Technique | Warrior to citizen

Switch to online services helps smooth bumps in the road to civilian life <@VM>Sidebar | Workflow tools help Marines vanquish paper

WITH THE FLOW: 'We have thousands of transitioning Marines who register on the Web site. BizFlow will touch all of them in some fashion,' said Maj. Peter Ortell, Marine 4 Life program.

GCN Photo by Rick Steele

Each year, about 28,000 Marines make the switch from full-time service to civilian life.

One day, they could be patrolling a battlefield in the Mideast; a week later they could be back home at a cookout in Indiana. The culture shock can sometimes be too much for even the hardiest Marine.

As with any major life passage, the transformation can be eased by support from a network of organizations and individuals who have made the same leap. That's the purpose of the Marine 4 Life program, which was developed to help Marines transition out of the corps with a specific focus on those who have suffered injuries.

The program has developed a nationwide network of mentors ' most of them former Marines and Marine-friendly businesses ' called hometown links, said Maj. Peter Ortell, hometown link coordinator for the Marine 4 Life program. A Marine who moves back into the community can tap these hometown links for help with obtaining veterans' benefits, employment, housing and child care services.

The program is divided into 10 districts, each led by a lieutenant colonel. Hometown links now number about 120.

When the program first began in 2004, the process was almost entirely paper-based. Personal information was collected on paper forms, which were faxed to Marine Corps headquarters in Quantico, Va. There, the documents were scanned and uploaded to a File Transfer Protocol site.

The process was woefully inefficient. Data entry mistakes were rampant, and there were no established metrics to measure efficiency.

Now, the backbone of the program is its Web site, https://www.m4l.usmc.mil/. Marines register at the site to set up an individual account with the Marine 4 Life program.

HandySoft's BizFlow business process management software helped the service with its workflow, administration and interaction with the Marines, officers in charge, and employers, Ortell said. Officers use BizFlow to submit a muster sheet every month of Marines looking for services.

For example, a transitioning Marine could register on the site to search for educational opportunities. This would kick off the BizFlow application, and the system would send him to the appropriate hometown link. The hometown links can track each Marine as they make requests, meet employers, and start new lives and careers. Employers, too, use BizFlow to create an account.

The program uses BizFlow to manage its network resources, employers, mentors and veterans' service organizations, Ortell said. 'We have thousands of transitioning Marines who register on the Web site. BizFlow will touch all of them in some fashion.'

The program also needed to come up with some tangible metrics to determine the performance of its hometown links and check for any bottlenecks in the program, Ortell said.

Fortunately, a Marine on staff was getting a black belt in Six Sigma, the methodology developed by Motorola engineers to reduce the number of errors per opportunity to a level approaching zero. 'He took this on as his black-belt project,' Ortell said. 'We used Six Sigma because it was an authentic, proven method to increase efficiency and reduce redundancy.'

The Marines surveyed the program's customers to find out what was most important to them and received about 1,500 e-mail replies. They developed performance metrics based on data that would show them if the Marine 4 Life program was meeting the needs of transitioning Marines.

The Web site was built using the Plumtree portal platform from BEA Systems. The site also runs a discussion forum using vBulletin, which Ortell described as 'a pretty handy out-of-the-box piece of software.'

'We also have a lot of custom code developed by AT&T originally, but now it's done by Stanley Associates,' he said.

The Marine 4 Life program has reduced unemployment costs paid by the Marine Corps. By decreasing the number of days a Marine receives unemployment compensation before finding a job, the corps saved $4.3 million in 2004 and $6.3 million in 2005.
Lessons learned

In 2004, the Marine 4 Life program created hundreds of thousands of paper documents as it tracked 28,000 Marines through the program each year, said Garth Knudson, director of marketing programs for HandySoft, which supplies the BizFlow business process management software to the program.

Program officials wanted to be able to arrange meetings and interviews between Marines and prospective employers nationwide. As a paper-based process, the coordination of all these people, places and events was difficult to manage, Knudson said.

When the Marine 4 Life program decided to become more operationally agile and reduce costs, it opted for BizFlow, Knudson said. BizFlow helped the program bring together people, data and applications and give them control over the process. The Marine 4 Life program's use of Six Sigma methodology was an especially good fit with BizFlow, Knudson said. The software helped the program better define and monitor their processes.

BizFlow offers more than workflow, Knudson said. Customers can modify business rules, perform enterprise resource planning, and customize dashboards, document management and reporting mechanisms.

BizFlow customers can create forms and work with standard business applications such as Microsoft Excel or Word, said Becky Walton, solutions engineer at HandySoft. The software can guide users through a job hiring process, for example, sending a Word file from the interviewer to the human resources director and on to the payroll administrator.

BizFlow works with Java or Microsoft .Net platforms.

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