An end to the paper trail

Last updated: February 7, 2023

A new cloud-based enterprise document management system will help the UW manage its paperless future.

Person surrounded by stacks of boxes of paper.
The pandemic has made people rethink their love of paper, Barbara Benson said, and if it takes a bit of humor to get her colleagues to transition to electronic records, she is ready with her Husky mask.

By Ignacio Lobos

Barbara Benson picks up a large brown box filled with paper documents and vanishes down a long hallway lined with shelves rising almost 30 feet high — stacked full of identical boxes.

She returns empty-handed, ending the burdensome round trip she expects not to repeat after Feb. 28, 2022, when UW Records Management Services stops accepting new boxes for safekeeping. The program, over which she serves as director, will continue to manage the boxes already there, recycling or destroying their contents securely when their retention schedules end, some decades from now.

When that last box comes in at the end of February, it will mark an inevitable end to the way the UW has managed millions of records for decades. Research and grant contract records, personnel and payroll records, student and curriculum records, general office records, library and publication records and financial records fill these boxes. Some of these records are kept for up to 75 years in a massive building that was once part of former Naval Station Puget Sound at Sand Point, now a sprawling park along the shores of Lake Washington.

Her program’s Fetch the Future – Rethink the Ink initiative already underway is accelerating the University’s necessary move to electronic record keeping. And Benson is confident the University has the proper technology to make it happen, including a recently purchased cloud-based document management system that’s being deployed by UW Information Technology (UW-IT) in early 2022.

DocFinity is easier to use and manage, and those features should help many administrators, even the most recalcitrant paper users, take those last few steps to accept a fully digital environment.

“We are confident DocFinity will make it easier for units and departments to complete this paperless journey,” said Benson, who’s working with UW Sustainability, UW-IT and other campus partners to reduce the use of paper and develop multiple initiatives and tools to make electronic records management, including retention, as simple and painless as possible.

“It wouldn’t be possible to tell people to quit paper and for us to stop accepting all these boxes of documents if we didn’t have a solid path forward,” she said.

The pandemic underscores need to get rid of paper

In the last decade, the path to paperless has been long and twisty, but modernization efforts have been a key driver, touching just about every aspect of how the UW conducts its business, from admitting students to handling payroll.

UW-IT has been a key player in these efforts, partnering with small units and large departments to shift away from paper-based processes to digital records by offering multiple online tools, including the current Enterprise Document Management service, whose customers are now being transitioned to DocFinity; many others ditched paper when eSignatures, UW’s digital signature service, became available.

Paper documents almost always involve labor-intensive manual processes, long before they’re sent away for long-term storage. In a typical department, a single paper document may undergo multiple reviews and handoffs among staff. Paper documents also require large amounts of storage space. And ultimately, because paper documents can only be found in a specific location, it requires staff to always be onsite to work with them.

“If the COVID pandemic has taught us anything in the past two years, it’s that paper is a liability,” Benson said.

Colleagues at the Office of Admissions and the Office of Financial Aid know exactly what Benson means by liability. If they had not started their own paperless journey in the last five years, their operations would have been paralyzed by the pandemic.

UW-IT helped Admissions and Financial Aid complete their transition from mostly paper-based processes to nearly entirely paperless ones with software tailored to their needs just before everyone was sent home because of COVID. Admissions staff continued working remotely, processing nearly 60,000 graduate and undergraduate applications online during the height of the pandemic in 2020.

Similar efforts also paid off for Financial Aid, which reviewed nearly 80,000 requests for aid from students and disbursed about $700 million in aid during the same period, with nearly its entire workforce working from home. In the words of one UW official, going paperless, “saved us. It saved the University and preserved the educational dreams of thousands of Washingtonians.”

For Benson, the pandemic underscored the need to say good-bye to paper.

“When we all started working remotely, it became apparent that modernization efforts at the UW had paid off, and that included a move to paperless processes,” Benson said.

