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June 28, 2012

Senate Matters: On Paper

On paper

“We recommend that the University redesign current processes with the goal of completely eliminating paper forms, through the use of information technology. This should be done at every level (i.e., Departments — Schools — University) and with input from all stakeholders, including faculty. The thoughtful implementation of this initiative is expected to improve efficiency and reduce costs, while having a positive environmental impact.”

The above is the full text of the motion set forth by the Senate computer usage committee (SCUC) at the May 1 Faculty Assembly meeting and passed with an overwhelming majority. Exactly what are the potential benefits of eliminating paper forms in our University? This question is particularly crucial now given the anticipated personnel losses due to the staff early retirement program.

First of all, the good news. The University already is making efforts to convert many existing paper-based processes to electronic form. I still remember a time (not very long ago) when student grades were submitted on Scantron sheets. A time when submitting a T&B (travel and business expense form) was a paper-based process culminating in a check received in the mail. A time when the Office of Research Accounting would mail paper printouts of the levels reports (monthly summaries of activity on University accounts). All of these now are things of the past.

While much progress had been made, there still are many opportunities for automation, increased efficiency, reducing costs and reducing the amount of paper being pushed around the University through proper deployment of information technology.

Take the example of T&B submission. Currently, only the summary of the T&B is submitted electronically; the supporting documentation is faxed to Payment Processing. This means that the unit (such as department or school) and Payment Processing are managing duplicate paper files. Instead of faxing, wouldn’t it be simpler to scan the receipts and link them to the rest of the T&B? This would greatly simplify the work of Payment Processing and also would make retrieving records a breeze for the unit, if done in an organized way.

Managing transactions charged to grants is probably the area where there still is the most manual and/or redundant effort. We have identified and discussed this inefficiency repeatedly in the SCUC. Most units have their own shadow systems to monitor transactions, providing a continuous and real-time view of account activity instead of only the monthly updates in the levels reports. This means that information about a purchase, for example, is entered manually into a shadow system even if it has already been entered elsewhere, such as in PRISM (the University’s financial information system). Given that such shadow systems are not connected to the Research Accounting data warehouse, reconciliation is a manual process as well: Someone has to compare all transactions from the levels reports to those in the shadow system. Although there are cases where reconciliation really does require human intervention (such as to track down and correct mistakes), the transactions in the two different systems will be identical in the majority of cases (same date, same expense code, same dollar amount, etc.). Matching them using an automated process would be trivial.

In general, there are three broad categories of processes that would significantly benefit from an appropriate infusion of information technology (IT):

1. Processes that currently are performed exclusively on paper, such as purchases through Computing Services and Systems Development’s software licensing function.

2. Processes that have only a partial electronic implementation and have not reached their full efficiency potential, such as the processing of T&Bs.

3. Processes that are electronic but have been implemented in isolation from other related processes/databases, often leading to significant manual effort in integrating data, such as between levels reports and unit-based shadow systems.

I have contributed to and witnessed firsthand the great benefits of thoughtful new IT implementation in the Department of Computer Science’s (DCS) efforts to automate its processes without additional staff. Some examples:

• The faculty recruiting database (circa 2004), which  manages the entire recruitment process from application through screening, collecting recommendation letters, discussion among current faculty, decision on whom to interview and more.

• The graduate student application web site (circa 2005, before the required switch to ApplyYourself, an online application system, by all departments in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences) and our active students database, which again manages the entire process from application through selection and progress based on DCS-specific milestones, and degree requirements.

• The faculty activities database, which anticipated Pitt’s recently implemented faculty information system (Digital Vita).

I would like to reiterate the recommendation that the University increase its efforts to convert all processes to electronic form. It is my firm belief that when supported by appropriate IT, the University as a whole will be more creative, productive and successful.

Alexandros Labrinidis is an associate professor of computer science, co-director of the Advanced Data Management Technologies Lab and co-chair of the SCUC.

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