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03 Sep 2019

The paperless office and its ability to revolutionise the way housing authorities work in an era of digitisation is the
topic of this month’s Q&A with Michael Palmer, IT Project Manager at Leathermarket JMB. The housing association is Southwark’s largest resident-managed housing organisation, managing 1,500 homes in Borough and Bermondsey between London Bridge and Tower Bridge. We asked Michael some questions around document management and the strive towards a paperless office.

1. How close do you think housing associations are to going paperless?

I think the percentage of HA’s who’ve attempted to achieve it would be quite high as our industry is very much
paper-driven, producing quantities difficult if not impossible to ignore. How close they may have come to going totally paperless? I’d like to think quite high as IT investment in the industry appears to be generally good. However, having recently embarked on such a project myself; I soon found that there were many areas outside of the core housing business areas where literally tonnes of paper exist. Frustrating efforts are made to go paperless and there have
been many discussions as to whether or not it’s achievable. I can imagine those HA’s who are heavily invested are getting very close - by their own barometers. Though HA’s may not be leading the advance, we are nevertheless pushing the boundaries with a positive upward trend; due in part to increased uptake of mobile working which is
helping to increase document digitisation.


2. Do you think document management systems have evolved over the last 5-10 years? 

I’m sure there have been many improvements over the past few years, but in general I don’t think the main proprietary systems will have changed very much. In my own sector, I’d say we’re definitely beyond the curve of first-generation electronic document and records management system (EDRMS) packages. These were built around clunky user interfaces and provided frustrating user experiences, but there’s still room for improvement. Cataloguing, applying naming conventions and storage still pose challenges today, but what appears to be happening is that document management is being thought about as a whole and not just as part of quick-fix solution. The upside is that the EDRMS vendors should be far more aware of the challenges facing companies. Some suppliers outside of the industry have even stepped into the ring, having identified an obvious gap in the limited number of decent offerings out there.


3. How does document management help in a housing association?

Housing is no different to any other industry insofar as the benefits of electronic over physical documents are concerned e.g. desktop retrieval, reduced physical storage space etc., but then neither are the challenges i.e. how to create storage systems users will readily embrace. Being able to find solutions to replace familiar indentured manual, paper systems is always going to present challenges and EDRMS is no different. Traditionally, as per many other industries, much of the work done within HA’s has been done on paper; and to be honest, we have more than our fair share of luddites who are more than happy to see their days out using nothing more than pen, paper and a black and red! Culturally, this mind-set is extremely difficult to change and even with the best systems, it will be difficult to change the culture and mindset to the year 2020. With the sheer volume of documents, legal papers, certificates etc. passing through any housing company, it makes complete sense to be able to reduce the physical storage and retrieval requirements using electronic equivalents instead. Leathermarket JMB are a small tenant management organisation (TMO) of some 1500 properties only, yet the amount of paper we’re having to deal with is staggering. The utopian view would be to have every document available at the ‘click of a button’, but in reality; this is awfully difficult to achieve for every document, even with the best EDRMS systems. So the best we can hope for is a system that works noticeably better than what we currently have. Though we haven’t gone the EDRMS route as yet, we’re hoping to provide a system our users can really see the benefits of. 


4. Do you think document management makes HA’s safer when linking it to an HMS system? 

Without an EDRM system, documents relating to HMS systems are typically stored using conventional OS filing system methods. Many systems will store and retrieve files by storing the document’s location. However, the problem with this is; if the file is moved or the stored location corrupted, then that connection is effectively lost. What an EDRM system does is introduce an additional tier of security, i.e. using the previous example; though the EDRMS would store the file location (or an EDRMS key) in the same manner, the chances of the EDRMS document being lost, moved or erased are far less likely.


5. How does GDPR affect this? Can information be shared safely and securely across the HA? 

Again, GDPR has forced us to think more carefully about the personal data we store on our residents and who should and should not be made privy to it. In addition to document protection facilities (such as passwords, tokens etc.), EDRM systems are now able to apply redaction facilities at the document level. In this way the EDRMS can concentrate on the what, whilst the HMS can concentrate on the who, security aspect.


6. What will be the impact on archiving costs and space?

Generally, archiving costs should be all but eradicated and in terms of space – well I’m sure most organisations will have recovered acres of lost physical archive areas! Sure, digital archiving costs will rise with the increase in data, but hopefully the benefits on physical space freed up will be greater than the increased data cost of archiving.


7. Does document management impact back up and disaster recovery – in what scenario in your industry can you imagine this playing a part? 

Generally speaking, the weakest part of any document system is going to be that which is stored as paper. Therefore, the sooner this can be converted to electronic the better. Depending upon where the system is being hosted (i.e. on premise, Cloud, etc.), this will determine the amount of risk involved. 


If you’d like to know more about how MIS-AMS housing management software can help with document management, please contact

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