A new ERP is just the first step…By Clare Buttenshaw October 15, 2020
Army is notoriously bureaucratic in its conduct of administration. There are good reasons for this including the security, accountability and size of the organisation; however, the hours of staff time lost in conducting convoluted and clumsy administration processes has become unreasonable and the amount of time which could be saved through the simplification of these processes is significant. In the modern era, other sectors and militaries have been increasingly adopting Enterprise Resource Planners to achieve these economies. Indeed, Army already has some piecemeal Enterprise Resource Planner applications (mentioned in the next paragraph). It therefore follows that a way to simplify Army is through the full introduction and integration of an Enterprise Resource Planner (ERP). The introduction of an ERP provided by German company SAP is currently in the works for Army, with introduction to begin in 2022.
As the name implies, the ERP aims to provide an enterprise, in this case, Army, with a means by which to plan the use of its resources. This requires data to be collected in the right format, and to then be made accessible in such a way as to quickly and easily enable access and filtering as required. Resources for an enterprise include at the most basic level, materiel, infrastructure, people and land. Army currently utilises dozens of different programs to provide daily functionality. These include, but are not limited to: ROMAN (financial), the Military Integrated Logistics Information System (MILIS), PMKeys Self Service (Oracle), COMSARM (for explosive ordnance management), ACMS (financial), TASMIS (infrastructure and bookings), MEMS (equipment entitlements), Lotus Notes Intermediate Demand System (LNIDS), VIPA, Sentinel and Mercury. Additionally, numerous Excel spreadsheets exist in every section of every unit capturing required data in a ‘mandraulic’ method as it cannot be easily captured, filtered and displayed in any other way. It may not be possible for a single ERP to contain all these processes and data sets; however, different ERP are able to interface with one another which alleviates this. Something as simple as a more user-friendly and intuitive interface could in itself save time. Is there an app for that?
The application of this system into Army is where the potential for further innovation lies. Firstly, the Army currently has a huge IT hardware footprint and cost. There are a high number of IT workstations within the garrison and deployed environment, and yet there is still arguably a failure to provide all members with adequate access to this technology. Additional to enough laptops to facilitate various nodes, the process of deploying this system involves creating a deployed online environment specifically for the activity, onto which data is duplicated. The lack of mobility of these systems also makes their application somewhat limited for the tactically deployed unit if compared to something like a mobile device. If the ERP could be deployed on a ruggedized portable device and issued to every member, the ease of access to the ERP for tactical as well as administrative purposes would alleviate much delay in common processes. The number and therefore costs of fixed workstations could be reduced. Furthermore, this method would allow the ERP to be deployed into the field allowing for data capture during training in order to improve said training, processes and governance.
Until now, it has not been possible to deploy a live data application as the power, bandwidth and therefore signature requirements to support it were not feasible. Using a commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) mobile device enabled only for local wi-fi and/or Bluetooth reduces these requirements significantly. If data was transferred between certain devices under certain conditions, also known as a network mesh, with the devices otherwise operating offline from stored data (maps, orders, reference documents) the signature would likely be small enough to remain under the detection threshold. When a patrolling callsign returns to base, any new data would transfer to the next higher device in the chain of command, for example, the Platoon Commander’s (PLCOMD). When the PLCOMD travels further rearwards to attend orders, their device would transfer data back to the command post (CP) and update in turn from that device. This updated information would then be transferred back to the troops on the ground when their PLCOMD returned.
In barracks, the devices are connected, like any other smart device, and many more functions enabled. Soldiers could complete admin processes from their devices without the requirement to wait for an IT workstation or even be within the building. Leave applications, any smart-forms, essentially any process currently requiring the use of a system accessible through the Defence Protected Network (DPN) could be completed using the ERP with a mobile device interface. This would allow for a significant amount of administration time to be reinvested in training and doing the real job. It would also allow for better visibility and connectivity with soldiers at all times.
When the device is deployed into the tactical environment, the low-signature ‘mode’ could be enabled as the theatre gateway is passed. This mode could allow access to only the functions required during field deployable tasks. It may include a low-light setting, remove GPS connectivity, geotagging, and so forth, but still allow the capture of valuable training data. This capability also has the potential to save time in conducting refurbishments after field activities, particularly in the sustainment space. Currently, the only way to deploy MILIS into a tactical environment is via the forward logistics management system (FLMS) which is put onto a laptop device. FLMS takes a snapshot of MILIS and then that is the basis from which transactions are conducted. When the FLMS transactions are the uploaded into MILIS after returning to the barracks environment, there are usually so many errors in the data input that the upload does not work. Using the low-signature system described above into the new SAP based ERP (scheduled to begin replacing MILIS in 2022), live supply chain, maintenance and inventory data would be accessible in the field environment.
The use of a portable device would also make certain governance processes much easier to conduct whilst in the field environment. An example is explosive ordnance governance and processing. Currently this is all done manually (on paper for field activities) and relies on various members in the chain of responsibility doing counts and signing off. Invariably these processes are truncated during the rush to pack up and depart after the exercise finishes. Correspondingly, there are errors which, due to the nature of the items, must be investigated and corrected. If only a few taps on a screen were required to update the data in the system, it is likely that the fidelity around these processes would increase. Additionally, photographic evidence could be easily captured to support transactions. The idea of using a field message notebook to record evidence of the loan of a piece of equipment is pretty efficient, but snapping a photo of your mate with the NVG you just lent him is even quicker and better. There may be potential for the block chain model to increase the reliance on evidence for transactions, thus reducing the need for sometimes challenging security requirements to be met; i.e. visually sighting the item before providing the signature.
Capturing data on these transactions and the conditions surrounding them can help Army improve its processes. This occurs not only in the way of making the process itself easier by putting it into an app on a mobile device (single loop learning), but by collecting data which can support double loop learning whereby if a process is, for example, found to be unnecessary, it may be eliminated entirely. This is where the true time saving of the ERP can be found. However, not having a deployable version of the ERP simply does not allow Army to take full advantage of what the ERP could provide. It is readily acknowledged that technology is not an all-encompassing panacea and has to be carefully integrated into the Army to be effective. Through the simplification of interfaces and configuring existing and emerging technology, there is potential for a sustainable system that helps to make Army future-ready.