Shift to self-funding spells success for SSG

As the Air Force's primary information technology group kicks off its annual conference this week it will be concluding a year marked by one of the most revolutionary changes in the organization's history.

For most of its three decades of existence the Air Force's Standard Systems Group Montgomery Ala. has received its funding from the Air Force's congressionally approved budget. But in fiscal 1997 SSG has operated as an industrially funded organization meaning SSG must "sell" its services to users.

Col. Delbert Atkinson SSG's vice director said the change in funding has "certainly focused" the group on its mission and customer service.

"We believe we can be competitive and continue as the [Air Force's] primary source of information systems " Atkinson said just before the kick-off of SSG's 11th annual Air Force Information Technology Conference which runs this week in Montgomery.

But Atkinson added the funding shift also has required a "cultural change...from the command section on down. We have to focus our attention on business and learn to talk in terms of income statements."

Atkinson said this new emphasis permeates all of SSG's operations from management of Air Force small-computer programs to development and maintenance of software to network operations and help desks. "We're trying to meet our customers' expectations by reducing our overhead streamlining our business processes and providing [user commands] with more buying power."

Pat Gallagher former sales vice president of Zenith Data Systems Corp. who managed the Desktop II through V contracts for that company and is now a consultant said industrial funding will impel SSG to beef up its customer service.

"They have always had a fundamental focus on the customer " he said. "Industrial funding will only enhance it."

SSG's bottom-line emphasis should soon translate into savings for commands that buy software or equipment through SSG-managed programs such as the $1 billion Desktop V PC contract or the Unified Local-Area Network Architecture II (ULANA II) program Atkinson said. Currently SSG imposes a 2 percent surcharge on all orders from these contracts but "we want to push that down to 1 percent or less " he said.

Electronic purchasing will help SSG meet that goal he said with Hughes Data Systems Inc. offering electronic purchasing on Desktop V and TRW Inc. doing the same with ULANA II.

SSG also plans to improve its help-desk operation which handles inquiries about software systems and Air Force networks. "We already run a 24 [hours] by seven [days a week] help desk and we're trying to modernize that " Atkinson said.

"Most Significant" IT Challenge

Atkinson views data management as the "most significant" IT challenge facing the Air Force. "There are thousands of interfaces [in Air Force IT systems] where data changes hands " he said. "The biggest technical challenge facing us is to have the information systems talk with one another and keep the data the same as it goes through the transaction."

Bob Dornan senior vice president of Federal Sources Inc. agreed with Atkinson that the switch to industrial funding will sharpen SSG's focus on customer service and eventually could make it a more responsive and leaner organization.

Dornan also believes centers of contracting expertise such as SSG will continue to play a key role in a world where any military command can quickly run its own IT broad purchase agreement based on the General Services Administration schedules. "There still is a need for responsible adult supervision" of IT procurements Dornan said.

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