Magazine Article | September 24, 2008

Penn State's Document Imaging Initiative

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

By taking a centralized approach to document imaging, the Pennsylvania State University makes the technology accessible to every department regardless of location, size, or budget.

Integrated Solutions, October 2008

Kevin Morooney, vice provost for information technology and CIO, and Shelley Butler, staff document imaging specialist

What comes to mind when you hear the words Penn State? Perhaps you think of Joe Paterno and his Big 10 football team? Or maybe the noble Nittany Lion? Beyond these popular public icons lies one of the nation's top-ranked public universities, boasting more than 85,000 students in 2007. In addition to the University Park campus, Penn State has 19 commonwealth campuses across Pennsylvania and 9 special mission units dedicated to specific areas of education such as medicine and law.

As with many institutions of this size, educational or otherwise, the cumulative effect of paper transactions can be overwhelming. In Penn State's case, this is not an exaggeration. Consider, for example, that in the admissions office alone, more than 48,000 first-year undergratduate applications are received for processing each semester. Processing requirements aside, if left unabated the file storage requirements would soon have the institution outgrowing its available physical space. In a few departments, document imaging initiatives had already been launched. But these deployments were sporadic and limited to the university's largest departments. To be truly successful, Penn State needed an imaging solution that would be available universitywide.

Penn State formed a committee to review imaging technologies and how they could be applied at the university as early as the mid-1990s. Based on a recommendation from this group, Penn State selected the DocFinity EDM (electronic document management) suite from OIT (Optical Image Technology) as the platform to support its imaging initiative. The relationship started with a test license from OIT and progressed to a DocFinity Enterprise license shortly before 2000. Although the enterprise license allowed for use across the university, Penn State's organizational structure left deployment of the technology limited at best. For example, despite being one common university, Penn State campuses, units, and even larger departments, operate as individual entities. As such, each entity is responsible for its own operating budget, personnel, and operation. In most cases, this is beneficial since it gives departments the freedom and flexibility needed to develop processes that best meet internal needs and departmental objectives and goals. However, in the case of document imaging in particular, this can actually be a detriment.

Departments that decided to proceed with document imaging did so on a decentralized basis, with each department responsible for its own support, including complete funding. This included everything from establishing adequate infrastructure (servers, scanning hardware, workstations) and security to ongoing maintenance and personnel. In addition, every time a different department implemented the imaging solution, it had to start from scratch to configure system architecture, staffing, and training. While individual deployments weren't much of a problem for larger departments such as undergraduate admissions, student aid, or human resources, smaller departments were left unable to leverage the technology. For one thing, smaller departments had smaller budgets, so IT spending was limited. Also, although the university had a centralized IT division, individual departments — especially smaller ones — often had limited IT expertise or resources on hand, so supporting any IT project would be a challenge.

The decentralized nature of Penn State's imaging initiative left the university struggling with the fact that many business areas were unable to keep pace with growth. "The challenge was to develop a solution that could address the document imaging needs of any department, large or small, without exhausting departmental budgets or staffing resources," says Kevin Morooney, vice provost for information technology and CIO for Penn State. To meet the challenge, the director of solutions and services within Penn State's ITS (Information Technology Services) launched a project to investigate the possibility of creating a centralized imaging service. Part of this process included hiring a full-time document imaging specialist to assist with investigation, recommendation, and eventually implementation. 

Initially, Penn State's document imaging specialists visited multiple campuses, department heads, and staff to gain perspective on exactly what the imaging requirements were in each area. For example, how paper-intense were the processes, how each department's configuration would look, and what IT resources were already available. "As we started analyzing the situation, we began to realize that certain areas just did not have the support structure in place to do this," says Shelley Butler, staff document imaging specialist at Penn State. The structure she refers to goes well beyond a human resources or staffing issue. Departmental budget constraints could have an impact, as well. Despite the ability to leverage the enterprise DocFinity license, the biggest obstacle to overcome was the cost and support requirements of procuring and maintaining the necessary infrastructure — the servers, networking, and security — to support a departmental imaging installation.

Vital to the success of a centralized imaging project was the establishment of a solution that would guarantee that all departments, referred to by Penn State as clients, would receive the same level of service regardless of their size, budget, or resources. Penn State determined that the best approach would be to house the required infrastructure at the University Park campus, including adequate disaster recovery and failover protection, and provide access to each department as a free service. Essentially, the physical scanning process would remain the responsibility of each department, but Penn State ITS would manage the image repository and ongoing support.

