Storage Solutions: A Case Study

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. Unfortunately, this information tends to be located in diverse places, reflecting the fact that the requisite information is usually embedded in a wide range of files, documents and other "hard copy" sources. Gaining access to and organizing this information can be difficult -- but it doesn't have to be. The University of Michigan School of Social Work is a model of how an educational organization can streamline back end processes and save time and money.

The School of Social Work (SSW) is part of the research university in Ann Arbor. Ranked number one for its master's program by US News & World Report (2004), it has been serving community for 80 years. In addition, it is the home of a world-class inter-disciplinary Ph.D. program in Social Work and Social Science. This latter program was particularly concerned about improving its operation because of its complex nature; students study in Social Work and five different social sciences: anthropology, economics, political science, psychology and sociology.

The challenge SSW faced was keeping track of numerous students in order to understand who they are and what they are doing. SSW also needs 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, SSW reports to the university on an annual basis and to external constituent groups.

Until recently, SSW used a hard copy filing system and tracked everything manually. 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," says Dr. David Tucker, director of the Joint Program in Social Work and Social Science and professor of Social Work and adjunct professor of Sociology.

A year ago, SSW invested in Alchemy, a paperless document management solution. Today, Dr. Tucker's department and other offices, including the master's program, the office for student services and the Dean's office, use Alchemy to store and manage data. Student files, committed minutes and other types of information are scanned into the Alchemy repository, which currently holds approximately 60,000 records. This process consolidates data for easy retrieval.

For example, for a grant report for the National Science Foundation, SSW may need to provide data on alumni, such as how many alumni participated in certain programs. Staff members simply access the repository, and a quick search reveals the desired data. SSW can then copy the data onto a CD and ship it to the foundation; SSW can also e-mail or print out and send the information by hard copy.

Alchemy is now being used schoolwide by dozens of employees, who can access the repository simultaneously while maintaining the confidentiality of the records. In SSW, nearly a half-dozen staffers use the system, and it is used by an additional two dozen or so in other offices, including the Dean's Office, the registrar's office and the office of student services. Here are some of the benefits.

1) Efficiency/ease-of-use in gathering data. For instance, a grant may require data on how long it takes students to finish the PhD program. Multiple employees can access this information simultaneously, in minutes, and it's accessible any time, including weekends and evenings. Plus, the school is converting all past files from microfiche, which is difficult to use and view.

2) Time savings. It takes minutes, rather than days or weeks, to access data. through the past year, SSW conducted a comprehensive of the Ph.D. program. SSW obtained and used data resulting in a much more in-depth assessment that would have been much more difficult without Alchemy. Dr. Tucker estimates Alchemy saved three months of data gathering time, and without Alchemy, SSW would have had a manual and therefore, less reliable review of files.

3) Space savings. SSW has not purchased an additional filing cabinet through the year, and the organization has been able to recycle freed-up cabinets for other uses that would have required new purchases.

4) Enhanced security. For obvious reasons, the university doesn't want hard copies of files floating around through various offices. Required access via password makes the records more secure. Plus, Alchemy acts as a built-in backup system.

Other departments at the university are following SSW's example and coming up with innovative ways to use Alchemy. One department is exploring using Alchemy in new faculty hires. Rather than tracking and circulating confidential files among committee members, members would simply access files sitting in their own offices. Costs of reproducing files by photo-copying would be eliminated, and because faculty members can view files simultaneously, Dr. Tucker predicts the efficiency gains may encourage more faculty members to serve on such committees.

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