In-Depth

Reliant turns to users for help in forms project

Application Development Trends'
2002 Innovator Awards
E-business Application Development
Winner

In the electric utilities industry, employees are required to complete forms for nearly every aspect of their daily work. Reliant Energy, based in Houston, requires its employees to complete various forms throughout a day, but its form entry has not been the same since the night in 1993 when Tobi Watashe, supervisor of forms and office supplies, turned 20 printed forms into electronic documents. Within a month and a half, the organization, made up of nearly 100 regulated and unregulated companies nationwide, had 20 electronic forms up and running. That number quickly increased to more than 500.

As forms were updated and revised, Reliant Energy pushed them out to servers for easy employee access, but as the organization grew, the process became more time-consuming.

To alleviate the growing dilemma, Watashe formed a team to evaluate various software programs that could meet a requirements list of functions and features the entire company needed. The team considered Adobe Acrobat, Microsoft Word, Lotus Notes and Accelio Capture ReachForm before selecting the latter.

One aspect of ReachForm that appealed to the organization was its ability to create and publish Web-based forms for delivery to any browser running on any device -- from PCs to handheld and wireless devices -- without downloads or plug-ins. This was not a requirement at first, but with employees constantly moving around in company vehicles, "it makes sense to have something that can be accessible on anything," said Watashe.

Between 12,000 and 14,000 Reliant Energy employees can access forms through their companies' intranets. The firm faced risks in user acceptance, but prepared users through Web notifications, providing samples of development and by seeking feedback.

The development team consisted of 60 people, including skilled professionals from Reliant Energy Companies, with a focus on Shared Services, forms personnel, information technology specialists (including database administrators, e-business specialists, systems development and client support center personnel), forms process owners, clients and partner-members from Accelio and Corporate Express.

The team met weekly beginning in September 2000 to create Web PowerForms. The group followed an ongoing task list in both list and calendar form, and dedicated an entire Lotus Notes database to following the project so that all team members would have quick reference to project details. The application was tested at each implementation stage using the forms designer software, FormFlow 99, on designers' desktops, and the Accelio product on the development server.

Reliant Energy faced various challenges throughout the development process. For one, the industry is in the midst of deregulation, which continues to result in changing resources. A learning curve on the Accelio software posed another challenge. Forms designers received training on the design tool, as well as training on JavaScript and Visual Basic.

Providing a tool for authentication into the system created yet another hurdle. Reliant Energy had to devise a way to authenticate via SAP while using user profile information from an Oracle-based employee data warehouse. Using some code from a similar application as a foundation, the development team modified and tweaked that to arrive at the results it wanted.

Development followed a four-tier schedule. Reliant Energy went live with its Tier 1 pilot-testing phase September 5, 2001, by providing 500 clients with 20 forms each. This phase, which lasted through November, concentrated solely on these 500 clients -- half regulated and half unregulated companies -- as functionality was added.

Tier 2 took place from November to December 2001 and involved moving all PowerForms servers and standalone clients to the Web application. The application went live to the entire organization with 173 forms on February 12, 2002. By early this year, Reliant Energy was putting out between 30 and 40 forms a week.

In Tier 3, scheduled from January to March 2002, the organization combined printed and electronic forms in a single catalog for one-stop forms ordering and filling. Printed forms such as envelopes, decals and door hangers still play a part in the organization's success. Clients can order these printed forms through the same catalog they use to order electronic forms. The only difference is that with the printed forms, a client receives a message that the form is not available electronically and is given an option to order a printed copy.

In Tier 4, which is scheduled to continue throughout 2002, the organization is concentrating on electronic signature and workflow functionality.

The application is ever evolving and improving. While a client using the program today can print and send a form, in the future that same client might instead have the option to print and submit a form.

If she had this project to do over again, Watashe would include more training in scripting languages for the support staff and more IT involvement throughout all phases of the project. But management and the user community already consider this project a success. The automated process saves the organization money and its employees time and frustration. In addition, by eliminating the entire server and standalone push procedures, one full-time employee was moved to do other tasks.


Above: (Seated) Albert Cisneros, Sonny Nguyen, Christine Huynh, Pauline Knox, Tobi Watashe, Carol Olson, Betty Heimer, (Standing) Jason Ramm, David Rusk, Curtis Lutringer, Robert Lagoudis, Lynn Elliott, Kevin Johnson, Lisa Croft, Kimberly Lyman, (Not pictured) Cathy Walker, Edith Wallace

Application profile:

Project: Web PowerForms

Purpose: To make forms easy to access anywhere by moving from a client/server app to the Web.

Benefits: One-method access to forms; immediate availability upon sign-off; moved from a 16- to a 32-bit client; forms accessible from virtual offices; electronic forms catalog with security views particular to each employee or business unit.

Tools: Accelio Capture ReachForm, SQL 2000, Internet Information Server, JavaScript, Microsoft Visual Basic and Active Server Pages

Platform: Windows 2000


Keane Report:

The E-business Application Development category focuses on applications that enhance business efficiency through the implementation of innovative applications. Reliant Energy demonstrated its ability to build an innovative solution that greatly assisted the wide variety of business users within its organization.

Reliant's approach of involving the business users early and often helped them to create a Web-based form distribution system whose hallmark is its ease of use. This eliminated the need for standalone clients and a variety of different platforms. The forms were made part of an electronic forms catalog that tailored the views to the security level of the business user.

The application also uses "User Profiles" based on automated authentication via the SAP ERP solution. Another innovative feature of the system is the ability to "lock" data into a form once an electronic signature is affixed to the document. This application of the Java Scripting Language demonstrates Reliant's innovative spirit and its ability to harness technology to meet the needs of the business community.

Team Leader: Nat Bongiovanni, Senior Principal Consultant, Keane Inc.

About the Author

Lana Gates is a freelance writer based in Mesa, Arizona. She can be reached via e-mail at freelancewriter@gates-works.com.

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