Automating common administration tasks

With a little ingenuity and some of the right software, you can automate those hated administration tasks

With a little ingenuity and some of the right software, you can automate those hated administration tasks

We all have to do administrative tasks. It's a fact of life that, like taxes (and what better example of administration is there than the tax return), admin is, and always will be, the slightly annoying associate in the workplace. If you have ever filled in an expense form in triplicate and attached it to fluttering receipts for expenses incurred on a business trip, you will understand the need to make admin easier.

This morning I calculated how long it took me to open my mail, order some stationery and organise a meeting. It took me a staggering two hours because, naturally, the person I needed to meet wasn't available to schedule it. Also, the stationery clerk had to find the form, I then had to fill out the form and get it signed by my manager. Then it had to be copied to accounts for approval, then passed back to the stationery clerk and, of course, it took three attempts to fill in the form correctly. I then missed a call from the person who I wanted a meeting with, who called me back while I was running around trying to find the right person to sign the form.

This time costs money to my company, not only in the physical materials used - the paper and the phone calls - but in terms of mine and my colleagues time, not to mention the cumulative costs of the stress caused by chains of workers hassling each other to get minor tasks done. Such hassles can lead to an increase in staff turnover and sickness, and may lead to repetitive strain injury.

However, help is at hand from a wide range of software applications designed to automate administrative processes or make them easier. Many of the software packages we use on a daily basis can offer us time saving features. For example, by sharing information and allowing calendar editing on Microsoft Outlook, you can arrange meetings with your colleagues, rather than chasing available slots with multiple attendees - a process which can take hours becomes a 30 second task.

The Microsoft Office suite allows you to share information with your colleagues and export information into a database in order to make better use of it. For example, let's say you want to share contact information, you can export your contacts from Outlook into Excel and then use them as a directory of contacts or to form the basis of a mail merge in Word.

Likewise, Novell GroupWise has similar features to help you automate common tasks. It even has a plug-in for Microsoft Office users for messaging, calendaring and workgroup collaboration. This is ideal for users whose computers come with Office already installed.

Other products available to automate administration tasks include Secretariat from Bridgeway Software, which is designed to help the Corporate Secretary track, manage and report corporate information. This software allows you to track reporting and other deadlines, and create a pseudo intranet for your company to help disseminate information.

There are specialist software solutions for most industry groups. For example, Fivestar's product, Computer Business System software (CBS), is a complete work-order based accounts receivable, job cost and inventory control system that takes care of all the day-to-day operations for a wide range of subcontractor and service businesses. The CBS product line is designed specifically for companies that perform field service, repairs and installations.

But before buying new software, consider what you already have available to you. Most offices have email and this can be used to greater effect by learning what it can do and maximising its usage. You can use email to greater effect, for example, by requesting forms or documents and by carbon copying the message to all those workers who need to approve or know about the request, saving you time and energy. Additionally, some email systems, such as Outlook, allow you to poll recipients, which requires them to respond to an email and tracks its progress so that you know - and have documentary proof - that the email was sent, received and read.

Another excellent tool that is included in many of the popular email applications is a rules wizard that allows users to filter or respond to messages according to their content or who they are from. This means that you may request that job applications come in email form pasted into the body of a message. You can then set up your email client to sift them for you, by looking for a series of terms (e.g. skills or particular qualifications), and then mark those applications in another colour to highlight them or copy them to another user.

You can also use the anti-spam filters on your email to erase junk mail. This will save a considerable amount of time on reading email. You can also use rules to change the colour of messages with a certain content or forward them onto other folders. This allows you to organise your workload if, for example, all messages containing an order form are marked as urgent, and any from your personal address book go into a separate, low priority folder.

Alternatively, you may choose to use a personal information manager, such as ACT! or Lotus Organizer, to automate your regular processes. Let's take a quick example. A salesman does the following on receipt of an order: he first writes out the order form, then sends it to his manager. He also records it on his order sheet. He then writes to the customer to thank him, sends the order to dispatch, who send his order to accounts to invoice it. He then phones the customer a week later to check they are happy and see if he can procure another order.

With personal information management, and particularly with ACT!'s sales management technology, all these tasks can be scheduled with rules. This means that when the order comes in, all these tasks are automatically scheduled and many of them can be automated. So that on receipt of an order, the software automatically generates a thank you letter and sets up a request for the customer to be included in mailshots and new catalogue issues. This means that the salesman can spend more time selling and less time on paperwork. It also means that if for any reason the salesman can't work, his colleagues can see at a glance what remains to be done for any given customer.

Organisers can also be used to plan your workload, avoiding multiple deadlines or slack periods. It also prevents several workers contacting the same customer as you can record customer activity and plan future contact accordingly. This can enable you to get on with several projects, in collaboration with others, without the paper trail that normally trails after working groups. The use of organisers also avoids the situation where one department, perhaps customer service, is in regular contact with a customer, but another department is unaware of this. This can avoid overkill with one customer and facilitate better customer relationships through a continuity of contact.

Another idea is to automate the process of form filling. Toplevel have recently released OfficeForms 3.0. This is an intranet/extranet-friendly form system whereby expenses, timesheets, purchase orders, requisitions, in fact, any form, can be stored in a globally accessible place. This might be on the company intranet, and can be accessed within the browser, filled in (with easy to understand instructions) and digitally signed with a secure pin before being forwarded to the next chain in the process.

This is especially important for official organisations since the government has launched an initiative to collect all data by electronic means by 2002. This is a massive challenge especially with the low response rates to surveys or requests for information. There are also security implications to be tackled when considering the transfer of confidential information across intranets or Internets.

One of the ways of minimising the costs involved in inputting form data is to use form software that can easily create and modify forms. This eliminates the costs of keying in form data, lowers rejection rates (as people are assisted in correctly filling in the form), requires no training and is cheap to deploy as forms can be sent via email or published on the Internet. The added advantage is that of security because, through the use of electronic PIN-based signature and encryption software, the forms can be securely emailed to their intended recipients in a form which can only be unlocked by the intended recipient and therefore cannot be altered. This sort of technology can easily be used to collect survey information in a way that does not require your staff to re-key information. The data collected can be exported to any ODBC-compliant database.

The key advantage of Intelligent Form software, such as OfficeForm, is that it can save you printing costs and the costs of checking and re-submitting forms (all fields must be filled to sign the form and calculations are automatically made for the user). It can be also be used by off-site staff such as sales executives, inspectors or even temporary staff working at a company site.

One of the first defences against unnecessary administration that all companies must employ is a change of attitude. Most companies have software that will allow them to automate some of their processes or at least speed them up. By integrating software with your working practices, and sharing data with colleagues, workers should see an improvement in both the amount of time spent on administration as well as an improvement in co-ordination and communication with their team.

Automating office procedures can help avoid the unnecessary bureaucracy and drain on resources. Intelligent Form software, deployed across the company intranet or even over the Internet, can help reduce paper usage and time wasting as it cuts down on forms being incorrectly filled in or being lost.

Rachel Hodgkins

This was first published in October 1999



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