Information Management: Where Information Flows Like a River

May 4, 2016
Kentucky sanitation district deploys enterprise content management to organize records

About the author: Tim Wacker is technical writer for NBN Communications. Wacker can be reached at [email protected].

In 1998, Kentucky Sanitation District No. 1 (SD1) landscaped its Fort Mitchell campus as a 20-acre demonstration of the journey storm water makes through the much larger watersheds that wash through its service area. Little did utility staff know the final result would prove a tangible model for the eventual transformation of SD1’s paper record-keeping processes into a state-of-the-art enterprise content management system (ECM) in which information flows much like rain: effortlessly. 

Introduction to ECM

Utility customer records usually are seen as neatly arranged rows of cabinets filled with files that can be readily retrieved by means of a well-thought-out archiving system. In reality, it looks more like a swamp that grows ever more inaccessible and intractable the older the document sought, costing utilities thousands of hours every year looking for paperwork.

ECM transforms this mostly static storage concept with dynamic computer workflow processes. Utility records do not have to be a stagnant pool of paperwork; they can be a seamless flow of electronic information as rich and fertile as a watershed—if the process is done right.

“There is so much you can do with this technology, but it is a whole different mindset,” said SD1 Records Manager Kathy Jenisch. “With ECM, the less paper you use, the better it works, and for a utility that can be a hard concept to grasp.”

En Route to ECM

The technological transformation at SD1 began in 2009 in response to the growing administrative demands of the district’s expansion. Located across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, SD1 grew to become the second-largest wastewater district in the state, with 1,700 miles of sewer line and 142 pumping stations, sanitizing 30 million gal per day of wastewater discharged by 100,000 homes and businesses in 31 cities and towns.

Along with a 40% population increase in its service area, SD1 was dealing with rapidly expanding and increasingly stringent regulatory oversight. By late 2008, the utility was literally drowning in its own paperwork.

For example, current records were tabulated by the page in manila folders, filed alphabetically and then deployed in a regiment of filing cabinets. As space demanded, archived records were delivered by the truckload to offsite facilities, where exposure to the elements once resulted in the complete loss of 6 tons of records. 

In addition, regulatory requirements meant every department was required to provide specific documentation—current or archived—requested by inspectors, attorneys or customers. Failure to do so could result in litigation and severe penalties.

In 2009, the district began its transition to paperless record-keeping with the purchase of an electronic record management system by Laserfiche. Current and recently archived documents were scanned into the electronic records repository, and within weeks staff members were able to instantly access records that previously had to be retrieved from file cabinets, all without leaving their desks. Hours of searching for paper files became seconds required to call them up on desktop computers. The success of the pilot project encouraged its expansion to include a backlog of historic archived documents, budgets and personnel files.

However, after a few years, with new state government transparency laws looming and a rapidly expanding population needing service, Jenisch realized meeting the utility’s ever-expanding records management needs demanded hiring more clerical staff or investigating and investing in additional ECM technology.

“It was a daily grind just to get the work done,” she said. “In the old days, we could get away with pulling file folders from archives and hand-searching for records. In 2012, that was no longer an option.”

An Information Transition

In 2013, Jenisch expanded the Laserfiche system to include a suite of software products called RIO that would propel SD1 into a new realm of ECM technology called business processes management. Instead of merely turning paper records into electronic images for increased ease of access, RIO software builds computerized workflows that seamlessly move digitized documents throughout an organization.

Information started to flow through SD1’s office automatically and efficiently, wherever and whenever it was needed. The RIO system also integrated with the utility’s accounting software system, eliminating the need to manually input accounting records into the records repository.

With more than 250 employees to manage, business process management was first implemented in the human resources department, where record-keeping required paper-heavy processes that entailed frequent email exchanges. These processes were automated through an electronic human resources employee matrix that was automatically updated with new hires or changes in employee status. Employees’ travel requests, cash advances and expense reports were similarly automated.

These initial successes prompted Jenisch to expand the Laserfiche system to other departments. Automated workflows now route 75 invoices per day for approval and payment in the accounts payable department, reducing processing time by half and eliminating the need for four file drawers of onsite storage space. Storm water inspection reports are now automatically ushered past the required approvals in SD1, out to independent contractors if needed and eventually to accounts payable and archiving.

With RIO, more than 50 electronic workflows have empowered SD1 to leverage its electronic records repository into a records management tool more powerful than an electronic filing cabinet. Time-consuming and repetitive manual processes like photocopying, emailing, faxing and mailing have been automated, saving hundreds of staff hours per month.

“Not only is more work getting done much more quickly, but it’s getting done with greater accuracy and reliability,” Jenisch said. “Taking the human element out of these repetitive tasks wherever possible means reducing the opportunities for making mistakes.”

Final Steps

The latest stages of the transition to ECM addressed a lingering drag on SD1’s electronic record-keeping initiative: the paper data input form. In 2015, SD1 leveraged the RIO system software further with electronic forms, allowing IT staff to design custom data input forms across the entire organization. After starting with the employee travel request form, Jenisch added cash advance and expense report forms. Employees now can access the forms on their computers, where they are filled out and automatically routed through approval and into archiving.

“The entire process is now done electronically,” Jenisch said. “From the initial request to the payments and receipts handled by accounting, it’s so clean and simple.”

A final step in the transition involved personnel training and engagement with the new system, as any automated system requires the formalization of best practices. MCCi, a Laserfiche reseller, conducted initial training sessions and follow-up visits as requested by SD1, but then the utility took over. 

“We just needed to show them the ropes,” said MCCi Commercial Div. Vice President Nancy Mathes of Jenisch and her staff. “They truly appreciate and understand what the technology can do for an organization with massive record-keeping responsibilities.”

SD1 now has built more than two dozen electronic forms to keep the data flowing smoothly and cleanly. Success has been measured in the cost savings of offsite physical records storage and reducing staff workloads by hundreds of hours, all while improving the integrity and accuracy of the information flow. Like a pristine river, the unadulterated efficient flow of information helps the utility fulfill its role as steward of the community’s natural environment.

“We’re saving a lot of trees because we’re using a lot less paper,” Jenisch said. “And that’s good for our watersheds.”

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About the Author

Tim Wacker

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