In 2004, the retail side of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) sold U.S.$9,800,000 in 3,000 SKUs of memorabilia and copies of individual U.S. military, immigration, and citizenship records. But several years ago, procedures and cash control varied all over the map in 22 U.S. locations. Some mail orders lay unopened for months. Duplicate orders from impatient customers generated false tasks and double invoices. Assimilating disparate sales reports into an aging accounting system added hours of manual work weekly. Today, an enterprise solution built on Microsoft® Business Solutions−Great Plains® (now part of Microsoft Dynamics™), logs and confirms most orders the day they’re received. Cash management meets federal standards, while flexible reporting tracks orders and pinpoints bottlenecks so NARA can continue to improve efficiency and add services.
“The consumer-facing front end of NARA mirrors any retail chain with 22 outlets across the nation, a significant Web presence, and a large flow of mail orders,” says the Trust Fund Systems Manager at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). “We receive orders for merchandise and requests for documents—essentially work orders —that may not exist. We watch our IT budget very closely and monitor cash in, personal accountability, and departmental productivity. But today, we do our work with huge savings in staff hours and efficiency compared to our previous solution.”
NARA is an independent federal agency of the United States and the country’s national record keeper. President Herbert Hoover’s 1924 dedication reads, “Here will be preserved all…the records that bind State to State and the hearts of all our people in an indissoluble union.” Among its treasures are cornerstone documents of the U.S. government: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. NARA’s mission is to ensure “for the citizen and the public servant, for the president and the congress and the courts, ready access to essential evidence.”
|The world-famous rotunda of the National Archives and Records Administration houses the U.S. Declaration of Independence and other foundational historical documents. |
Countrywide Business Problems
But freedom’s information wasn’t always free-flowing. Several years ago, NARA faced the same problems that plague other large retailers: a backlog of unfilled orders, double work, unpaid customer invoices, imprecise cash control, disparate types of sales records, and manual reentry of records received from outlying branches.
Backlogs grew from consumer purchases of personal documents—perhaps an aunt’s immigration documents or a father’s military record—that must be found in microfilm libraries. John Toman, Senior Systems Architect and Partner at Acelo Solutions Inc. of Chantilly, Virginia, the Microsoft® Certified Partner maintaining and enhancing NARA’s new Microsoft solution, explains that such requests might have lain unopened for several months. Discouraged, some customers would submit a second order. NARA’s poor tracking allowed parallel work on the customer’s second order, not knowing the original was in progress or possibly filled.
Because some 40 percent of documents that customers request do not exist, invoicing occurs only after an order is filled. When an order was fulfilled twice, second invoices remained unpaid and the Trust Fund accrued unnecessary costs tracking mislaid orders.
Assimilating Disparate Record Types
Regional centers, where commemorative merchandise is purchased, had no uniformity, little cash control beyond employee trust, and no consolidated financial tracking. Some NARA stores handwrote sales tickets, some ran tapes, and others entered orders into spreadsheets. A few stores had simple cash boxes and some had a cash register. Accuracy was equally varied and reports arrived by fax, mail, or e-mail.
Standardizing and assimilating these uncongenial reports into a central system for reporting took hours weekly. Financial accountability was an ongoing challenge.
Without centralized task management, it became difficult to track individual orders, types of workflow, or personal productivity. Jesse E. Cofield Jr., Senior Consultant and Partner with Acelo, says, “NARA needed a workflow component to assign intra-agency accountability. If an order disappeared, who had it last? If you can’t troubleshoot, you can’t improve. And ongoing improvement was a NARA mandate.”
NARA needed an overarching solution to its point-of-sale (POS), cash management, order tracking, and data assimilation problems.
NARA contracted KPMG, LLP to define and resolve its far-reaching problems. The firm’s resulting business process reengineering study evaluated best applicable practices in accounting and order fulfillment systems. Several commercial, off-the-shelf software solutions were considered as the foundation.
|The inviting Textual Reading Room of Archives II in College Park, Maryland, is open to the public. |
Three on the Short List
Requirements and budget constraints narrowed the field to three vendors. Each was evaluated on a scorecard that included vendor viability, functionality, automated workflow, electronic commerce, lower cost, faster implementation, minimizing customization, growing with the business, vendor stability, and commitment to customer service and integrated POS operation. Throughput had to be fast to rapidly consume the six-month backlog. Ease of use and POS integration with back-office software, e-commerce, and other third-party products were also factors.
KPMG narrowed the field to Microsoft Business Solutions−Great Plains® (then sold by Great Plains Software, Inc., and later acquired by Microsoft Corporation), Platinum Technology International, Inc., and Lawson Software. The consultancy analyzed and compared software functionality, system and technology viability, vendor criteria, and cost.
