GSA Region Three Finds Groupware Solution

Lotus Notes lets the region fare well without a mainframe

The General Services Administration Region Three headquarters doesn't have a mainframe, and until last year it didn't have a database to document communications sent from its offices to federal employees in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.

"At meetings, the minutes were taken, keyed into a computer and sent, along with a request for comments to each employee via e-mail," said Neil Abramson, chief of the technical support branch of the GSA's Region Three headquarters in Philadelphia.

That was quite an unwieldy process, for that particular GSA region has 1,600 employees and an annual operating budget of $400 million. "Because of backlog, getting people to sign off on a written request or order often took several weeks, or months," said Abramson.

The GSA region already had a Windows NT environment linked by three Ethernet local area networks, as well as a Novell environment over a TCP/IP LAN. Though these four networks differ, they connect 500 PCs, a mix of 486s and Pentium-compatible IBM PCs. They're also linked to Compaq Proliant servers via a fiber optic backbone.

"We needed a database to work with this client/server system that allowed disparate users to share documents and information," said Abramson.

"We wanted something that would put data in a central location so that multiple people could access it simultaneously, as well as eliminate the added task of consolidating a lot of information. We wanted assistant regional administrators to be able to share their thoughts. They wanted to create action items, status reports and projects together. However, nothing we had or had come across could fulfill those requirements."

The solution the agency settled on was deceptively simple: groupware. More precisely, IBM's Lotus Notes.

A GSA office in San Francisco two years ago purchased the software to set up a discussion database, and this provided a model for the Philadelphia office to follow. At first, the Philadelphia office started small with Notes, developing a regional telephone directory, as well as a suggestion database for ideas about reinventing government.

"We simply input the suggestions into the database, and those on the board and any other personnel in the building could simply look at it and key in their comments," says Abramson. "It really cut down on the number of e-mail messages being sent. And it streamlined the process, so our turnaround time from suggestion to response was drastically cut."

Once the process of developing client/server applications with Lotus Notes started, other departments within the GSA Region Three began doing similar work. A spokeswoman for Lotus noted that the departments are automating many processes. "It's an interesting applications story," she said.

The Philadelphia-based Personnel Division of GSA devised applications for personnel statistics, vacancy announcements and employee training programs.

"With Lotus Notes, we can keep a record of an employee's entire training history or as far back as we want," said Abramson. "And the individual employees can go into the database themselves, retrieve that information and decide which courses they need to take next."

Another application that has been developed by the GSA is the Congressional Inventory. This database tracks the finances and furniture inventory for U.S. senators.

"In the past, during election years, we had to transfer inventory by getting rid of the old and bringing in the new and seeing how much money the senators had in their budgets," said Abramson. "They knew what they had started out with and what remained. However, it always took a great deal of research on their part to get this information. Now, we can instantly call it up on the screen."

Presently, GSA Region Three has about 400 Lotus Notes licenses, but the number is burgeoning, and officials are trying to equip field locations and remote sites. With personnel reductions, GSA is also using the groupware program to offset personnel losses.

"It allows us to answer questions from customers on the phone right away, rather than hanging up, searching for the information and calling them back with the answers," said Abramson.

"Personnel don't have to spend near the amount of time they once did performing administrative functions," says Abramson. "They're free to do what they do best, whether it is writing contracts or designing training courses. They can be geographically dispersed in different states or in different parts of the building. And people working on the same project have access to information simultaneously."

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