Strategies: Middlesex University's got digital mail!

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan August 1, 2013
How far can you drive paper out of an educational establishment? Middlesex University in the UK is on a digital journey that's putting that question to the test right now - with lessons to be learned for both the public and private sector.

Middlesex University Campus - 2
Middlesex University Campus

Middlesex University is on a 'digital journey' to drive out paper from its organisational innards as far as possible.

To that end, it's been moving across to a more flexible way of working enabled digitisation of content, multifunctional devices and remote access to online repositories for end users.

The university has some 40,000 students worldwide, 25,000 of whom are based at its London campus which has seen £200 million investment in recent years.

Its six schools are run by 1,700 staff across London and the two other existing campuses in Dubai and Mauritius. (A third - in Malta - is due to open in October this year.)

The university's 'digital journey' is built around

"A technology driven strategy to support the vision in line with greener, more efficient and cost effective management of information within Middlesex University."


"flexible services for staff & students to access digital information supporting mobility."

There are four main components to the strategy:

  • The Middlesex Electronic Document System (MEDS)- to facilitate "an effective records management culture and storage system for electronic records".
  • Multi-functional devices (MFD) - to rationalise the print estate using tech from Canon.
  • Scanning - managed reduction of hard copy documents and associated physical storage space, also built around Canon kit.
  • Digital Mail - to enable more flexible working patterns and a hot desking environment.

Audit first

The process of embarking on this 'digital journey' began with an audit of existing print needs, fleet, volume throughput and support services and contracts.

There was a need to build a scalable digital infrastructure and repository which could integrate and interface with existing systems.

On a more technical level, the project would necessitate the creation of a bespoke software application for the Digital Mail component and the creation of a bespoke repository to underpin the MEDS strand.

In addition all Middlesex staff would need to have a Unified Communications solution rolled out to them.

MEDS now has in excess of 1100 users uploading 15,000 documents each month. Users have access to an online repository worldwide to get at those documents.

Hilary Morris, Estate and Facilities Management Service, Deputy Head of Contracts, Middlesex University, says that the system is relatively uncommon in education circles and was a bespoke project for good reason:

"When it comes to the MEDS, it's important to remember that while in commercial environments such technology may be common, in education it's not necessarily as easy to implement.

"The records management system was designed for us from the ground. Having an online repository for all our records reduces the need for the filing cabinet in the corner and allows us to access records from anywhere electronically.

"Our central scanning service assesses what archive records we have in the form of basements full of records. Some of these are records that people felt needed to be retained, but didn't often look at."

Not such a problem any more

Meanwhile the Digital Mail project is intended to digitise all incoming and internal mail and enables users to access hardcopy mail electronically from any location accessed by the internet.

Some 33000 items of hardcopy mail have been delivered electronically to date while 803,000 hardcopy documents have been digitised via bulk scanning.

An immediate challenge was the need to manage cultural change, admits Morris:

"The Digital Mail aspect was the most contentious in terms of how it was received. Especially among some of the academics there was a degree of reluctance to move away from physical mail. So we had to go through a huge engagement process with focus groups for every part of the project."

There are exceptions to the new policy in the form of postal items that cannot be digitised, such as tax discs and purchasing cards, but there are no exceptions in terms of staff being able to opt out:

"Everything we have done has been done across the board. We had to be very strategic."

Exemptions can include personal mail items - although such post is not encouraged within the workplace.

"Digital mail has encouraged people to do that less. But there are items that come through to lecturers, such as Amazon boxes, that we need to be able to receive, so there is a facility for that to happen. We don't prohibit personal mail."

There are also course-specific reasons for not always adhering to a digital-only policy:

"There are exceptions and we do have a flexible approach. For example, in the art department, one of the student projects is to create and design a postcard, create an envelope and send that to the lecturer.

"So in that instance, the lecturer gets in touch with us to let us know that the project is happening and that gets passed on as hardcopy post."

But the overriding practicality of this digital first approach is undeniable, she adds:

"If I get an invoice from a supplier, it doesn't matter to me whether I scan it in or someone else does. The important thing is that we have now got a fully trackable mail service.

"Every piece of mail is tracked from the moment it comes in so that if someone turns up and says they didn't get some mail, the whole process is trackable."

The benefits are notable, if not always easily quantifiable:

"In terms of space, we had a room just filled with post trays. But it's not just that - it's vans, drivers, post rooms and so on. We are able now to make better use of space. That was perhaps a harder sell as it's not something that you can necessarily translate into pure financial measurements."


An interesting example of a strategy made possible by 'commodity' tech in the form of scanners and the internet to create a set of digital and online processes.

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