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Nathan Belcher, FirstOnSite director of IT, has overseen the company’s transition from paper records to digital. The move has saved the disaster restoration company time on its paperwork.

Adriano Valentini/The Globe and Mail

Nothing can hurt a business like incessant paperwork. Just ask Bruce Derraugh, chief operating officer for FirstOnSite Restoration, a Toronto-based company that works with insurers to clean up messes left by floods, tornadoes and even the 2011 Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver.

When his company launched in 2004, his employees rarely had to write down details of their work. That changed in 2010 when insurance companies began asking for meticulous documentation, including copious amounts of paperwork, digital photos of disaster sites and more.

While the insurance industry wanted to crack down on fraud, the extra work forced Mr. Derraugh to hire 25 per cent more administration staff. Project managers, who had to do most of the documentation, were also spending far more time on a job than usual.

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"We're trying to make money, but at the same time we have this [work] that's squeezing us from a margin perspective," he says. "We said there has to be a more efficient way to handle the claims process."

Fortunately for FirstOnSite, there was a better way: custom software.

Mr. Derraugh, like a lot of drowning-in-paperwork executives, thought that technology might be able to make his company more efficient. Tablet computers have made it easier for out-of-office staff to connect to the company network on job sites, and creating a software program, one that fits the specific needs of a business, is a lot cheaper today than it was even five years ago.

Wayne Ingram, managing director of technology for Accenture Canada, is seeing an increasing number of companies turn to custom software to solve a complex business problem. While larger businesses have been building programs for years, custom development really exploded with the advent of tablets, speedy mobile data and applications.

"It used to be a niche area where the right software solution wasn't already on the market," Mr. Ingram says. "Now, tech trends around mobility and cloud have opened up a whole new set of software."

Companies can still buy off-the-shelf software – there are plenty of useful accounting and customer relationship management programs on the market – but for many businesses, the premade programs don't cut it.

Mr. Derraugh needed something that could house various insurance company forms, store pictures of job sites, send all that data to their adjuster and, finally, package everything up and e-mail it to the insurance agent. The program also had to live on a rugged Windows-based tablet device that could be hauled to job site after job site.

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It took about six months to create the program – Mr. Derraugh and FirstOnSite worked with a software development company – but in October his team began using mobileCT. Now, program managers can fill out forms, with a pen or with voice, and they can easily take photos using the tablet. When they're done, all the information is automatically entered into the company's system. "The whole process is automatic now," Mr. Derraugh says. "We took what was once done on paper and made it digital."

Creating custom software can be expensive – Mr. Derraugh wouldn't say how much he spent – so calculating a program's return on investment is key. Matt Held, chief executive officer and founder of Manawa Networks, a Toronto-based information technology consulting firm, says the calculation is fairly easy. "This piece of software will cost X, but will save Y on an annual basis," he says. "See if your ROI is positive."

However, executives often forget to take into account the life of the program, Mr. Held says. They just add the cost of development, but don't factor in upgrades – many companies continue improving the software after they start using it – and maintenance.

Mr. Derraugh crunched all the numbers and realized he could make back his investment in less than 12 months. That ROI will come mostly come through salary reductions. He's laid off a few administration staff, but he also doesn't plan to hire more when others leave. The program also means his staff can work more efficiently, which means the company can take on more jobs without having to hire more people.

One big advantage of developing a custom program is the ability to add to it when new challenges arise. What often happens, Mr. Ingram says, is that the software opens up executives' eyes to even more possibilities. "That technological evolution often gets the innovation juices flowing," he says. "Companies often find other areas to apply it to."

It's also a lot cheaper to modify or add something to a program once the main system is set up. Large enterprises are trying to figure out ways to add to or leverage the massive investments they've made in mobile technology, but even smaller companies can be thinking about how to get even more out of their technological investment.

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That could mean making the program available on company smartphones, rather than just the tablet, for example. "That's a small investment, but it can have substantial benefit," Mr. Ingram says.

FirstOnSite has already added more functionality to its program, such as creating a French-language option. Later this year it will implement an equipment inventory function so project managers can make sure they have all their tools before leaving a job site, and there are plans to create a phone version of the software.

While FirstOnSite's program has so far worked wonders, there's been another benefit besides helping the company become more efficient. "There's a pride factor for our staff," Mr. Derraugh says. "It's a new thing and when employees see what we're doing and what we can add to it, it gets them excited about our company."

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