Cruising toward e-biz

The Coast Guard is throwing away its filing cabinets and embracing electronic business — moves that are affecting the bottom line.

The agency is using a document management system to automate the costly bidding process, to connect geographically disparate civil engineering sitesand to provide timely procurement information.

In fact, the Coast Guard is streamlining many of its paper-based, "pigeonholed" processes in terms of cost, time and productivity, and even opening up floor space that used to house paper filing cabinets, said Paul Herold, chief of the Coast Guard's Civil Engineering Technology Center, which is responsible for contracting and procurement.

The civil engineering office in Honolulu began using Synergis Technologies Inc.'s Adept software last week, and the effort to install it agencywide is well under way. "It gives us a high level of confidence in what we're doing," Herold said.

With Adept, Coast Guard procurement officials can post an entire solicitation online at FedBizOpps within hours instead of days, saving $70,000 in printing, shipping and postage costs per year at its Cleveland site alone.

"They can assemble bid packages that used to take from three to five days in less than an hour," said Todd Cummings, director of Adept development for Quakertown, Pa.-based Synergis.

To complete about $20 million worth of work, the civil engineering unit spends about $500,000 in overhead costs including travel, copies, maintenance and printing expenses. Adept has helped reduce those costs and as a result, helped pay for itself, Herold said.

The initial start-up fee for using Adept was about $40,000, he added. "It allowed us to change our business process. There are still culture changes,but we have a usable tool to do that with."

What's more, engineers responsible for manufacturing or fixing ships can now find the latest information in seconds as opposed to having to search countless file cabinets.

Adept enables users to locate, modify and maintain documents, including drawings, diagrams and reports, via a local-area network, a wide-area network or the Internet. "It gives legacy data functionality without a customized solution," Cummings said.

The next step, which should be completed by the end of the year, is moving Adept to the Coast Guard's WAN so that engineers nationwide can share knowledge and data on specific projects, such as replacing a runway.

The local databases contain only regional data so sharing information now requires engineers on the East Coast to run a query and then send the results to their counterparts in California. Once Adept is on the WAN, engineers anywhere in the country can quickly perform that query themselves and get the right data immediately, Herold said.

But getting Coast Guard users on board required some drastic measures.

"We locked all the drawing file cabinets took them away from engineers," Herold said. "It's about getting people used to working in a different way. There's no way they can go through paper faster than [an automated] system."

Larry English, president and principal of Information Impact International Inc., a consulting firm, said the Coast Guard's problems are not unique.

"The first line of accountability is the managers," English said. "An organization must create an environment where everyone must be cognizant of their role to make information quality happen."

Even in a large organization such as the Coast Guard, an automated process should be in place to remove any unnecessary duplication and ensure that problems are fixed enterprisewide, English said. "Be proactive and eliminate defects so you don't have to keep changing."

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