Ending the paper trail has been years in the making

The UW has more than 60,000 students spread across three campuses and about 40,000 faculty and staff, including UW Medicine. When one considers those numbers, it becomes easier to grasp the enormity of record keeping taking place on any given day.

Learn why Barbara Benson wants you to stop using paper records in this video.

Some records fall under stringent state and federal regulations that call for University documents to be maintained in a secure location, for a specific amount of time before they’re purged, said Benson, who added added that the records program opened for business in 1970.

The center has served the University well in storing paper records for over the past 40 plus years, and one might think Benson is deeply attached to paper and how her work has been done. But she is not.

“Managing records electronically saves money, time and space,” she said. “It’s more sustainable and reduces risk for the University.”

Sure, efforts to go paperless have taken a while, and it hasn’t been easy. But Benson isn’t alone in pushing for change; the trend to go paperless has been picking up steam by others in the past five years.

The records center at one point was receiving an average of 5,000 boxes of documents per year. But as more departments have moved to electronic workflows, boxed documents trucked into Sand Point have decreased dramatically. During the pandemic, the flow of paper slowed to a trickle because many more documents had to be handled electronically. Also, some departments relied less on paper because they were already using UW-IT’s EDM service.

What is of serious concern is that some units and departments across the UW have been storing their electronic documents locally. This independent and decentralized storage poses risks that can be avoided with the new EDM service.

A system for today’s needs

DocFinity lives in the cloud — where approved staff can find their documents quickly and securely. If an earthquake or fire prevents staff from getting to their offices, they can still get to them from a remote work area. And if a department is audited or someone files a public records request, it’s significantly easier and faster to fetch documents than if they were paper-based files.

A measure of success: Can you find the record you’re looking for, open it, read it, share it with others — and hold on to it for its full retention period? — Cara Ball

A great feature within the new system is that retention periods can be set as soon as an electronic record is entered, and they’re purged automatically when they have reached that point.

Cara Ball, a compliance analyst with Records Management, has an easy-to-remember test to rate the success of any EDM system.

“Can you find the record you’re looking for, open it, read it, share it with others — and hold on to it for its full retention period? If you can say yes to all, then we’re on the way to progress,” said Ball, who helps units and departments comply with record retention schedules and the shift from paper to electronic files. She said DocFinity so far has shown it’s up to the task.

“The UW’s version of DocFinity is currently under active development to fully integrate with systems ubiquitous at our university, such as Workday, Workday Financials and Office 365, making its implementation more seamless for our customers,” said Jennifer Ward, EDM service technology manager.

Integration with eSignatures, the UW’s electronic signature service, is also a plus, and so is the new integration built with the Records Management system, Versatile, for ease of assigning and managing retention schedules.

All these systems are vital to the University’s efforts to automate and streamline its business processes, create efficiencies, and reduce manual and paper-based transactions, Ward said.

Lowering the entry barrier with tools that are easier to use

But as we transition to paperless processes, we can’t forget about the people who will be using these tools, said Anja Canfield-Budde, associate vice president for UW-IT’s Information Management division, which manages the EDM service, eSignatures and other valuable administrative tools at the UW, including the Enterprise Data Warehouse, a managed central repository that integrates data from many sources across the University.

We are constantly thinking about how to lower the barrier of entry for our products and services. It’s not enough to choose a new technology that we think is going to work. — Anja Canfield-Budde

Anja Canfield-Budde, Associate Vice President for Information Management
Anja Canfield-Budde
Associate Vice President for Information Management, UW Information Technology

“We have to test things and work with our partners and our customers. We seek to solve problems, not create them,” she said. “We don’t want customers to walk away because we made our tools too difficult.”

Ward’s team is currently working with existing EDM service customers to ensure a smooth cutover, which is expected to continue through spring 2022.

At the same time, the team is developing a process to expedite onboarding new customers across the UW starting summer 2022.

“There have been many lessons from the pandemic, and among them was that we have to be nimble, flexible and efficient,” Benson said. “That means we need an EDM system that can work the way we work.”

“There’s no better time than now to stop the paper flow,” she said.