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One District’s Journey from Paper-filled to Paperless

Human Resources

What happens when you have a vision that doesn’t mesh with “the way we’ve always done things”?

That was the question Heather Stocking found herself asking when she began working at Bettendorf Community School District. As the new Director of Human Resources, she was amazed at the amount of paperwork passing through the office every day. The sheer volume of documentation that needed to be signed, filed and passed on to others was incredible, and like many other school districts, the HR team was being asked to do more with less.

Heather knew that her talented HR team was being held back by the inefficiencies of constantly managing paperwork, and that the situation needed to be fixed. She also knew how difficult it could be to make change happen, and that she would need a solid plan in place before the team could go paperless.

Here’s how she did it.

1. Understand the situation and build relationships

Heather knew that big changes wouldn’t be received well when she was still new to the position, so she waited until she was in her fourth year with the district before introducing her vision of going paperless. She spent those first few years learning the district’s processes and getting to know the people involved, so that she would have a solid understanding of how things worked. This gave her a strong foundation of knowing the district’s needs, as well as the problems it currently faced. For example, she found that productivity slowed every time someone had to walk into her office to grab a record from a filing cabinet. She also found that using paper records and forms led to a lot of inefficiencies and tension.

“Things were getting lost as they were passing around to different people, people weren’t knowing about things, and so it was really causing a lot of tension and really some misplaced blame on, ‘Well, who lost that document?’ or ‘Who didn’t send it?’ And that was one of the pieces that got me going as far as, ‘This is not looking good for our team. This is not helping us out at all.’”

In addition to learning the district’s processes, she used those four years to build trust with her colleagues – trust that proved to be instrumental in successfully going paperless. Building relationships with other stakeholders in the district meant not only being trusted to make a change for the better, but also understanding others’ needs.

She says:

“I think the biggest thing is really starting with trust. One of the biggest things that I’ve done — and why I said I didn’t start in year one — was I felt that one of my most important roles was to not only build relationships, but it was to build trust with our stakeholders. I needed them to know that what I was doing was not to hinder anyone else’s job performance. It was actually to help. Part of that is being able to identify what your stakeholders need, and understanding them and knowing them well enough that you can create buy-in to what they want.”

2. Get buy-in from district stakeholders.

Taking the time to learn what others in the district wanted, and what challenges they faced, helped Heather understand what a win-win situation would look like. It’s all about finding common ground and making everyone’s job a little more efficient. She knew that some people would jump aboard the technology ship right away and support her new initiatives, but she also knew that others wouldn’t. She explained that it’s really important to get the people who are a little more fearful on board, and she knew she needed to create buy-in for the people who are most resistant to change.

For example, some people might feel threatened by automating certain processes, so she had to make it clear that she wasn’t trying to take away anyone’s job. Rather, the change was in order to better support the district. Taking the four years to build trust with others across the district, rather than insisting on effecting change right away, was crucial to getting the nay-sayers’ buy-in for a change.

[That trust] really came out of listening, conversations, hearing people’s frustrations, and then taking those and using them to have conversations. So, if they were frustrated about why they turned that in and that document got lost, I would turn around and say, ‘Okay, this is our way of making sure that they don’t get lost, and you have ownership over checking to make sure all of those documents are there and that we have them.’ It’s really understanding your team. That means team big picture all the way through the school district, your board of educators, and also being able to identify what are their needs and how are we helping to meet them.” – Heather Stocking

Heather also recognized that gaining buy-in at the upper levels of district leadership would take extra work. She spoke to administrative staff first to hear their feedback on the current processes, and then had conversations with principals about what was working and what wasn’t. She then put together a data-driven case for investing in software and showed the board of educators which processes weren’t effective and how much time was wasted on manual procedures. She knew that she would have to sell the board on her “why”, especially since there was a cost involved.

“I’m doing this because I believe we have a super talented team who are spending more time pushing papers and filing papers and finding papers than they are being able to be creative and innovative and providing the best customer service that we can.”

3. Take action

Once Heather and her team had decided on a new system, they went “full force ahead” with it. She says that sometimes you just need to “rip the band-aid off” in order to get people moving. She reports that for the most part, it wasn’t a huge change for district employees, especially younger team members, because everything they’re doing is already online, from buying houses to cell phone plans to applying for jobs.

She made sure to maintain the trust she had already built up, especially with veteran staff who were more hesitant about going paperless. She proactively created in-depth help sheets for everyone to ensure that they felt comfortable with the new system and processes.

4. Set the stage for further improvement

Once the new system was up and running, Heather made sure to maintain her team’s momentum. They were better able to pull reports and analyze district data more effectively, but she was really focused on using the time savings to be more strategic and build stronger employees with educators.

She says:

“We’re really able to provide better customer service. Our goal was to not have to sit in front of somebody with 300 pieces of paper that they needed to sign over and over again. When somebody came in, it was to start building a relationship. People stay because they feel invested in. That was my goal. The other thing is, we’ve started doing some really creative initiatives, some classified onboarding, looking at some of the ways that we are training our substitutes, and we didn’t have the time to do that before. You don’t have the time — when you’re pushing papers all day — to look at creative and innovative ways to be better.”

It was a “Happily Ever After” ending after all. Bettendorf’s journey may have started with a vision of going paperless in Human Resources, but it’s blossomed to include much larger initiatives. And really, isn’t that what change is really about – an opportunity for continual improvement?


Annie GrunwellAnnie Buttner

Annie is a writer and part of the award-winning content team at Frontline Education. She's passionate about learning, exploring data and sharing knowledge. Her specialties include substitute management, the K-12 staffing shortage, and best practices in human capital management.