applications more quickly.
- Improved document routing. Once configured, workflow automatically addresses getting the right document to the right person at the right time and eliminates the file shuffling so rampant in paper-based systems. This automated processing reduces errors and increases accuracy to help improve operations. A feature of a better workflow system is the ability to accommodate for users’ vacations and absences and to set up workflow distributions by user and by job position. Better workflow systems can also be configured to automatically re-route work to a backup user or group of users when the original user is unavailable.
- Improved service. Establishing electronic workflow processes allows you to serve parents, applicants and students more quickly and with greater accuracy. When a parent calls to inquire about the receipt or status of a particular document, you can immediately provide the answer—regardless of where the application is in the review process. Increasing the efficiency and accuracy of your internal processing will result in happier staff and students.
- Gain metrics on improvements. Since electronic workflow is 99% data driven, all relevant data can be used to measure improvements. Reports can be configured for a multitude of needs: you can use them to identify any production bottlenecks, show user activity, and track the average length of time needed to process particular tasks. Report data can be exported into pie charts, bar graphs, live dashboard views, and other web-based tools for viewing.
The third step: Incorporating records management
When you have a heterogeneous processing environment, it can be challenging to manage retention schedules accurately. Student records may have different retention schedule timelines. Some documents must be retained for a specified number of years, while others must be retained for the life of the student.
ECM lets you configure retention rules based on the document type, student data, date created, or a combination of values. The system monitors that data and flags documents for disposition, movement, copying, or legal and FERPA holds, based on rules you create.
Best practices include the following:
- Create a roadmap. Set records management goals for the near future (the next 12 months), as well as long-term goals which you hope to enact within the next 3-5 years.
- Define retention rules for each document type. For each document type, note for how long it should be retained, when it should be deleted, and when it should be purged from the system. This will form the foundation for a seamless records management strategy—especially once you automate retention and disposition schedules.
- Document your retention policies. The date that a retention period begins is not always spelled out by regulations. If this is the case with your document types, choose a piece of metadata, such as “modified date,” to trigger the onset of your retention period. Document your decision, and follow your protocol consistently.
- Invest in change management. Users may be reluctant to delete documents that had exceeded their retention periods. Investing in proper training and change management can help to alleviate users’ fears and ensure that your strategy gets executed without resistance.
Improving efficiency and success with workflow
Whether you are considering a SaaS or an on-premise deployment, ECM alone can help your school improve student and parent communications, information access, compliance, and enrollment. Storing applications and supporting files electronically is a great first step. Adding electronic document-driven workflow can help you push application details along the right channels for faster, more accurate processing. When ECM is coupled with workflow, the result is an even more powerful solution to help your campus gain a competitive edge.