A Big Hand for Digital Dictation

Copyright: David Lawson - first published Property Week 2005

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In the flashy, whiz-bang world of new technology it is remarkable how the simplest but most essential tasks can be overlooked. Vast amounts of data can be crunched then whisked across thousands of miles in nanoseconds, yet the mundane task of getting information into a computer trundles along at walking speed.  Or at least the speed of two fingers walking across a keyboard. Kids who have grown up with computers rattle away as proficiently as a top secretary nowadays, but for anyone else typing is usually a stumbling chore.

  Dictation passes on the burden but has immense drawbacks. The average professional will fill a tape with a mix of memos, letters and notes. It then has to be laboriously unscrambled into different scripts and transcribed by a single typist. The time between dictating and seeing a letter can be hours – or even days.  Working outside the office extends the problem. There are shortcuts, such as emailing sound files, so they are typed and ready for checking on return to the office. But this can be slow and awkward. Attaching a file to an email is not simple. They are also very large, and can tie up a phone line.

   Voice recognition was meant to solve all these problems by cutting out the middleman. Many users were put off by difficulties ‘training’ the software to recognize words and found they spent so much time correcting, they might as well use two-finger typing.   Technology has moved on in leaps and bounds.  Recently-launched Dragon NaturallySpeaking 8, for instance, is claimed to be  20% more accurate than the previous version, and now offers support for more handheld devices such as the palmOne, Tungsten T2, and special compatibility modules for the most popular applications.

  But a group of leading property firms have discovered a middle path. Churston Heard, the West End consultant, anticipates saving almost  £1.4m over the next decade  by adopting digital dictation. The biggest chunk of that comes from the cost of temps normally employed to handle surges of work.  From the day the firm installed a digital system created by BigHand [correct], not a single temp has been required, says finance director Mike Benton.

  A key to success is that fact that going digital does not involve any big change for users. They still talk into a microphone, although this can now be on a PC, laptop or even a mobile phone. The difference lies in the way the information is then handled, says  Gordon McAlpine, BigHand joint founder and international sales director.  Rather than being stored as one tape, each entry is kept as an individual file. Typists can then access each one via the office network and work on it rather than wait for the lot to become available, clocking up overtime or requiring temps to be brought in. 

  Benton is particularly satisfied with the way dictation can be emailed in from site visits. ‘Recently, while one of our surveyors was on maternity leave, she even dictated work from home and utilised a secretary based in the office.   The software promotes day-to-day efficiency, with fee earners receiving a same- day service from their support staff, he says. But the real impact of digital dictation comes in the way it enhances and streamlines  secretarial support.

   If one secretary is very busy then some of her dictation is submitted to the central pool, where less busy secretaries pitch in and help complete the work on schedule, says Benton. Likewise when a secretary is on holiday or ill her work is shared by the rest of the secretaries in that ‘virtual’ pool. Secretaries don’t mind helping out as they know when they are off those people will then cover for them. ‘Crucially it means that we now do not require any temp or float staff at all, ‘ says Benton. ‘We were spending an average of £40,000 per year on temp cover, often concentrated during the summer holiday season. From the day we installed BigHand we have not used a single temp.’

   ‘During that time  we have also had three secretaries leave the firm, and not had to replace them due to BigHand software. The system allows you to calculate more scientifically whether existing secretaries have enough capacity without having to bring in direct replacements. Importantly it also enables work to be automatically absorbed by the remaining secretaries.  With a cost to the firm per head of £33,000 per annum, the total annual saving there was £99,000. Where our fee-earner to secretary ratio was once 3:1, it is now 5:1 – the optimum level in terms of our practice.’

  McAlpine points out that a key to BigHand, which had been widely used by lawyers for almost a decade before being discovered by property firms, lies in the way information  is ‘digitised’ rather than just recorded. Sound files are normally very large, which can mean slow transmission from outside the office. Even within it is a problem, as a large number of these files will put a large load on the network. BigHand compresses  the information. It can also be automated, so after dictation into a mobile computer or phone it dials up and sends the information rather than the complex method of attaching to an email. Messages can be directed to a private mailbox or number if they are meant for a confidential secretary rather than dumped into a communal pool

  Benton was also impressed by the ease of transition. ‘I have overseen the purchase of many new IT systems but can categorically state that no application has gone in as easily as BigHand Digital Dictation. ‘It is popular with both fee earners and secretaries alike and has delivered on the ROI side – in total we have saved over £400,000 due to the system. These user and financial benefits would make it attractive to any company in any sector, but the additional remote working facilities make it particularly suited to the property industry.’