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Business Officer Magazine
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Vantage Point

Spotlight on an institution in one of the constituent groups: small institutions, community colleges, comprehensive/doctoral institutions, or research universities

By Janet N. Spriggs

COMMUNITY COLLEGES
E-forms Put an End to Routing Roadblocks

Two years have passed since the finance and business services division at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College (RCCC) got rid of paper travel authorizations and other paper-based processes in favor of electronically routed forms with digital signatures. The transition went so smoothly that we hardly remember the time-consuming, and often confusing, manual processes that used to move paper documents through the college.

RCCC—one of the 58 community colleges that form the North Carolina Community College System—serves more than 21,000 students annually. With a service area covering more than 1,000 square miles, the college maintains five campuses spread over Rowan County and Cabarrus County. Until 2014, the college relied on its internal mail and courier service to pick up and deliver travel and other paperwork among the campuses. That meant a travel authorization request might originate on RCCC's south campus, require the signature of a manager on another campus 20 miles away, go next to a dean or vice president for sign-off, then return to the original sender before finally being ready to route to the travel office.

This modern-day Pony Express was hardly an efficient way to route documents back and forth. Even if all went well, approval of a travel authorization or reimbursement request could take three to five days. But documents awaiting approval occasionally disappeared while in transit, were delivered incorrectly, or sat on a desk while someone was on vacation. The resulting delays—sometimes for weeks—not only caused frustration, but often led to finger-pointing among employees. In addition, the finance staff spent an inordinate amount of time tracking down the location of various forms within the antiquated, paper-based system before they could issue payments.

New Forms and Policies

In 2013, RCCC's finance and IT departments launched a search for a better solution. After researching the legality of electronic signatures, we drafted a policy specifying the documents for which an electronic signature would be accepted in lieu of a physical one. Our policy uses a two-tiered level of signature authentication—via e-mails accessed through passwords. Once RCCC's board had approved the policy, we began developing the procedures—subject to cabinet approval—by which to implement it.

The hardest part of this process was coming to an understanding within the finance department that we couldn't simply take a paper form and post online its electronic version. Instead, we had to think about the information required on each form, who needed to see and/or approve it, and the path each form would take through the college.

To manage the documents requiring authenticated electronic signatures, we chose DocuSign. With this Web-based product, we upload the forms, fill in the workflow for each document, and provide the links to individual e-mail accounts. Because the forms are created in standard software applications, finance staff can easily make updates and modifications without the assistance of IT personnel.

On the user end, RCCC employees select the form they need from our internal Sharepoint site and fill in the information when prompted, such as their manager's name. Once the form has been submitted, the system automatically sends an e-mail to the appropriate manager; that person clicks on an embedded link to view and approve (or decline) the request.

By introducing electronic signatures and forms, the finance staff at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College has cut the average processing time for travel requests and reimbursements by 80 percent.

Quick and Easy

Because the forms are created in standard software applications, finance staff can easily make updates and modifications without the assistance of IT personnel.

RCCC first implemented the electronic signature workflow with travel authorizations and reimbursements. Minimal training was needed because all the forms are delivered via e-mail and accessed with an embedded link. Most users had no trouble following the written instructions on the forms. What little resistance existed to the new process quickly disappeared as people recognized its benefits:

Accuracy. Although we had always provided Excel spreadsheets for travel reimbursements, many people preferred to handwrite their requests—the totals of which didn't necessarily add up. The electronic forms perform all the calculations so math errors no longer occur. In addition, the electronic form alerts the user if the request exceeds an allowable amount. The new system has reduced errors by an estimated 40 percent.

Speed. Documents awaiting approval can be accessed anywhere and at any time via a computer or mobile device. That means managers don't have to be in their offices, looking at pieces of paper, to keep requests and payments flowing to and from the finance department. With the instantaneous electronic routing, approvals could potentially occur within minutes—or at least within the same day—of a request submittal. On average, for example, we have cut our processing time for travel documents by at least 80 percent.  

Efficiency. The finance staff no longer spends time chasing down errant documents or fielding calls about delayed reimbursements; each submitted form is time-stamped and tracked through the system so it's easy to determine where the bottlenecks are. Managers who don't open and review requests on the same day of receipt receive a reminder e-mail the next day—and the next—until action has been taken. That reminder feature has taken a lot of pressure off the finance staff: They are no longer the bad guys who must continually bother someone about an approval, because the system automatically follows up.

The electronic signature system proved so easy to use that RCCC's HR department soon implemented it for faculty contracts and leave requests. In the finance office, we retired the paper forms and courier services once used to physically route invoice payment approvals and budget transfers.

Economy and Efficiency

Thanks to a negotiated contract between the state of North Carolina and DocuSign, RCCC spends about $5,000 annually to use the electronic signature system for a set number of transactions. If we exceed the annual limit, additional transactions cost less than 50 cents apiece. We use the system for all documents requiring a high level of security and authentication. For other types of documents, we incorporated electronic signatures into the document imaging system that we previously used as an archival tool. The forms produced on that system are also sent via e-mail but processing is "free."  

When devising the original implementation schedule for travel requests and reimbursements, the finance department provided the college with almost one year to make the transition to a fully electronic workflow. In reality, when they realized how quickly they received approvals and payments, employees took far less time to fully embrace the new approach.

SUBMITTED BY Janet N. Spriggs, chief financial officer, Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, North Carolina Community College System


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