Before Penn State could roll out document imaging as a centralized service, it first had to secure the approval of the executives involved in determining the university's ongoing IT strategies. "We had departments already using the DocFinity solution successfully, so it's not that we had to prove the software would work," says Butler. By the time the presentation to the CIO was made, the university's Registrar's Office had been using a stand-alone document imaging installation for several years. "Our biggest challenge was to prove that it would work from a centralized approach," she continued. Prior to the introduction of imaging, the Registrar's Office had an entire vault full of old paper transcripts. In fact, one of the visible results Butler and the ITS team pointed to during the presentation was the fact that space once consumed by that storage vault is now home to four new office cubicles. In other words, the space is now a productive work area, rather than an expensive storage space. In addition, Penn State was able to illustrate that by providing the necessary infrastructure as a free, centralized service, all Penn State clients would have equal access to the benefits of document imaging. In addition, student transcripts, which could take days for the staff to locate and retrieve, now take only minutes. Needless to say, project approved.

Rather than establishing a formal marketing plan, it was decided the best approach would be to promote this new service by word of mouth. This was accomplished through quarterly campus visits and presentations to steering committees. The approach worked much faster than anticipated. Within months of the pilot program (conducted in the university's Smeal College of Business Administration), Penn State found itself faced with a new challenge — how to handle the volume of requests coming in.

The solution was as follows. As each new client makes it to the top of the waiting list, an in-depth consultation is provided to determine the client's exact imaging needs and expectations, as well as a thorough explanation and demonstration of the DocFinity software modules. This meeting (or meetings) paints a clear picture of which software modules will be needed, how to configure those modules, and an idea of how much training will be required. For example, by talking to individual users and by looking at labels on filing cabinets and folders, Butler and the IT team can get a good idea of the electronic filing structure they will need to create. She follows up with a detailed spreadsheet that outlines Penn State and client responsibilities, as well as a list of milestone dates.

At this point in the solution, the client is guided through three project phases, each of which represents a separation in both process and physical infrastructure. First is the test phase, in which the imaging solution is set up to mirror the client's actual operating environment. "The test phase serves as a safe environment," says Butler. "It serves as a learning and discovery period for the user and a testing, troubleshooting, and training period for the ITS team." During this phase, the client is connected to a separate infrastructure dedicated solely to the testing process. In fact, documents and files scanned during testing are deleted at the conclusion of the phase. It serves as an opportunity to learn without fear, but also as a means to encourage clients not to linger in test in order to avoid a lot of rescanning in the next phase.

The second phase is referred to as acceptance. During this phase, the client is migrated from the test server infrastructure to the permanent infrastructure, and all images going forward are retained. By this point, all the training has been completed, and the users have a final opportunity to make any last-minute requests for system adjustments or modifications. During this phase, the client is encouraged to take the time to be sure everything is working as desired, because once the client accepts the solution presented, no further changes will be made. Once the client is comfortable with the transition from paper to electronic processes, the client is urged on to the third and final phase known as production.

The production phase represents the client's final transition to a fully live, centrally managed document imaging system. At this point, user rights, passwords, and even security firewalls are configured. Record retention schedules also are collected from the client during this phase in order to automate retention by using HSM (hierarchical storage management) software. Finally, a Memorandum of Understanding is signed by both parties to confirm the ongoing responsibilities of both the client and ITS.

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Although the university does not evaluate the success of the project in terms of dollars or specific efficiency gains, it's obvious the solution is working. As of June 2007, less than one full year from the time the centralized service was announced, Penn State already had 18 clients migrated to production. Of these, four already had stand-alone imaging installations and considered it a 'no-brainer' to relinquish management — and cost — of the related infrastructure to a centralized offering. In addition to these, another 13 clients are in the testing phase, with 10 more on the waiting list.

Indeed, Penn State is experiencing success with its document imaging initiative, but the university doesn't plan to stop there. It is ready to start rolling a new feature into production — Print to DocFinity. Much like print to PDF, this feature will enable users to upload information directly into the DocFinity system from any software application that has a file/print command option. In addition, Penn State has been working with OIT to automate the document processing functions in multiple departments with electronic forms and digital workflow solutions, starting in the faculty contracts and student registration areas.

By rolling out solutions such as a centralized document imaging approach, Penn State is removing the barriers to technology adoption on a universitywide basis. In doing so, the university has shown vision from which other diverse businesses, not just colleges and universities, can learn.