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More than a year after the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital was gutted by fire, Minister of Health Joe Phaahla officially reopened the facility’s emergency unit on Monday. Last year’s fire destroyed over R40 million worth of equipment, patient files and data. As we look to mitigate against these occurrences by building infrastructure that is architecturally sound and has all the latest protections, it is equally important that we prioritise the digitisation of documents against fires, theft, etc. SMETechGuru spoke to Takalane Kashane Managing Director (MD) of Iron Mountain South Africa, around how we can digitise our data to ensure that we mitigate any loss of important documents and data.

  • What would you say are some of the reasons there’s been a lack of urgency by national institutions to digitise their documents/data?

On a national level, digitisation of the public sector in South Africa is top of mind at the senior level and in the relevant information technology departments, especially since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. But digital transformation, especially regarding the digitisation of documents and data, is not a straightforward journey – unless you are a young company that was built digitally from the ground up.

Long-established organisations, like many of our national institutions, cannot jump from physical to digital in one step. Many institutions are still heavily paper-dependent. Paper is tangible but paper-record dependency suffocates innovation and business optimisation.

Another element is the hybrid work models, on the one hand, there’s new data that is born digitally, and the task is to use automation to classify and analyse it. But on the other hand, there is still that huge set of historical physical documents that might be redundant or might hold the key to greater insights and organisations will want to keep it.

National institutions need to ensure that they have the right IT infrastructure and capacity to handle data before they decide to digitise their information. The public sector is a large employer in the country and their employees cut through different generations. Some of the staff have limited computer literacy and it is difficult to incentivise them to engage with new systems of working.

There’s also the cost element as document scanning services are expensive and the public sector has been conducting cost-cutting measures for a few years now. As such, before many institutions decide to digitise their documents, it has to be clear that scanning will drive real revenue or a good cost-benefit ratio.

  • Is it common to find that public institutions don’t have a digital strategy in place?

South Africa has a lot of regulations, policies and strategies such as the National Digital Strategy for South Africa and the National Digital and Future Skills Strategy to name a few, that guide the digitalisation journeys of respective national departments and institutions. The real issue in South Africa is not the lack of strategies and policies but the implementation of them.

If you take the example of the fire that engulfed Parliament during the beginning of the year, valuable records were destroyed or damaged but they are now possibly extinct because the digitisation project to scan these invaluable documents wasn’t managed properly. According to media reports, nearly half of the scanned documents were not readable or were semi-legible. The problem of implementation is one that runs across many different institutions and departments. It is important for the public sector to partner with organisations that will, not only, walk with them in their digitalisation journey and help them manage and extract insights but also ensure that their important documents are stored as part of their physical record retention and archive storage strategy.

  • What should a digital strategy entail?

Every organisation is interested in being more efficient and making smarter, better-informed decisions. With new digital possibilities, these attributes are now attainable by transforming data into business insights, revenue opportunities and cost efficiencies.

But, before organisations can get to this business nirvana, their digital transformation strategies should look have a few steps.

The first step is to re-think paper dependency. Paper records might feel safe but they restrict the flow of information in organisations. By converting paper records to digital, organisations are able to free up the information locked within, opening the way to new ways of thinking, new strategies and new approaches.

The next step would be to examine and re-engineer processes and workflows. This will eliminate bottlenecks that slow down back-office functions. Organisations should look for process duplications and identify possible cost savings. Going digital will deliver a faster, leaner, more agile business model where employees are business stakeholders who can focus on strategic, purpose-driven functions.

After that, organisations will need to establish a data lifecycle management strategy – a blueprint to managing data chaos and IT infrastructure complexity. The strategy will map all of the data throughout its lifecycle to be able to better manage and optimise its value. The data then evolves from a mere business record to a vital asset driving business performance and decision-making.

It is also important that digital transformation strategies be developed alongside a solid data lifecycle management (DLM) plan. DLM helps organisations understand, inventory, map, and control their data along every stage of its lifecycle, from creation or acquisition, through all of its modifications to retirement or deletion.

  • How should a public institution go about implementing such a strategy?

Before an organisation starts implementing their digital strategy, they first need to know what they have and where it is stored. What I mean is that most companies have documents and data in various locations — in file cabinets or in various and often unconnected data repositories. The only way to know for sure is by performing an inventory audit. This could be manually done, through a logical vault audit or inventory management application for digital records.

After conducting an audit and determining what organisations have, it’s important securely destroy the documents that are no longer needed anymore. Only keep the documents with compelling reasons such as legal, compliance or tax reasons.

The documents in paper form that remain should be stored more efficiently and cost-effectively. This is especially true today as hybrid-working has become standard for many organisations and they require less space than pre-pandemic times. Storing documents in file cabinets not only occupies valuable space, but it’s also not very secure. Instead, organisations should consider moving the file cabinets to a secure facility where storage experts manage records and can retrieve them for organisations’ staff on demand.

The remaining documents should also be digitised. Once the digitalisation process is complete, organisations should implement an automated process that consistently digitises new documents as they are created. One popular option is image-on-demand, which scans documents and stores them in a web-based hosted repository or secure FTP site.

As organisations advance on their digital transformation journey, they should aim to adopt a “cloud-first” strategy that considers cloud solutions before any other for new or updated applications. This also includes hybrid cloud strategies as some mission-critical data may be kept on-site and store backups in the cloud.

  • For an institution like Parliament or Charlotte Maxeke Hospital, how would have a sound digital strategy aid their business continuity?

Institutions like Parliament and Charlotte Maxeke Hospital are long-established organisations that heavily depended on paper form documents. Such institutions would require a hybrid records model mixed with physical record retention, archive storage and digitalisation.

With these two institutions having experienced a raging fire, a sound digital strategy would have had their data backed up and securely stored through processes such as online storage and digital imaging. Digitising the records and automating their work processes would have made both their workflow more responsive, capable, and accessible anytime, anywhere to ensure business continuity during emergencies. Patient documents and parliament archives would still be on their systems and retrievable. At the moment, the documents destroyed by the fire are lost.

  • What are some of the costs associated with the digitisation of documents?

The costs of scanning and digitising documents is high but the costs of not digitising are higher. If you look at the fires that broke out at the parliament and Charlotte Maxeke, the value of the documents destroyed is unmeasurable.

The cost for digitisation documents is determined by a variety of factors. The first is how much preparation is needed to prepare the files for scanning. This includes taking into consideration elements such as removing pages from binders, removing staples and other fasteners, folding down corners and ironing out wrinkled pages, etc.

Secondly, document characteristics such as are the documents single or double-sided, page size, the number of index fields needed to be captured, and scanning accuracy compliance requirements. All of these factors do impact per-box price when digitising documents.

Other indirect measurable costs to consider will come from institutions having to upskill their workers who will interact with the data as some public sector workers will need to handle new technologies that will be outside of their comfort zone. Additional costs will be from introducing new advanced skills that will be needed to manage and extract insights from the digitised documents.

  • What are some of the digitisation lessons that public institutions need to learn?

One of the outcomes of the pandemic is that the world is increasingly digitised and the public sector’s stakeholders are demanding more digitised services and processes. Public institutions don’t need to walk this journey alone. They need to partner with the right service provider on their digital transformation journeys and business evolution. A partner that will help them plan and execute their digital strategies and provide them with the keys to unlock automation and workflows to transform and rethink how they do business.