Toman says that a key factor in choosing this solution was that, “A customer-facing system for a national chain of outlets requires every possible assurance of long-term constancy—in the product’s technology, in developer support, and the developer itself.”
One contender was rejected due to concerns over long-term corporate viability. Another’s solution was 60 percent more costly and could have led to the POS having a different look and feel from other parts, thus lengthening learning times. Its lack of inventory integration portended problems.
NARA and KPMG Select Great Plains
NARA, with KPMG’s support, selected Microsoft Great Plains over Platinum and Lawson based on return on investment, most thorough data integration, solution-wide look and feel, and vendor stability. Microsoft Great Plains is a trusted business solution for enterprise resource planning in midsize to large enterprises. It provides financials, distribution, e-commerce, human resources, payroll, project accounting, field service, manufacturing, and supply chain management.
KPMG designed and implemented the initial solution—Order Fulfillment and Accounting System (OFAS)—which began overtaking the backlog at the rate of 350 orders per day. Seventy employees now use OFAS daily and up to 250 access it for information or reports. OFAS utilizes Microsoft Windows NT® Terminal Server and Citrix Systems, Inc. Metaframe solutions to deploy Microsoft Great Plains eEnterprise release version 8.0 and Compass Point of Sale applications to NARA’s 25 sales locations. Installations were smooth and painless. Compass Technologies, a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner, develops innovative business applications including POS and matrix inventory management.
The core of the application is the Microsoft Great Plains accounting system running on Microsoft SQL Server™ 2000 in the Microsoft Windows® 2000 Server operating system environment.
Both SQL Server 2000 and Windows 2000 Server are part of Microsoft Windows Server System™ integrated server software. This centralized thin-client solution allows NARA to maintain a uniform nationwide POS solution that tasks central servers with application processes, data storage, and terminal user sessions. This process also centralized application management and backup, simplified application deployment, enhanced security, and consolidated reporting across multiple databases, all without system administrators at each site.
|The new Order Fulfillment and Accounting System, based on Great Plains, integrates and helps manage myriad tasks. |
The Visible Benefit
“Only the programmers can tell where the POS ends and Great Plains begins,” says Cofield. The Compass POS system was developed using Microsoft Business Solutions Dexterity, the same language used to program Great Plains. Its look and feel is indistinguishable from Great Plains. This allows developers such as Compass to develop using the Dexterity programming language and access Dexterity routines using the Continuum Application Program Interface. Essentially, all major OFAS functions execute native or customized Great Plains Dexterity code.
Accounting and customer service staff access several modules to track revenue matters or service problems. Special-purpose users learned their new software in one day while power users, who need familiarity with many system functions, were trained in a week.
Efficient Order Descriptions
Staff use the Microsoft Business Solutions for E-commerce Web order entry system to process handwritten orders submitted at records centers or mailed in. Orders are scanned, employees extract critical customer and order information, which is put into a Great Plains workflow interface. Customers’ explanatory notes are graphically embedded in the record. This replaced a very paper-intensive process that was difficult to track.
Web orders come into a front-end Web submission tool by Siebel Systems, Inc., which submits an XML document to Microsoft Great Plains. Pick tickets contain order information used by employees in the stacks to research individual documents.
Selecting Easy Integration Pays Off
Many original and subsequent customizations now work together to ensure smooth data transitions and workflow:
- A Microsoft Visual Basic® development system application creates digital images of the order, which are used throughout order fulfillment.
- Web order entry system uses the Microsoft Great Plains E-commerce architecture, supporting COM Objects, Pipeline components, and Active Server Pages to provide a simplified customer order interface.
- Workflow, done in Visual Basic, tracks order fulfillment.
- Debt Collection, written in Visual Basic and Crystal Reports, prints reminder letters to past-due customers and prints aging reports with interest and penalty charges.
After implementation, Acelo assumed NARA’s technical and applications duties. Based near Washington, DC, Acelo specializes in software development, database administration, and configuration, training, and support of Microsoft Great Plains.
Acelo’s system enhancements included design and implementation of new tools for Web-based order entry, the Citrix server farm, developing a documented data model, flow narrative and data mapping, analysis of the operating system, software customizations, deploying POS capability to 28 sites, training, and day-to-day operational support.
The new POS/order entry/transaction management solution has resolved long-standing problems that once vexed customers and management, and which confounded other systems with which NARA information interfaced.
|The new Microsoft system enables staff to begin searching these movable stacks within 24 hours of receiving an order. |
Faster at Every Phase
“Before this IT solution, NARA had a several-month backlog between receiving an order and entering it. Now there is virtually no backlog. Staff are usually in the stacks researching within a day of receiving the order,” says the Trust Fund Systems Manager. “This solution consolidates regional offices into a central database with everyone following the same procedures. At many presidential libraries, we have been able to replace disparate stand-alone register operations with a coordinated, centrally controlled process.”
