Navy expands its collaboration

Naval Research opens <@SM>document management <@SM>system to outside researchers

IT solutions in action

Project: Proposal management and collaborative workspace

Agency: Office of Naval Research

Partners: Formark Ltd., Ottawa and Open Text Corp., Waterloo, Ontario

Goal: Having deployed a document management system to streamline the internal business processes associated with research projects, the Office of Naval Research wanted to open its system to outside organizations that did research for the agency.

Obstacle: An outward-facing application had to integrate seamlessly with the document management system and give program managers control over the online collaboration. It also had to be easy for outsiders to use, and secure enough to protect each organization's data.

Solution: Formark Ltd., which specializes in tailoring Livelink document management software from Open Text Corp., created a Web collaboration tool, with automated workflows, that let researchers submit proposals and engage in ongoing projects through a secure browser. 

Payoff: By letting the research community work directly with its document management system, the Office of Naval research cut administrative overhead, accelerated the process of launching projects and increased productivity.

Tim Warren, CIO of the Office of Naval Research, said the mission in 2000 was to go paperless. "Now we've got over a million documents in the system."

Photo:Rick Steele

The benefits of document management software are well known: It improves workflow, increases productivity and enhances collaboration inside government agencies. Where system integrators can add value is in extending document management beyond an agency's walls to include other agencies or outside contractors.

Since 2000, the Office of Naval Research has used software from Open Text Corp. of Waterloo, Ontario, to handle documents and data for its science and technology programs. Naval Research handles a large portfolio of research projects, exploring everything from freeze-dried blood to multiple antenna arrays. The agency manages dozens of projects at a time and can field a hundred proposals per project.

"In 2000, the directive was to go to a paperless office," said Tim Warren, chief information officer at the office. "Now we've got over a million documents in the system."

According to Jared Spataro, Open Text's director of collaboration and knowledge management solutions, the company's Livelink product, which the Office of Naval Research uses, is more a platform than a point product. Government agencies can use it to organize content, collaborate and automate business processes, depending on the modules they deploy, he said.

"Some opportunities are heavily weighted toward business process management, some toward document management. We've tied these capabilities together in a tight fashion," Spataro said.

Last spring, the Office of Naval Research wanted to add capabilities to its Livelink system. The agency wanted universities, laboratories and other outside organizations that do research for the agency to be able to access its Livelink system, route documents through the Office of Naval Research system and collaborate with their staff. To do so required an additional level of functionality that let program managers control access to Livelink and protect the intellectual property of research partners.

"We had to ensure we had the protections in place, so they could only get so far in the system and only see what they needed to see," Warren said.

Formark Ltd. of Ottawa, a solutions integrator that specializes in Livelink deployments and develops software to increase the system's functionality, had helped launch the original system. The company has implemented similar technology at the Energy Department to support certification and accreditation processes.

The Office of Naval Research deployment "was the first time we used this approach of bringing outside researchers into Livelink," said Bob Richards, vice president of marketing and sales at Formark.

Formark integrated a pair of its own software utilities, written as Active Server pages, to make Livelink systems accessible to the outside world. Formark Courier establishes ad hoc workflows to accept outside documents and route them through the Livelink system; Formark Outside automatically creates online workspaces where researchers and program managers post messages, exchange data and track a project's progress.

Because Livelink is a Web solution, it is easily accessible through a standard browser. When the Navy or another government agency issues a broad agency announcement through the Office of Naval Research, an administrator enters the request into Courier, which creates the workflows necessary to receive proposals and builds a Web site where researchers can submit them. When outside groups visit the proposals site, they enter required information and upload their proposal, which Courier securely transfers and routes to the proper location in Livelink.

When a research proposal is accepted, the Research administrator uses Formark Outside to establish an online workspace for the program manager and external parties. Researchers or other staff working on the project must register at the site, triggering a workflow so the program manager can approve or reject access to the workspace. Approved users automatically receive e-mail with a URL, user id and password.

Warren said the agency uses virtual private networking as an extra level of security to protect data as it travels between researchers and the Office of Naval Research. In the future, he said, the office would like to use public key infrastructure to further secure and authenticate communications with outsiders. For now, however, not enough contractors have the necessary digital certificates.

So far, the Office of Naval Research has created nearly 40 workspaces around what Warren calls "communities of interest" to manage projects. Many include outside researchers.

Warren and his staff are trying to encourage more users to launch new projects using the extended Livelink system, although some can't be incorporated. Often, foreign researchers can't access the Web-based system because Defense Department security regulations restrict access from overseas IP addresses.

Although return on investment is hard to measure, Warren said the system has improved the process of collaboration and document management. The big payoff will be better tracking of projects.

"The first time we don't fund a program because we can see it's something we've already looked at, the system will have paid for itself," he said.

If you have an innovative solution that you recently installed in a government agency, contact Staff Writer Brad Grimes at bgrimes@postnewsweektech.com.

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