FTS making progress on new IT system

The General Services Administration's Federal Technology Service is making headway on a project to consolidate its information technology task order management systems into a single enterprise system designed to increase customer service and simplify the procurement process.

The Web- enabled system, known as 3GS for "third-generation system," will be based on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products and support several hundred federal agencies, according to FTS officials. Agencies will use it to define their requirements, allocate funds and participate in the approval and negotiation of orders.

Vendors will also use the system to get information on customer requirements, file electronic proposal submissions and bill customers. The system also will provide funds control and transaction- reporting capabilities called for by GSA's enterprise architecture plan.

The system "replaces the 12 or 14 different mom-and-pop systems out there and brings us into an [enterprise resource planning] system," said Jimmy Parker, FTS' chief information officer. "Within the last three years, FTS has grown rapidly."

The old systems grew up organically in different parts of FTS, said chief technology officer Chris Wren. They won't scale to meet growing demand and they don't share information easily. Tearing them out and building something fresh proved to be the best option.

FTS is supporting ever-increasing numbers of customers, Wren said. In 2002, the organization had 5,000 agencies with 16,000 individual points of contact, and 9,100 vendors with 15,900 points of contact. "Those 33,000 [points of contact] could be 60,000 in a couple of years," he said.

3GS started with a requirements definition in 2002. GSA awarded contracts for the project last year and earlier this year. Unisys Corp. and IBM Corp. are the primary technology architects, while the key software comes from SAP AG. Parker estimates the project will cost a total of $30 million to $40 million.

FTS is replacing IBM's Lotus Domino infrastructure with ERP systems from SAP, a large software company headquartered in Walldorf, Germany, Parker said. Although Domino worked well, FTS had to write customized code to get it to do many of the things SAP's system does.

"We've leveraged the stuff that has come out in the President's Management Agenda about using off-the-shelf" software, he said. "We're actually re- engineering our business processes to fit the COTS model."

The business process changes include creating standards for naming documents such as invoices. To wring the most efficiency from the system, FTS and vendors should all use the same naming conventions so that documents generated in one place will be recognized in another office.

"We will now speak the same language as industry within the government," Parker said. "In the old system, somebody in the region in Fort Worth [Texas] could do something differently and it wouldn't be a repeatable thing in the office in San Francisco."

"Our business systems today capture general detail," Wren added. "In the future, with 3GS, that will be line-item detail."

To ensure that the changes were for the better, Parker and FTS leaders consulted users and examined the necessary business processes. They considered the process of taking an agency's order and worked through all the steps until payment, examining what occurs and what elements of the automation are pertinent.

Right now, 15 "subject matter experts" from FTS' regional offices and headquarters are working closely with Unisys to ensure that the software reflects the workflow, Wren said.

FTS should be able to build its business as the computer system improves, said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting Inc. "Agencies are often reluctant to give up contracting functions, especially when they have their own internal contracting shops," he said. "One of the top selling points FTS uses is that they can do it faster and with less headache than most agency shops. It makes sense for [FTS] to upgrade their systems if [that can ease] the case for [agencies] giving up a certain level of control in exchange for easier transactions."

Parker said he plans to begin turning on elements of the new system for testing in the coming weeks and months, and will look to customers to point out weaknesses.

The system will also power a Web portal that will allow agencies, vendors and GSA to get instant information on transactions, he said. "They no longer have to pick up the phone and try to find their customer service rep. They'll be able to go right to the Web site and look it up," Parker said.

The project is moving into what he terms the "realization piece," testing both the systems and the business process changes. FTS expects a full rollout in October.

In upgrading the systems, FTS is also consolidating servers, from 14 sites to one. FTS expects to save $4 million to $6 million annually in operations and maintenance costs.

The biggest challenge that remains in the months ahead is making FTS employees comfortable with the new system and willing to change their old habits, Wren said. But it was the "cries of pain" from the staff that convinced FTS officials that now was the time to invest in an upgrade, he said, giving him confidence that the transition will not be too difficult.

"Two years ago, we knew we were getting ready to hit the brick wall," he said. "But that cry of pain made the users ready to accept change. Work has gotten more complex over the past 10 years."

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