Previously, after orders had actually entered the system, fulfillment averaged six weeks. Today, it is seven to ten days and NARA avoids duplicate orders by sending order confirmations with an estimated time of completion. “The new ability to process scanned images has expedited production flow, reduced lost or misdirected orders, and cut production time,” says the Trust Fund Systems Manager.
Stores have fewer stock-outs and overstocks, and require less staff time to purchase goods. “NARA now knows what products are selling well or slowly in each location, and can replenish them without paperwork,” says the Trust Fund Systems Manager.
“Customer service personnel now have instant access to account status and real-time work-in-progress reporting,” says Lawrence Post, Secretary of the Trust Fund at NARA. “Most customer service inquiries can be resolved in minutes, not days.”
The Trust Fund Systems Manager notes that at NARA’s outlying locations, “With one person per till, [Microsoft] Great Plains can remotely police and audit an associate’s transactions as needed. With the increased security OFAS provides, we have fewer audit findings and cleaner results. In our former system, we were unable to properly verify and secure credit card numbers. OFAS gives us that capability.”
NARA can now more easily meet government accounting mandates. Every transaction, from the farthest presidential library to those inside the National Archives Buildings, is processed on the same POS interface screen, is subject to tight cash control, and, primarily through Citrix, is stored in the central database of the Microsoft Great Plains order processing and accounting solution. Credit card transactions now clear in seconds.
Uniform Reporting Strips Away Steps
“Converting our Government Services Administration [GSA] reporting from print, fax, and re-keypunch to instant, electronic export-import has greatly reduced errors, and cut down costly resubmittals,” says Post. Toman estimates this effort once took several days to complete, but now takes little more time than an upload.
Two related problems now resolved are order tracking and internal accountability. “We can now track our in-process work, monitor production cycle time, and proactively resolve bottlenecks and backlogs,” Post adds.
Previously, handcarts laden with boxes of orders were wheeled from one stage of the process to the next. When an order wasn’t filled, where was it? Who had dropped it? Today, each step is automatically logged into OFAS. Any lagging order can be tracked while the customer is on the phone asking about it. Reports can highlight slow spots in the fulfillment process.
Acelo writes most reports in Seagate Crystal Reports, which is included with Microsoft Great Plains. Performance Measurement and Reporting System is a collection of data and capabilities from the central database that is used to create several management reports of overall throughput, performance, percentage of fulfillment, and more.
|Desks full of computers in this research room enable public access to certain documents. |
External System Interfaces
To avoid duplicating the costs of large administrative systems, many governmental systems feed into and get results back from larger financial systems. NARA’s new system enabled smoother and faster interface with the GSA accounting system.
NARA uses the Microsoft Great Plains solution to manage revenue-producing functions: sales, receivables, order creation, fulfillment, and inventory tracking. But purchasing, payroll, and other operational functions are handled through the GSA system. New efficiencies in a planned 2005 transition from the current GSA interface to an interface with the Bureau of Public Debt would be impossible without this centralized solution.
Although savings have already been substantial, plans continue for:
- Web-based sales of library shelf items.
- Allowing users to check the status of e-commerce orders over the Web.
- Internet access to more documents.
- Enhanced customer relationship management (CRM) capabilities.
- Expanding the POS solution to remaining NARA-managed presidential libraries and museums.
- Ongoing reduction of paper consumption through automation.
- Enhancing OFAS workflow components to identify popular documents and storage locations to speed repetitive orders.
NARA exemplifies a government agency that` raises efficiency and cutting costs through well-planned and implemented automation. With the explosion of electronic media, images, messaging, and documentation, NARA is changing the way it thinks about archiving data, receiving orders, and making heritage data even more accessible.
Because service is now far faster and staff spend fewer hours on repetitive tasks and solving problems, new services can be added for public, government employees, and elected officials. The integration solutions in Microsoft Great Plains eConnect enable NARA to provide integration points with other internal and external software applications.
For the future, NARA is developing even tighter integration with existing Web-based order management solutions to allow more information to be handled via the Web and to further enhance financial tracking within Microsoft Great Plains.
Microsoft Dynamics is a line of integrated, adaptable business management solutions that enables you and your people to make business decisions with greater confidence. Microsoft Dynamics works like familiar Microsoft software such as Microsoft Office, which means less of a learning curve for your people, so they can get up and running quickly and focus on what’s most important. And because it is from Microsoft, it easily works with the systems that your company already has implemented. By automating and streamlining financial, customer relationship, and supply chain processes, Microsoft Dynamics brings together people, processes, and technologies, increasing the productivity and effectiveness of your business, and helping you drive business success.
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