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Marines deploy SharePoint to improve administration

CorasWorks plug-in for SharePoint enables jarheads to build site without developer help

By Eric Lai
June 15, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - What happens when the U.S. Marine Corps tries to embrace Microsoft Corp.'s SharePoint collaboration software -- a move that, on the face of it, seems antithetical to a military organization's hierarchical and inflexible nature? Initially, you get one heck of a "humorous" culture clash, according to Ron Simmons, an outside consultant brought in last year by the Marines to help implement the software.

"We had officers telling us what colors the SharePoint site could be," said Simmons, who serves as director of knowledge management integration for the Marine Corps Combat Development Command in Quantico, Va.

For administrative tasks such as taking morning roll call or ordering supplies, the Marines had long relied on templated Word documents or Excel spreadsheets that would get e-mailed back and forth as attachments and then be manually merged together.

That process was slow and, worse, hard to track, which led to problems with user accountability, said Simmons.

The solution, he said, was to move those processes over to a SharePoint Server 2003-based Web site where users could create "virtual offices" for collecting information, replacing the Word and Excel documents. That information from each "virtual office" can be aggregated and sent to higher-up officers' dashboards.

In addition to SharePoint, Simmons installed plug-ins from CorasWorks Corp.

"SharePoint is a good product, but the problem is that there needs to be a way to build these team solutions easily," Simmons said. "CorasWorks makes it easy for users to write these processes. You don't need any programmers to write any code. It can be handled by people with average computer skills."

Indeed, after setting up a few instructional classes, there were soon more than a thousand Marines using the SharePoint site and building their own virtual offices, Simmons said.

"We didn't have to wait for IT," he said.

Simmons wanted the SharePoint site to catch on on its own, as users picked up on its merits. A general had other ideas.

"He said, 'I will order them to stop' " e-mailing Office attachments, said Simmons. "I said, 'Please don't! I think they'll come around and see the value.' He was skeptical. But I came back in two weeks and there were just two units not using the site. Two weeks later, they were, too."

Simmons had faith because of an earlier experience at the Federal Aviation Administration, his former employer. Four years earlier, Simmons had overseen a similar SharePoint-CorasWorks implementation. Initially there were just 50 users at the FAA. Today, he said, there are 27,000 users of a 600GB site.

The FAA also recouped $7 million annually in "hard savings," according to Simmons, including $3 million in travel expenses.

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