The Washington State Department of Natural Resources generates about U.S.$200 million in timber sales annually with proceeds funding schools and hospitals—and it was facing an ever-growing, increasingly costly mountain of paperwork to navigate the complex regulatory structure involved in harvesting timber. To lower the time and cost of managing the sales process, and to ensure that the department’s six regional offices were working with current versions of documentation, the department created a document management and workflow application based on Microsoft® Office SharePoint® Server 2007. The solution has the potential to reduce the volume and cost of handling paperwork by 50 percent, and the solution is much more affordable than alternatives. It’s also providing an easily accessible repository for the department’s institutional memory, especially helpful as longtime staffers retire.
The state of Washington has a lot riding on how—and how well—it conducts its timber sales. Washington State is one of the largest exporters of forest products in the United States, in what is a U.S.$1 billion industry for the state. The Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) manages lands that account for a 15-percent market share in that industry, with about 250 timber sales that can average around $200 million per year, depending on the market. DNR manages more than 2.1 million acres of forest statewide.
How well DNR manages the process of selling timber sales is of huge importance. As a steward of the land for future generations, it first must manage timber in a way that is sustainable and consistent with the growing range of state and federal environmental laws. Second, a variety of state and local organizations—from schools and universities to prisons and county governments—are built and funded from the proceeds of timber sales. Third, a portion of the revenues from the timber sales fund all trust land management operations within DNR itself, which means the agency has to be as efficient as possible, to maximize the revenues available to those operations.
Over the past 30 years, the timber-sale process and regulatory environment has become increasingly complex and unwieldy, according to Jon Tweedale, Assistant Division Manager for Product Sales and Leasing at the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. The process can take up to five years, with the amount of time devoted to paperwork having increased by 400 percent over the past decade. The paperwork has grown to include up to 70
||We achieved full return on investment on Office SharePoint Server the moment people started using the system.
Assistant Division Manager for Product Sales and Leasing, Washington State Department of Natural Resources
documents plus staffers’ notes, which can range from 100 to 250 pages per timber sale.
More paperwork is only part of the problem, according to Joe Brady, Operations Development Specialist for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. Knowing which paperwork to complete is the other. “The documents that our field staff are required to use are always changing in content and format, due to changes in the regulatory and legal environment,” Brady explains. “It’s a big struggle to keep everyone on top of the most recent versions of our forms, to ensure that all parts of the agency are using the newest paperwork and in compliance with environmental protections.”
That challenge has been exacerbated, in part, by the system—really, the systems —that DNR has used to manage timber sales. The six DNR regions throughout the state took a highly decentralized approach to documentation, and forms were not always current on regional servers. Moreover, individual foresters could access the forms on their laptops, introducing another source of version-control error. Even when staffers started with the current version of a form, the years-long process could mean that a different version, or even a different form, was required by the time the paperwork was completed, forcing the paperwork to be redone.
DNR needed to replace this environment with a single, integrated solution that would support document management for regions throughout the state.
The Washington State Department of Natural Resources considered several solutions to meet its document management needs. The alternatives had limitations. Department managers felt that the software they were considering either couldn’t provide the streamlined forms interface that was crucial for ease of use or couldn’t address the version-control issues that DNR experienced with its existing systems. At least one alternative would have required a separate operating environment—which meant more software, hardware, and maintenance personnel, just to maintain a single solution.
|Figure 1. The Timber Sales Document Center home page provides immediate access to|
regional pages, a tool to create sites for new sales, and links to other departmental sites.
Instead, DNR turned to a custom document management solution based on technology from Microsoft® Office SharePoint® Portal Server 2003 and then Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 when it became available. The result is the Timber Sales Document Center (TSDC), an application that provides a single, comprehensive location for all information related to the department’s timber sales. TSDC also streamlines the process of reviewing and storing documentation related to those sales, by assigning all sales-specific information to an all-in-one page devoted to each specific sale. The management of timber sales documents is handled through Office SharePoint Server document libraries, and the process of managing reviews is automated through workflows based on Office SharePoint Server workflow capabilities.
DNR staffers can access the application from anywhere with an Internet connection, which means that they can initiate, add to, or use timber sale documentation from their offices, homes, and—in an anticipated second phase of deployment—the field, when wireless broadband is available. Users enter TSDC through a home page that provides one-click access to each of the six regional pages, to the process for creating a subsite to represent a new timber sale, and to links to other DNR sites (see Figure 1).
