Imaging & Workflow Solve Admissions Bottleneck at University of Southern California

Student Admissions Services (SAS) at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, is a complex business operation. Some 4,000 mailings to prospective students go out each year. Requests for applications usually total 100,000. In the end, over 30,000 candidates apply annually. Each applicant must be carefully managed and thoroughly reviewed in a timely fashion. Total number of pages handled during the March to October processing season is more than 500,000. Together, imaging and workflow technologies are solving the bottleneck once created by manual handling of such volume. "Under the old system, it took up to three weeks to acknowledge an application," explains Terry Bazylewicz, Associate Dean for Information Systems at USC. "Now we send an acknowledgment within three days. "There is serious competition to enroll new freshmen and, in many cases, how a college is selected is partly determined by how fast the prospective freshman receives his or her acceptance. This year we set a record, processing 12,600 freshmen applications and accepting 8,800 applicants before the end of April." Name of the Game is Speed Bazylewicz was specifically hired 18 months ago to implement a state-of-the-art system that would improve turnaround time, reduce time and effort to index applications, reduce errors, increase automation and improve the department's reporting capability. Objectives included being able: to send acknowledgment letters within 24 hours; to create a system also usable by the Financial Aid Department between April and October; decrease scanning time by 75%; and reduce temporary staff requirements by at least 50%. With his new system, admissions counselors can make decisions within 24 hours -- instead of waiting 10 days to receive the data and images on which they base their decisions. Legacy System Out; Client/Server In before The old system was a proprietary mainframe combined with a proprietary imaging system with nine(9) optical scanners and 40 workstations. In 1995, USC decided to move to an open-architecture, client/server environment using two (2) high-speed scanners and seven (7) servers. These servers included IBM RS/6000s and Pentium-based systems. The imaging client/server system resides on an Ethernet backbone, making it accessible to all departments. Currently there is also a temporary bridge to the old system that enables the SAS department to convert selected proprietary images into the open format. The software USC selected to handle a variety of functions and tie the whole system together is VisiFLOW, a document-imaging and workflow-management product, it was developed by Datamax Technologies, in Culver City, Calif. Vendor Selection Strategy "The Vendor selection process is long," says Bazylewicz. "USC has a history of consensus decisions, so there were some 30 people involved in the final selection." Evaluation team members included many who would actually be using the new system, for their critical, real-world judgements. To make it easier, Bazylewicz designed survey forms for each of the five semi-finalists. Of these, three finalists were required to create a specific project, each of which would be incorporated into the final solutions. Vendors were given a week to put together a solution, and scheduled for a two-hour meeting to present it. "During the presentations, we'd ask for changes on the spot," says Bazylewicz. The idea was to make sure the system chosen was flexible, easy to change and easy to use. "We have a small staff and limited budget. We can't glibly throw human resources at problems." "We can't glibly throw human resources at problems." It's the first new computer system for USC since the mid-80's. Even with a period of mainframe downtime, implementation still occurred in 100 days, "only six days after our target date." Helping were the people from both Datamax and Adaptive, who were onsite from early morning to late at night. "They helped make sure we were on schedule," says Bazylewicz. after The vendors' support members worked to ensure the VisiFLOW software meshed into USC's environment. For example, bar coding was integral. "We send 400,000 cards to prospective students that they can mail back for information," explains Bazylewicz. The new system enables them to print a bar code on each card to know instantly which card was sent back and what information was requested. The SAS also bar coded every form. Now along with a batch of these coded forms, each student also receives a sheet of braced labels to stick to each page submitted. The software's OCR/ICR engine also reads hand-written responses. One Word: Prototype Bazylewicz offers what he thinks is the best advice to anyone installing an integrated workflow/imaging system Prototype. "Early in the implementation, VisiFLOW was installed on a stand-alone PC so we could begin testing. We added a small scanner and created a micro-based process including bar coding and OCR/ICR," explains Bazylewicz. "Even though it wasn't fully integrated with the databases, we still had a system that could show us how the final system would work and point out potential problems." USC hasn't realized all the benefits of this system yet. Bazylewicz expects the realities to be reflected in the second year, and to outperform his expectations. To take just one example, he says the $400,000 the university now spends on part-time help during the busy admissions season will be cut to $250,000 or less, a significant return on investment for openers.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.