Handover protocols: relic, necessary evil or opportunity?

Although most organizations still cling to signing-off handover protocols, a growing number are backing away from all that. Having reviewed the costs associated with signing and archiving paper protocols, they were found to be uneconomical. The traditional sign-offs make sense where there is a known problem with borrowed assets getting stolen or lost. Fortunately, in most cases the reality is different. So, are the handover protocols just a relic or do they still have some merit? 

We keep hearing about ‘e-everything’ from all sides these days, and so would naturally expect IT to lead the way in digitization. In practice, however, IT too often relies on paper forms and bureaucratic procedures. ‘The cobbler’s wife and the blacksmith’s mare go unshod’ as the old adage goes. Not that there’s no desire to change things. But there are always reasons why it is better to stick to the status quo for now and ‘leave (almost) well alone’. And meanwhile, as IT drags its feet, the digital transformation train is leaving the station. In our mini-series on IT digitization, we’ll be taking a look at 3 areas that can be easily digitized to save the team unnecessary work. Let’s start with the relatively simple agenda of handover protocols. Resolving this process can be just the kind of quick win to encourage moving on to other areas. 

But before we talk about how to digitize handover protocols, let’s give a thought to why we’re doing this at all. Wouldn’t it be better to just to get rid of all such bumf? The main reason for introducing handover protocols used to be financial. It was about protecting the company’s assets. Back in our day we had the notorious ‘purloining of socialist property’. Maybe that’s why we see such an obsession with handover protocols in former Eastern Bloc countries. However, those times have changed, so what other reasons are there? Firstly, even your employee needs to be sure you will not ask to get something back that you never handed over in the first place. And then there’s the simple fact that handover protocols are one of the tools to keep assets in order

Since handover protocols are a kind of insurance against undesirable events, their benefits are not immediately visible in everyday work. No wonder, then, that IT staff often gripe about handover protocols. They see the signing and archiving of paper protocols as an unnecessary administrative burden. This is not helped by making such documentation and processes heavy-handed. In some organizations, they require signatures from both parties to the handover. Some go even further and require the signature of a superior. If the asset register is the responsibility of the accounting department, the accountants may be required to countersign. Such an approach further complicates the whole system and at the same time reduces the quality of the resulting data, since the data entry is down to people who are not physically handling the assets. 

Do handover protocols help, when it comes right down to it? 

Fear of property theft may be justified in some operations, and no one will give you a guarantee that none of your staff will ever want to ‘liberate’ anything. On the other hand, treating employees with suspicion in advance and creating an atmosphere of mistrust is a sure-fire way to create an unpleasant working environment. 

We should also ask ourselves what happens if an employee actually does steal some kit. Will a signed-off handover help you? A handover protocol is a mutually signed agreement that you entrusted an employee with assets and will want them back. But how enforceable is this agreement, and in what situations will you invoke it? Will it be when an employee forgot to return something, or in the really serious case where an employee doesn’t want to return your property and you have to demand it? That will probably not be an existing, valued employee, but someone just leaving the company. The situation must be pretty bad if s/he really doesn’t want to give you your property back. How valuable does the asset have to be, to start a lawsuit in that situation? What are your chances of winning the litigation if your side is seen to have disproportionate advantage? Experience shows that most courts will side with the employee. So what’s the point of the protocol, and what’s the point of digitizing it? 

Could we get rid of handover protocols completely? 

The seemingly most effective solution is not to create handover protocols at all. Indeed, a number of young, modern companies are moving in this direction. They realize what kind of signal the company is making to the staff when they want sign-offs all the time. A sign of mistrust. Why digitize a process you don’t actually want? The best way would be not to have to deal with it, and save yourself a lot of worries and unnecessary administrative work. 

But be assured, that doesn’t mean leaving things in a mess. You still need to know where each device is and who has use of it. A thorough record of assets will make your life much easier when you are looking for something. People and devices are constantly on the move, and it’s easy to forget the odd item somewhere or other. The register then serves as your extended memory. When staff see that you keep good order, they will trust you. For example, if you tell them that you handed over an external drive to them three months ago on a specific day, which looked like this and had this capacity, s/he will remember the given situation better. For an improved overview, it is helpful for employees to have online access to information about the assets entrusted to them. 

Feedback from the Field: “We are trying to eliminate all similar paper protocols. We only generate handover protocols for some assets. For example, a laptop or a cell phone. That is because those are the devices most likely to ‘walk’. As for the register, we record what is of interest to users – for example, with a SIM card, allowing the user subsequently to find out his PIN and PUK codes from the system, or with a family benefit where s/he can check out in real time what s/he is entitled to or has used. We do not register small assets like flash drives etc. These are petty cash items, where the recording process itself would be more expensive than the device.” 

What option is best for your organization? 

Every company needs to consider how much it needs to invest in asset protection, depending on their company culture. How often does property loss occur? How much harm does that cause? Maybe you’ll conclude that the handover protocols are worth it. If you are already using paper handover protocols today, digitizing them may be a step toward your ultimate goal of doing without them. At the very least, it is one solution that should significantly reduce administrative work. At the same time, the emphatic formal handover will still be there. 

It then comes down to choosing a particular solution. Do you want to have your protocols generated in pdf, signed with a digital personal certificate, and sent to a data mailbox? Or is that kind of solution over-the-top, and you’d prefer a simple intranet-based confirmation, where the user electronically confirms the protocol is accurate and sufficiently detailed? You can always opt for a hybrid solution, combining the variants described. If you find electronic protocols a little too daring, you can have your employee sign the first protocol physically and log on that document their agreement that all other protocol updates will be made electronically. That gives you the opportunity to explain the new way of working to the employee concerned. If instead you are considering getting rid of the protocols altogether… 

Feedback from the Field: “As part of our digitization, we were wondering how to get rid of having to sign-off a paper trail every time something is handed over, assets transferred between staff, or even when returning a device to the IT department. Finally, we decided to sign electronically, with a certificate on the smart card available to every company employee. The process itself thus became very simple. The asset is handed over physically at the IT department, and the IT administrator generates an electronic protocol document. The employee can check the protocol on the monitor and confirm with their smart card that everything is in order. After confirmation, an electronic signature is generated and written directly to the document, which is stored in a database in PDF format. This makes it very easy for us to prove that the employee has taken delivery. We were a bit concerned how our staff would take to it, but were pleasantly surprised by their positive response to the change.”

To sum up 

Whatever approach you choose, the technical solution should go hand in hand with a well-tuned process. Be sure to think about how you’ll be handling an employee’s departure, so that they get their leaving paperwork only after all assets have been returned and their account accesses cancelled. As we said at the start, our prime focus is on the assets and on cost-effective behaviour. A great step forward can be to bring in the rule whereby the employee entrusted with a device will subsequently get the option to buy the device for its residual book value. This can not only reduce wastage, but also improve how staff treat the assets entrusted to them. Next time, we’ll be looking at ways to streamline another financial process, which again closely affects the IT department – asset inventorization. 

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Published at: 10. May 2021

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