What factors should you consider when choosing a system to help your smaller organisation grow quickly? For Newcross Nursing the answer was to find a scalable approach at the outset. Liz Warren reports
Ever since Stephen Pattrick and his wife Michelle founded Newcross Nursing he has had big ambitions for the staffing agency.
A key challenge as it grew would be to find an effective way to link branch offices to the centre and to one another, and to deliver IT services to each branch.
"We identified that one way to become a leading company in our field in a short period of time was to create a business model and core systems that were highly scalable and easily managed," says Pattrick.
"I have seen many companies grow to a certain size and then have to stop for two years to reinvent themselves because their business model and systems could not support that growth. So we began investing in that scalable approach from early on, because we knew it would be cheaper in the long run."
With a background in IT, Pattrick knew that the best approach would be for all the agency's systems to be based on internet technologies and run from central servers. The heart of the company's business is its booking system, which allows it to match the skills and shift preferences of nurses with the requirements of clients such as hospitals. The company also runs web-based accounts and management systems.
The key stumbling block was connecting branches to the servers. "We considered leased lines but the cost was prohibitive," says Pattrick. "We knew broadband was coming, so we carried on with our development so that as soon as broadband was available, we could take it.
"Now, when we open a new office, we just have to put in broadband, plug in some PCs and we are ready to go. So our systems and how we operate have allowed us to expand rapidly by giving us scalability," he says.
The company will open a further two offices by the end of 2003 and two more before April 2004. In the longer term, Pattrick aims to quadruple the company's turnover during the next two years.
The choice of broadband supplier was also straightforward. BT was chosen because of the support package it offers. "It is not just about price," Pattrick says. "Saving a few pounds a month is not worth it if the system then goes down for six hours. It is a core business product for us, so we need to be sure that if there are problems, they are dealt with quickly.
"I felt the other suppliers did not have the resources, skills and infrastructure to manage their services in that way."
Pattrick says there have been some difficulties with contracts and service level agreements with BT which he puts down to the fact that broadband was originally promoted for home users and as "not for business". For instance, Newcross needed to move an office and take its existing broadband connection along, but BT's processes were not set up to allow an immediate change. However, BT did solve the situation quickly when it was pointed out. It is understood that the supplier is reviewing its processes to accommodate business needs.
Broadband allows Newcross to reap the benefits of running all its applications on a central server, such as simpler management of applications and updates. Similarly, providing all documents through an intranet driven by a central repository makes it easy for the company, as an ISO9000-registered business, to distribute new versions. Information and applications are secured by running HTTP servers and providing password access to services, as well as other security measures.
Pattrick says running web-based systems also provides other opportunities for the company, especially when it comes to delivering added value to the nurses who work for it and the organisations that are its clients. "Margins are getting tighter and there will be an optimal level we can charge at and an increasing move to standard rates across the sector, so we have to look at value-added services to attract clients," he adds.
For instance, nurses an log into an extranet to pick up electronic payslips, saving the agency at least £10,000 a year in mailing costs. At the same time, nurses can enter the hours they will be available to work in the future and be immediately matched by the booking system to any suitable shifts. Other features on the extranet include the ability to print out timesheets and a mapping tool that provides directions to placements.
Hospitals can use the extranet to add their requirements to the database and monitor progress in fulfilling vacancies. Management reports are available, showing how quickly shifts are filled, what use hospitals have made of the agency's nurses, and projections of use, allowing them to consider ways of meeting those needs with their own staff.
"Broadband and web-based systems give us the freedom to do what we want," Pattrick says. "We can think about the management of our business, not the implementation. People can see the information they want anywhere, anytime, and everyone is able to communicate with everyone else."
Further value-added services are being developed in a pilot scheme with South Devon Healthcare Trust, including enabling nurses to clock in and out of shifts from the hospital using a password protected electronic time sheet.
About the project
The challenge: To develop core systems that would support the company's rapid growth yet be cost-effective
The solution: Web-based applications that are highly scalable and can be deployed quickly when new offices are opened, using broadband network links to create low-cost always-on server connections
Branch offices can be permanently connected to head office and corporate applications at low cost
New offices can be opened quickly and supported easily and cheaply
Value-added extranet services can be offered to nurses and clients, improving competitive differentiation.
About the company
Newcross Nursing is a nurse resource management company, providing temporary care staff to hospitals, nursing homes, industry and home care agencies.
The company was set up seven years ago by husband and wife team Stephen and Michelle Pattrick, and expects to achieve a turnover of £8m this year. It operates from 11 offices and has 4,000 nurses and carers on its books.