The U.S. Army goes paperless

One of the most talked about unstructured information management projects in recent years is the United States Army’s decision to convert its legendarily lethargic paper-based systems to an e-forms-based model.

“The U.S. Army was known for its paper-intensive organization,” says Gartner analyst Toby Bell, “where everything had to be completed in triplicate, and where everything went off into all of these different subprocesses for routing, review, and approval, and it took forever to get anything done.”

The new Forms Content Management Program (FCMP) the Army plans to deploy will convert many paper-based administrative processes with a solution based on technology provided by IBM, PureEdge, and Silanis. The new solution combines XML-based e-forms with digital signature and content management software.

By utilizing a single solution department-wide, the Army will be able to replace existing redundant “stovepipe” technologies across different divisions (for example, logistics, medical, and personnel) simplifying the workflow for soldiers.

This project is something of a harbinger of a trend that is already affecting the amount of unstructured information enterprises are creating. As more and more documents are rendered in XML, what were traditionally unstructured information files move into the semi-structured category, and thus become more manageable. (Microsoft Word is already XML-aware.) In fact, Bell believes that we are nearing a tipping point.

“There’s a lot of potential in XML and service-oriented architectures in the realm of unstructured data,” he says. “As we tip toward XML in terms of transforming existing content and creating new content, our ability to describe content, reuse it, repurpose it, section it, segment it, slice it, and analyze it improves dramatically, and so does its business value.”

As enterprises move toward SOA and the use of Web services to complement business processes, and as more business-process and content standards become available, organizations will be able to make the interdependency between people, process, and content much more fluid, Bell says.

“There’s an awful lot of conversion technology out there right now,” Bell says. “There will be a lot more that creates content in XML natively in the future. What we presently think of as unstructured content will eventually become much more manageable, part of a larger business intelligence architecture.”