Are you still filing paper documents…?

Are you feeling overwhelmed with paper documents?

Does your office have a file room filled with filing cabinets that looks like this?

If so, do you wish you could do away with them?

FilingCabinets

Paperless office

Many utility offices are striving to eliminate, or at least reduce, the amount of paper they generate and file. Let’s take a look at some easy ways to decrease the amount of paper kept in filing cabinets.

Billing software

Does your billing software allow you to file attachments with each customer’s account record? If so, are you taking advantage of it?

Many billing software applications offer a way to add electronic attachments, including scanned documents and digital photographs, to customer records. This can include customer correspondence, copies of service applications, scanned driver’s licenses, and completed service orders.

Document imaging system

If the volume of paper your office handles is too large to file with each individual utility account, a document imaging system may be for you.

Most document imaging systems are capable of automatically indexing scanned documents. These indexes can be built around commonly accessed data, such as account numbers or customer names. Once a document has been indexed, it can be easily retrieved via a search on one of the indexes.

Some document imaging systems can be integrated with billing software applications to facilitate document retrieval from within the billing system.

Create your own electronic filing cabinet

So, if your billing software doesn’t allow for attachments and you can’t afford a document imaging system, does that mean you are stuck with filing cabinets forever?

Of course not! Create your own electronic filing system!

To do this, if you have a local server, simply use a shared network drive that is accessible to all your users. If you don’t have a local server, you can use a cloud service such as Google Docs. Create a folder structure that makes sense, similar to how you would organize file drawers in a filing cabinet. For example, if you currently file paper documents by account number, create a folder for each account, scan the documents, and copy them to the appropriate folder.

Could your office be more efficient?

If you think your office could operate more efficiently, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com to learn how a business review could help your utility.

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© 2016 Gary Sanders

Should your next billing system be a hosted system?

When I first started in this business over 30 years ago, I worked for a computer service bureau. In the early days of computers, service bureaus provided computer time to other businesses on a rental basis. End users logged into mainframe computers with large monochrome terminals over leased data lines.

I’ve seen utility billing systems evolve from service bureaus to a series of in-house systems. Starting with proprietary minicomputers, then UNIX networks to Windows client-server networks and now to in-house web based systems. I believe we are about to come full circle as hosted systems in the cloud become today’s equivalent of the 1970’s service bureau.

The term “cloud computing” is all the buzz in the media these days. So what is it all about and what does it mean for you?

What is cloud computing?

According to Wikipedia, “cloud computing is the delivery of computing as a service rather than a product, whereby shared resources, software, and information are provided to computers and other devices as a metered service over a network (typically the Internet)”.

Utility Information Pipeline #5 (you can read it here if you missed it) talked about cloud based enterprise e-mails systems as an alternative to in-house e-mail systems. What about cloud based utility billing systems?

From the perspective of utility billing systems, cloud computing means running the billing software in what is often called a hosted environment. In a hosted environment, both the software (in this case the billing application) and the information (the billing data) are stored on remote servers that are accessible via the internet.

In coming full circle from the original service bureau environment to the hosted systems of today, web servers replace mainframes, the internet replaces leased data lines and personal computers (or even tablets) replace bulky green-screen terminals.

What are the advantages of a hosted environment?

Hosted systems eliminate the need for in-house application servers. This saves the utility the initial purchase price of the server hardware and operating system software. It also saves the labor costs associated with ongoing server maintenance and upgrades.

Software upgrades are performed by the software vendor during downtime and don’t require any technical expertise by the utility to keep the system up-to-date.

Data backups are performed for you in a hosted environment and don’t require your staff to remember to swap backup media each day or take the latest backup offsite.

Most cloud computing environments rely on redundancy, eliminating downtime due to hardware failures or power outages.

Finally, a hosted environment is accessible anywhere internet access is available. Unlike in-house systems, which require a virtual private network (VPN) to access from outside your office, a hosted system is as close as the nearest internet connection. This can be very handy in the case of late night or weekend emergency calls if you don’t want to drive to the office to access your billing system.

Are there disadvantages to a hosted environment?

The only real disadvantage to a hosted environment is that it requires internet access. If internet access is unavailable, then the billing system is unavailable. This potential obstacle can be overcome by having a backup internet service provider or using cellular broadband access when your primary internet access is down.

Should you consider a hosted system for your next billing system?

If you have questions about computing environments or if you think a hosted environment might be right for your utility, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com to learn more about how a business review might assist you in making that decision.

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© 2012 Gary Sanders

Enterprise e-mail – now available to organizations of any size

This issue is primarily targeted at utilities that do not use organization-wide e-mail addresses and calendar, but even if your utility does use an enterprise e-mail system, don’t stop reading just yet – you might learn how you can save money!

I have noticed that a number of our customers, and even some of the Rural Water Associations that I work with, do not use organization-wide e-mail addresses. Instead they use personal e-mail addresses from one of the popular free e-mail services or they use their internet provider’s e-mail service. For example, rather than using an e-mail address of myname@utilityname.org, these customers use myname@freeemail.com or utilityname@internetprovider.com.

Is there a problem with this practice?

Not really, but it does present a face to the public that your utility is small and not very progressive – the same message that not having a website conveys. You do have a website, don’t you…? (If not, take a look at my very first issue here.) Would you like your customers to view your utility as being more in touch with the times? Of course – who wouldn’t?

So let’s take a look at why this is… Most likely, it’s because the utility does not want to make the investment to support an enterprise e-mail system. Traditionally, this has meant purchasing and implementing the most widely used server-based e-mail software. And, if you have remote users, this requires installing a Virtual Private Network (VPN) so those users can access the e-mail server. Resistance to implementing an in-house e-mail server could be due to any of the following reasons:

  • Cost of purchasing the software
  • Inadequate server infrastructure
  • Lack of technical support

Upon closer scrutiny, aren’t all of these reasons cost-based? If you have to upgrade a server to support enterprise e-mail, there is a cost associated with that. Hiring outside technical expertise costs money as well.

Is there another option?

Of course there is! Google Apps from Google provides the following applications for just $50 per user per year:

  • Gmail
  • Google Calendar
  • Google Docs
  • Google Groups
  • Google Sites

So if your utility has 10 employees who need e-mail and calendar access, the cost is $500 per year plus the registration fee for your domain name. Google Apps is web-based, so you can access your e-mail, calendar and documents from anywhere.

In addition, if your organization is required by public records laws to maintain an archive of all e-mails, Google Apps with Postini meets that requirement.

At Logics, we switched from an internal server based e-mail system to using Google Apps at the end of August last year. You may have noticed that we changed from using e-mail addresses with logics-software.com domain name to logicssolutions.com. The reason for this was our transition to using Google Apps. The migration to Google Apps was seamless and, I must admit, very easy (I don’t necessarily adapt to change any better than anyone else, even though helping folks change is my business). I can now access my e-mail and calendar any time I have internet access without having to connect to our office VPN. Plus, I love the easy integration with my Android phone!

If you have questions about Google Apps or would like assistance making the case to convince your board to implement an enterprise e-mail system, give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com.

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© 2011 Gary Sanders