Mission Accomplished

By Michelle Megna | Posted October 20, 2005

For Monsignor John E. Kozar, national director of the Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States, divine intervention came in the form of IBM-based technology that literally converted archaic manual office operations to a modernized, integrated network.

The Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States (which has, as they say with a chuckle, the unfortunate acronym of PMS) employs about 30 people in its New York City office.

The headquarters acts as the hub for 190 diocese satellites and annually oversees the coordination and collection of approximately $70 million in charitable donations for missions worldwide, among other things. Prior to Kozar's vision, this was all done by hand, without e-mail, spreadsheets or the Internet. All that changed with the help of an IBM's i520 Series server and WebSphere Application Server Express 5.0 software.

"People expect our operations to be out-dated because we deal with 2,000-year-old concepts," says Kozar, "when in fact our late Pope was a brilliant communicator who set the tone for the Catholic Church to be on the forefront of technology. I came here almost five years ago and realized we had a mainframe that lead to nowhere. We needed to update and integrate to become more efficient, but I didn't want to intimidate anyone. I'm happy to say we now have a lot of 'converts' who are very comfortable with the technology."

More importantly, the mission — which provides funding for religious work overseas — is able to more quickly help those in need. "Now that we can communicate with Rome in real-time, we are better equipped to react to people who need help," says Kozar. "People's lives are sometimes at stake."

Prior to the IT upgrade, the satellite dioceses sent tallies of their contributions to the New York office, which were manually keyed into a document and mailed to Rome. This meant the numbers had to be recalculated, often resulting in errors, and reports to the Rome office were often late and outdated, by the time they arrived.

The new technology infrastructure eliminated the need for manual data entry. Now, the time it takes to complete the annual financial reporting has been reduced from two months to two weeks with 100-percent accuracy. The math is done automatically in spreadsheets. Due to file sharing with on-demand fund transfers from the national offices in New York to the central offices in Rome, the money is distributed more effectively to the 100 countries that rely on such donations.

Don't Rip-n-Replace, Use What You've Got
Bryan Cafaro, CEO of Tri-Bry Business Technology Solutions, an IBM partner who set up the new system, says, "The WebSphere Application Server Express is the glue that holds the legacy applications and the new equipment all together. It works with other platforms, so you don't have to scrap everything and start from scratch, which is not only expensive, but requires a lot of training. Rather than rip-and-replace, we like to put in the tools that make everything work together. An example would be getting financial programs talking with inventory."

Cafaro moved the data from an old AS/400 mainframe to a new i520 Series server and integrated operations with the Express software. IBM WebSphere Express is Internet infrastructure software — known as middleware — that lets companies of any size develop, deploy and integrate e-business applications on their existing systems.

This included setting up e-mail accounts for employees as well as an intranet that delivers information on-demand. With the integrated Web-based system, the dioceses in different locations can also access the most recent publications, graphics and materials on mission spirituality and educational programs.

Monica Ann Yehle, director of development and programs and editor of Mission magazine, says, "Before, if one director wanted a poster, he or she would manually fill out a form, mail it here, and then we'd Xerox the order, and mail that to the client; it was crazy."

The new system also provides remote access for staff that may need to work from home or on the road. Additionally, contact information for the 160 or so diocese directors throughout the country is now in a digital database instead of in a paper Rolodex.

The IBM infrastructure also enhances the Society's order-fulfillment obligations. The organization receives orders from more than 23,000 schools and parishes for education materials, a process that took more than five-to-six days for completion. Next year, the Society expects to fill orders within a day or two, helping it save money and work hours.

The integrated solution eliminates the need for receiving the orders at the Mission Society first and then manually tabulating them and mailing them to the warehouse. Now, the orders are sent directly to the warehouse and processed immediately. Additionally, the Society offers some of its materials for free, but not all, so it generates real-time billing reports for each order.

"We had no way of knowing what the inventory was at our fulfillment house," says Yehle. "We'd get an order for 300 in the mail, duplicate it, mail it, and then the warehouse would call and say they had 10." Yehle says the Mission Society also oversees a database of some 1.3 million donors, which is also now online and accessible for localized campaigns and queries.

According to Cafaro, the pricing for such upgrades varies on a case-by-case basis depending on an organization's unique needs. He added that the IBM product suite for small businesses is affordable enough for even non-profit organizations, and it's better than entirely replacing legacy systems, or worse, boosting system capacity in a piecemeal fashion.

Often, small businesses are tempted to solve IT problems by adding single-application servers and other hardware on an add-on basis. In the long run, this can result in less-reliable and more complicated hardware systems that are costly to maintain.

IDC research has found that a decade ago firms were spending 75 percent of their IT budget on new hardware and software and 25 percent on fixing the systems they already had. Now that ratio has been reversed: Seventy-to-80 percent of IT spending goes on fixing things rather than buying new systems. The IBM iSeries approach, Cafaro says, is more cost-effective.

Even with all the automated, streamlined processes in place, Kozar is excited about the future potential. "We can let our 190 satellites use the power of our mainframe to do research and get information as we extend our resources outside these walls. Eventually, I hope we can be the leaven to form an international network for communities in which we have a presence. In some of these tribal villages, there's no running water, but they have Wi-Fi! Meanwhile, though, it's truly a blessing that we're able to meet our goals more proficiently."

When Michelle Megna began covering technology for computer magazines, the CD-ROM and AOL didn't yet exist. Since then, she's been on the byte beat for FamilyPC, Time Inc. and the New York Daily News. She's still waiting to see a pair of 3-D goggles that actually work.

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