Fighting and Winning the Paper Battle

By Luc Hatlestad  |  Posted 2009-09-16

See related stories: Tracking Docs Across Devices, Managing the Machines.

When organizations make the move from paper to electronic forms, most do it primarily to save money. When the U.S. Army adopted software to help streamline its mountains of paperwork, it ended up saving something a lot more important: the lives of its soldiers.

Under its old paper-based system, the Army had to plow through millions of sheets of paper each year. This included printing and shipping millions of dollars’ worth of publications and forms to two distribution centers staffed by hundreds of people. These centers shipped the publications and forms literally by the tons to almost 30,000 accounts throughout the Army. The forms were used to trigger the initiation, change or completion of various business processes, and they had to be filled out manually, reprinted and reshipped.

“The Army is like any other organization,” says Susan Maks, director of Army Publishing. “Usually, a form initiates any business process, and it would have to be hand-carried and hand-signed.”

This process happens both in Army offices and in combat theaters, which adds a layer of peril no typical businessperson could comprehend. “The [combat units] would have to put convoys together to take these papers back and forth, and people were actually getting killed,” Maks recalls. “I recently had a lieutenant colonel call me from Iraq extremely upset because he lost one of his soldiers who had been carrying a contract form to get signed. You can’t put a dollar value on that.”

The Army has been trying to move away from paper forms since early in the decade, and recent advances in electronic forms software have finally made it possible to eliminate the need to put lives at risk, while also saving millions of dollars.

Beginning with its officer evaluation reports—which every member of the Army completes at least several times a year—the Army developed an initiative called the Forms Content Management Program in 2002. It then solicited information from more than 50 vendors, whittled the list of finalists down to three for a prototype evaluation and finally selected IBM.

Since last year, IBM and Enterprise Information Management, a veteran-owned firm that customizes business process solutions, have been working together to automate business processes for the Army’s Publishing Directorate (APD). The result is the creation of the Electronic Content Management Services (ECMS), which uses IBM Lotus Forms Version 3.5. It’s used to digitize the Army’s human resources, personnel, logistics and forms processes, and about 1.4 million users are deploying it.

The ECMS has the ability to “centrally manage official Army departmental information, authenticate the information, and make it universally accessible to enhance the Army’s readiness and war-fighting capabilities,” Maks explains. “We now have a centrally managed program with digitized forms that can be downloaded, as well as smart forms that can be ‘wizardized.’

“One of our longer applications is the military evaluation. Because you can digitally sign the forms, it makes that process faster and easier. Since the rules are embedded in the form, the error rate has come way down. And because it’s a content management system, the content never moves. I can travel anywhere and just log on, and it’s like I never left.”

Maks adds that the new technology is easy to work with and is accessible to users of all levels. It supports evaluation policy requirements, encourages right actions, and prohibits or limits wrong actions, such as entering data incorrectly or in the wrong place. The system also reduces administrative errors, eliminates the need to physically carry evaluations between combat bases, lets documents be shared regardless of location and cuts down drastically on postal costs.

In addition, IBM Forms can precisely mimic an organization’s existing paper forms electronically. That concept is nothing new, of course, but moving away from paper has been slow to catch on, largely because digitized versions have often been poor copies. In this case, however, the electronic forms look exactly like they do on paper.

“Because the system handles the forms the same way, retraining is minimal,” Maks explains. “It’s very easy and intuitive.” This reduces training time and costs.

Security Challenges

Though data security is a concern of all organizations, for the U.S. military, these issues can have national security implications. An ongoing challenge for the Army has been educating its agencies about the use and legality of digital signatures, including archiving and time-source authority distribution. (The Army was the first Department of Defense [DoD] branch to implement digital signatures at an enterprise level.)

Army computers have built-in security card readers, so users can insert their security badges into a reader to digitally sign a form. “A lot of this technology has been out there for a while, but the DoD turned a corner when it started using ID management,” Maks says. “Now the system knows who I am and that I’m authorized to sign. It locks down the data so it can’t be altered. This is what gives us the ability to do an end-to-end paperless system for the first time.”

Saving Time and Money

In the three years since the project’s implementation, the Army estimates that it has saved more than $28 million and two hours per form via electronic processing for the evaluation forms alone. It projects an annual savings of $1.3 billion in paper-related costs by the time the project is fully deployed across all Army departments.

Maks says the Army is exploring ways to expand its use of IBM Forms. Only about 10 applications having been converted so far, but dozens more will soon be joining the paperless revolution. The most immediate frontiers will involve an e-mail archiving system for which the Army is running a pilot program.

“We tested an IBM e-mail manager module that worked extremely well,” she says. “We’re looking to institutionalize it at the Pentagon, and that would jump-start records management there.” Maks adds that in the wake of the 2007 revelations about the poor record-keeping and negligence at the Walter Reed veterans hospital, the automation of Army medical evaluations will be high on the to-do list, as will digitizing the records for military awards and performance evaluations.

Though the process of bringing the Army’s administration into the digital age is obviously a massive undertaking, Maks reports that they’re off to an encouraging start: More than 80 percent of the Army’s 400,000-plus annual evaluations are now being sent electronically.

“When you’re doing something like this at an enterprise level, it takes awhile to get the capacity built, so we’re trying to take small bites,” Maks reports. “But we are on the leading edge of what anybody’s doing at this point.

“The technology has been there for some time, and we now have the ability to put it all together.”