Croom: Acquisition done better, faster, cheaper

The general shows others the way to transform a broken acquisition process

The Defense Information Systems Agency has not been the same since Lt. Gen. Charles Croom took command in 2005. Croom initiated a fundamental transformation of the way DISA acquires information technology, something few thought possible.

Croom led DISA through the first steps of that transformation by championing an ABC philosophy of acquisition: Adopt before you buy, and buy before you create.

Croom’s philosophy emphasizes meeting emerging needs by looking first for solutions already at hand in the Defense Department and, failing that, looking for readily available commercial alternatives.

Creating technology from scratch should be a last resort.

“He used that philosophy almost the entire time he’s been at DISA,” said Lt. Gen. Steven Boutelle, a former Army chief information officer who is now vice president of worldwide government solutions at Cisco Systems.

Croom recalled having a meeting shortly after he arrived at DISA with John Garing, DISA’s CIO and director of strategic planning and information. They brainstormed about what could be done to change the way DISA conducted its business, especially the way it acquired IT.

“We were looking at getting speed into our acquisition process,” Croom said. “There were certain attributes that we had to address if we wanted to get warfighting capabilities out there sooner, and speed was clearly the No. 1 issue. We all knew that this process that we’re encumbered with — from the beginning of requirements to the end of certification and delivery — was just taking too long.”

One place where Croom’s adopt-first strategy took hold was the Net-Enabled Command Capability program designed to acquire a network-centric command-and-control system. Rather than build a new system from scratch, the agency issued a call for existing solutions and received more than 130 responses, from which officials selected components for the NECC.

“Just think about that,” Garing said.

“There was no [research and development] for us in that program because somebody [had] already done it.”

Two other DISA programs exemplify Croom’s philosophy: the Defense Knowledge Online (DKO) Web portal and the Net-Centric Enterprise Services (NCES) collaboration tools program. By adopting the Army Knowledge Online portal as the basis for DKO, DISA was able to bring its capabilities to service members quickly. By the end of 2007, the portal had 2 million users.

DKO could not have succeeded without Croom’s personal leadership, Boutelle said. The portal required a leader who was willing to terminate projects that had ardent supporters. “It takes a lot of energy,” Boutelle said. “He came to me and said, ‘We need to do this.

It’s the right thing to do. But the only way it’ll happen is if we invest a lot of three-star time on it personally.’ “ When DOD solutions weren’t available to adopt or adapt, Croom looked for commercial alternatives. By selecting two commercial managed services offerings under NCES, DISA was able to meet a need quickly and potentially lower its cost by establishing a two-button, pay-per-use business model in which the two selected vendors competed. DOD customers click a button on their computer screens to choose the service they want to use.

Croom’s greatest legacy “is getting DISA into a mind-set that the commercial side has great value and should be brought in, and we should not create,” Boutelle said.

To get DISA to that point was not easy, Boutelle added. “You have to take an organization that’s very large and very bureaucratic and refocus” it, he said. Croom “has been a great part of that refocusing on commercial technologies.”

Boutelle said Croom’s credentials as an engineer and his personal leadership wer essential to overcoming organizational barriers to change at the agency. “You do not want to go nose-to-nose with Charlie Croom.”

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