From the home page, staffers can go to regional pages that each provide a complete list of timber sales sites in that region, organized both by location and by sales status (planned, sold, or completed). Staffers can go to the document site for an existing timber sale or create a document site for a new sale. When a new sale site is created, TSDC provides workflows to pull current versions of required documentation from a central SharePoint library, customized based on the type of sale and its regional location. The sales site also includes libraries for both field notes and contract compliance notes, as well as a linked contour-map illustration of the sales site, which is generated from the department’s geographic information system (GIS) databases. A “Reports” Web part offers foresters one-stop access to information that used to be housed in disparate applications. (See Figure 2.)
Each sales site includes a “Create Review Packet” tool, which is an Office SharePoint Server-based workflow that largely automates the process of creating and moving review packets through the department. Packets automatically include required documentation, plus optional materials added by the staffer initiating the review. DNR employees receive automated e-mail notification of packets awaiting their review, with click-through links to open and view the documentation, and participate in a live review where participants have access to all document markups instantaneously.
|Figure 2. Each individual sales site contains document libraries for required |
documents, field notes, and compliance notes, as well as a contour map linked
to the agency’s geographic information system database.
Most staffers have access to TDSC sites and documents based on their roles within the department and their regional locations. The application accesses a staff person’s existing user profile to determine this access, so DNR needs to maintain only a single directory and is assured that individual access to TDSC reflects the staffers’ current departmental location and status.
By moving to a custom solution based on Office SharePoint Server, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources has the potential to cut the volume and cost of paperwork by 50 percent, save millions of dollars per years thanks to fast return on investment (ROI), and preserve institutional memory even as longtime employees retire.
Expected to Reduce Volume and Cost of Paperwork by 50 Percent
DNR wanted a solution that would tame the ever-increasing paperwork load associated with timber sales—and the ever-increasing cost associated with that greater workload. The Timber Sales Document Center is on track to deliver exactly those benefits, according to Tweedale.
Tweedale and his colleagues estimate that the Office SharePoint Server–based TSDC solution has already reduced the 24-month review portion of the sales cycle to 18 months—a savings of 25 percent—and is on its way to shaving fully 50 percent off that original 24-month period. This savings comes from directing reviews to all appropriate staffers in a timely manner, and by helping ensure that staffers receive the documents that they need the first time they receive a review packet, without having to request missing documentation.
At the same time, the volume of documentation associated with timber sales, which had soared 400 percent over the past decade, is on track to decline by 50 percent. That decrease is the result of eliminating inadvertent redundancy and inaccuracies, as well as the need to redo documentation to reflect new forms and requirements. Tweedale says the reduction in paperwork volume will be associated with an equivalent reduction in personnel time to handle that paperwork.
Will Save Millions of Dollars per Year Thanks to Fast ROI
Office SharePoint Server wasn’t just an efficient option for DNR to use as the foundation for its custom TSDC application—it was also the more cost-effective option. In contrast to other software that provided similar functionality and would have cost about $500,000, the department developed its Office SharePoint Server–based solution for $150,000, a full 70 percent less. And because it’s based on Microsoft technology, the solution will be more cost-effective to manage and maintain over time, according to Tweedale.
“Given the enormous personnel costs associated with the timber sales process, we achieved full return on investment on Office SharePoint Server the moment people started using the system,” says Tweedale. “We expect to save several hundred thousand dollars per year as a result, which will help us to make up for budget shortfalls in this down economy.”
The savings made possible by the Office SharePoint Server–based solution “are the most effective way we could have reduced costs and increased cash flow both for our department and for the trust beneficiaries throughout the state who depend on those resources,” Tweedale adds.
By reducing the time, cost, and personnel required to manage timber sales paperwork, the department can shift time, money, and personnel to the more strategic parts of the DNR mission. Staffers, especially field staff, have more time to spend with customers and vendors, working with them to optimize the return that the state trust beneficiaries see on each sale. DNR also gains more time and resources to help ensure better oversight of timber sales and timber harvests.
Preserves Institutional Memory Even as Employees Retire
Another contributor to this benefit is the consistency that the DNR achieves, for the first time, in managing timber sales. As the separate processes in each region are replaced by the single, central, largely automated process of TSDC, the department gains economies of scale that were not possible before. And because all documentation is maintained in a central, easily accessed location, DNR staffers are more readily able to locate information about past sales as they prepare for current sales. That’s an especially important benefit as a large share of the DNR staff prepares to retire.
“Every organization faces the challenge of preserving its institutional memory as longtime staff members retire,” says Brady. “That is a particular challenge for us, as it is for any organization that does not store information centrally. Now we have a single place to go to find information.”
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