Strength in numbers

Companies are in a never-ending quest to stand apart from the competition. As a means to that end, scores of certifications, ratings and credentials have sprung up that seek to provide companies and individuals with a stamp of approval of their ability and training.

Systems integrators are eagerly pursuing a relatively new rating system. The Capability Maturity Model Integration (CMMI) is replacing the older, well-established Capability Maturity Model ratings for software developers and systems engineers. Developed by the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, CMMI covers a broader set of measures than CMM, including project management skills that are crucial to integrators.

Similar to CMM, for which the institute no longer offers training, CMMI ratings range from Level 1 to Level 5 — Level 5 being the highest. They measure the degree of planning, documentation and discipline that a company exhibits. Companies can receive ratings that apply to the whole firm, individual divisions or specific engagements.

"It's really become the admission ticket to that [government] market," said Jay Douglass, director of business development at the institute. "If you're a federal government systems integrator, and you are not a minimum of Level 3, you're not given a lot of opportunity to bid."

In turn, systems integrators increasingly use the ratings to evaluate potential suppliers and partners, he said. "It's a cascade from the government as a customer all the way down the supply chain."

For now, agencies that consider CMM or CMMI ratings generally make it one factor of several that they evaluate, said Michael Sade, director of the Office of Acquisition Management at the Commerce Department. It is rare for agencies to require a minimum rating in a bid, although that will change as the ratings become more common in industry, he said.

The rating tells agencies that they can expect a certain level of discipline and consistency from a firm. "I view it in terms of risk management," Sade said. "Source selection is about risk

management."

Marking the progress of the process

"What the CMMI really gives you is a process, the ability to look at a program at various points in the life cycle, to see issues with it and hopefully the ability to resolve them earlier in the life cycle," said Valerie Perlowitz, president and chief executive officer of Reliable Integration Services Inc. "The earlier you can identify something and put it right, the more money you can save."

Northrop Grumman Corp. officials find the rating so valuable that 11 of their organizations have moved from CMM Level 3 to CMMI Level 5 during the past two years, said Linda Mills, vice president of mission assurance in the company's Mission Systems Division. Six more are at CMMI Level 3.

"The new standard is CMMI, so we don't even talk about [CMM] anymore," she said. "The CMM rating focused on software engineering pretty exclusively. The CMMI looks at software engineering, system engineering and program management."

Northrop Grumman helped itself by initiating a Six Sigma program, a popular quality improvement program widely used in business, about two years ago, she said. That program, led by Mills, focuses on collecting and analyzing data to improve processes, which is one factor in attaining the top CMMI rating. Having that discipline already in place makes it easier to move to higher CMMI levels, she said.

Raytheon Co. has a similar approach, said Greg Shelton, a corporate vice president. "It's a big circle," he said. Start with "the common process, assess the common process with CMMI and then improve the process with Six Sigma."

Organizations have to start with a good process that is used companywide. "If you don't have a common process upfront, it makes it extremely difficult," he said. "The common processes that we've worked on for a number of years really give us a backbone to work from."

Government requests for proposals often require companies to have achieved CMMI Level 2 or 3 in the relevant category, a trend that is accelerating, Mills said.

"You see more RFPs [requiring CMMI] on the defense side than you do on the civil side. They were adopting it earlier," she said. "You also see it on the state and local level at times."

Customers have their own role

Some customers, though, are not altogether clear about what it takes to work with a highly rated integrator, said Kathy Daily, group vice president of Anteon Corp.'s Solution Center. The agencies themselves need to be disciplined and able to work with the integrator in a structured way.

"A lot of customers give the models lip service," she said. "You'll see an RFP requiring it, but then if you want to apply some of the labor categories that make you compliant, they don't want to pay for it."

"If our customers don't understand the CMMI methodology, they can do things on their end that make it hard to follow a CMMI discipline," Shelton said.

An agency could, for example, refuse to spend the needed money for testing and metrics, he said. Because such measures are part of the CMMI discipline, the customer in that case would be undercutting the qualities it expects the integrator to demonstrate.

Companies must spend money and time to earn the ratings, Mills said, although she declined to say how much Northrop Grumman spends. However, culture change is the biggest obstacle. Getting people to change their habits can be tough.

"The perception is that it's expensive and it's a lot of work," she said. "You have to be disciplined, and you're asking people to be consistent in terms of how they go about doing their jobs. If you're moving from working in an ad hoc way to following a standard process [and] collecting data, that is work, and it's a culture change."

"It does start out as a bit of an imposition, but as it gets institutionalized, it becomes part of the culture and people would not think of not using it," Daily said, based on her work at

Anteon.

Anteon earned the software CMM Level 3 twice, in 1999 and 2002, Daily said. She had hoped that the second evaluation would have led to a higher rating, but now the company is working toward earning a CMMI rating. But she cautioned against putting too much stock in attaining specific numbers.

"We're not about getting to a level so much as we are about having a process-improvement culture," she said. "We're not zealous about the level, we're zealous about doing good work."

Anteon maintains a library of processes where officials file all the formal policies and procedures. Pursuing CMMI has required the company to expand the library, she said.

Still room for improvement

The value of a CMMI rating is what it says about the underlying organization, said Gene Bounds, chief operating officer at consulting firm Robbins-Gioia LLC. "It's common practices across the team and common terminology," he said. "They can begin to communicate in a common way, so you're not talking above or beyond each other."

The CMMI rating incorporates the best of the software and systems engineering CMM models, but it still isn't complete, said Stephen Hawald, an executive consultant at Robbins-Gioia. It still lacks a measure for acquisitions processes, but one is being developed. "I think CMMI Version 1.1 is going to be the [standard] model," he said.

The migration is also coming at a cost to smaller businesses, Bounds said. "The integrators love this," he said. "The people who are having the most problem with it are the small companies. They would like to hang on to the small software engineering or the small systems engineering models."

Larger firms can collapse resources and training into the single unified model rather than maintaining separate efforts for individual CMM ratings.

Looking ahead

"CMMI is really the future," Hawald said. "People who aren't on the bandwagon now are going to find themselves falling behind."

The ratings go hand-in-hand with the government's effort to encourage performance-based contracting, Perlowitz said.Without a process base like CMMI, which puts the agency, integrators and other contractors at a common starting point, "the chance for failure in performance-based contracting is tremendous," she said. "You end up going through the process again and again and again, and learning from failure — and never really having a system that works." n

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