VAI Tests Microsoft Beta

March 27, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Van Andel Institute has been selected as an early adopter in a rapid deployment program for a new Microsoft application, and as such will be among the first in the national market to use the technology.

The VAI, along with Microsoft Gold-Certified Partner NuSoft Solutions Inc., is currently involved in initial beta testing for the 2007 Microsoft Office System, previously code-named Microsoft Office "12." The product's lineup includes new and improved suites, applications, servers and services that will be available to the general public by the end of this year.

The beta testing stage is typically done at test sites outside the company for real-world application purposes. Byron Campbell, Ph.D., the VAI's chief information officer, said the institute will use the technology to automate business processes that were previously manual or involved forms that had to be filled out. It will couple business process automation with digital signatures and work flow so that the institute can route forms internally as well as externally, he said.

"The ability to fill out an expense report and submit it for payment without signing it, without paper clips and staples, are the things we want to take a look at this time in trying to automate our business expense report," he explained. "There are rules and regulations around receipts and attached receipts, so we're hoping with this partnership we'll be able to see how Microsoft did it and how we might accomplish it in the same way."

Microsoft announced the initial beta phase of the 2007 Microsoft Office System on Feb. 15. As with other new Microsoft products, companies have to apply and qualify to be accepted into a rapid deployment program. Those selected receive Microsoft technical support during the testing phase and become first in the market with the technology know-how.

"The key part of this is seeing Van Andel just being selected based on their vision as an organization and what they want to do with Microsoft technology," said Ken Young, vice president of technology for NuSoft. Young estimates that about 150 entities nationwide are involved in the early installation, testing and implementation of the new software application. NuSoft is the only software company in Michigan participating in the early adopter stage of the program, he said.

"You can't just sign up for this program and get all the Microsoft support. The Van Andel Institute has invested in training and in a Microsoft technology expert. It says a lot about the institute and what they do with the technology to be brought into this rapid deployment program for Microsoft."

Keith Brophy, NuSoft's president of business development, described it as one of the most exciting technology rollouts ever seen in West Michigan, and said the new technology has the potential to become "the fabric of an organization." According to Brophy, the technology affirms the promise of "the whole collaborative, workflow class of technology."

The technology builds on the foundations of Microsoft InfoPath and Microsoft SharePoint. Brophy said the 2007 Office System allows more collaboration and connectedness than ever before that will result in a much higher quality of communication through "this form-based, workflow, track-the-status process." It eliminates the possibilities of errors and increases turnaround time, he added.

SharePoint is a collaboration tool that the VAI uses quite extensively. Campbell estimates the institution has more than 60 SharePoint Web sites, both internal and external. In fact, the MichiganStateUniversityWestMichiganMedicalSchool project was run on a SharePoint site out of the VAI to keep members of the stakeholder group informed outside of their regular meetings.

"We had over 100 people that could connect to this SharePoint site, where they could share meeting minutes, photos, meeting agendas and create discussion threads," he said. "The tool allows that level of collaboration, but you can also segment it from being public to being private."

Under the old paradigm, Campbell explained, an organization hired a Web developer to create a site and then retained the developer to keep site information updated. He said with SharePoint, the information ownership can be turned over to the end-user group, so the organization doesn't necessarily need a Web developer to keep information up to date, whether it's spread sheets, word documents, PDFs or discussion threads.

Campbell said the institute has been a "Microsoft sort of shop" from the start. He joined the institute seven years ago and has since been responsible for the planning, implementation and management of the institute's information and telecommunication systems. He said he knew at the outset he had to pick technologies that he could readily get assistance with and technologies that could be extended easily to external resources.

"When we implemented our environment in the building, we were part of an early adopter program for Microsoft's operating system environments," Campbell said. "We want to stay in front of where technology is and how we can utilize it. We realized we wanted to get into this early adopter program, so we identified not only administrative, but research processes that we could help make better."

The same technology could be extended to VARI labs and collaborating institutions, he acknowledged. In fact, the test run incorporates a couple of forms used by the Van Andel Research Institute's Laboratory of Germline Modification, which researches, develops, analyzes and maintains mouse models of human disease. It is one of several VARI labs that provide services to outside clients, Campbell said.

Normally, scientists in the germline modification lab, for instance, have to go to their Web site, print the specific document, fill it out, fax it and follow up with some back-and-forth e-mail exchanges and phone calls to customers. With the new Microsoft offering, the lab will be able to take that process and automate it so people can fill out a form online and submit it, and it will automatically get routed to the appropriate people so the request can be initiated. Customers of the lab's services can receive instant feedback about the status of their projects without all the e-mail and phone interaction, Campbell explained.

"This new release really gives us more flexibility to do forms on a lot larger scale than we probably could have. It's gone from a client-based package really to a Web-based package and delivery system," he observed. "It gives the user the ability to know where their request is in the queue. I think anytime — as a consumer of anything — the more information you can get about where your request is in the process, it makes you feel more comfortable."

Campbell believes every VARI research lab could use the new Microsoft tool to enhance work flow and record keeping. He said the technology can also provide a company or organization with a historical perspective on the forms that have previously been filled out and submitted.

"Now you can go back and do some trend analysis, so there's some analytical things you can do with the data once it's generated," he said. "I think with a paper system, it's always very difficult to try to pull that stuff together and get any kind of business intelligence out of it."

Young said the solutions NuSoft brings to bear reside on the Microsoft platform, so the rapid deployment program gives his company early insight into the creation of new solutions for NuSoft clients.

"Being a trusted adviser for our clients is key for us, and this allows us to be forearmed, basically, and better armed to do so," he said. "Even if clients aren't as progressive as the Van Andel Institute in adopting leading edge technology, we can give them the insight and prepare the solutions we are doing for them today for tomorrow's solutions."

Campbell said the new office system technology will play an important role in the management of the institute's second phase of expansion, as well, because it will help manage vendors, documentation, change request forms and transmittal forms, among others.

"We're going to get a jump on these tools so that we can be better prepared for the expansion project, which is going to take up a lot of people's time. Hopefully, we'll be doing more work with less people."    

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