DOD, users meet on SPS

Top Defense Department and industry representatives this week are expected to chart the course of the $326 million computer system the Pentagon plans to use to buy everything from bandages to bullets in an electronic, paperless environment.

Senior DOD officials, including Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as representatives from the military services and American Management Systems Inc., are scheduled to meet today in Washington, D.C., at the Connections '99 conference—the first conference targeted toward users of the Standard Procurement System. Highlighting the conference will be a discussion of Version 4.1b of the software (see box, below), delivered today to the government for testing and eventual fielding in August, and a look at SPS' future deployment.

Awarded to AMS in 1997, the goal of the SPS contract is to automate the often tedious and complicated process that a DOD procurement shop needs to go through to issue a solicitation based on Federal Acquisition and Defense Federal Acquisition regulations. DOD plans to deploy the system to 44,000 users at 860 locations worldwide. AMS developed SPS based on a version of its commercial Procurement Desktop software that was modified to serve the DOD contracting community.

The conference comes as DOD and AMS continue to battle reports from both the SPS user community and the department's inspector general that the system is awash in problems stemming from a flawed acquisition strategy and the monumental task of modifying a commercial software tool to accommodate a plethora of government-specific regulations and legacy system interfaces.

Despite the growing number of detractors and rumors that future development of SPS may cost the department $80 million to $100 million before a fully functional system can be fielded in fiscal 2003, DOD and AMS officials maintain that SPS' development and fielding strategy are sound and that the biggest challenge facing the program is managing the culture shock that comes with such a fundamental change in how people work.

"Things have changed in the procurement world over the last few years [since the SPS contract was awarded]," said Gary Thurston, the SPS program manager at the Defense Logistics Agency. Comparing older versions of the software, such as versions 3.5 or 4.0, "is like comparing [Microsoft Corp.'s] Windows 3.1 to Windows 98," Thurston said. However, while the strategy was always "incremental" in nature, additional user requirements have lengthened the final deployment schedule from fiscal 2001 to fiscal 2003 and have increased the final cost, Thurston said.

While the recent IG report outlined numerous case studies in which SPS fell far short of user expectations and concluded that DOD may be forced to spend an additional $70 million on development, Thurston said the users identified in the report likely were using older versions of the software. Regarding the $70 million cost estimate for future SPS development, "we don't know where they got that figure," Thurston said, adding that the cost could end up being higher or lower.

According to Thurston and AMS officials, users may not fully understand or appreciate SPS' phased deployment approach, whereby the program office fields a version of the software and continuously upgrades it according to user feedback and changing government policy requirements.

"We cannot [overstate the importance of] the incremental nature of the program," said Mike Dow, a vice president at AMS and one of AMS' primary SPS managers. In fact, while Version 4.0 met approximately 90 percent of the contract's requirements, those requirements were developed as early as 1993, Dow said. However, Version 4.1, which was released this year, represents "the first significant software release with major functionality [built in that was] driven by today's user community," Dow said.

However, the program to develop and file SPS to 44,000 users throughout the department represents an "unprecedented effort for DOD" and one that was not always fully understood, Dow said. "There were some in DOD that believed commercial software meant [going] to CompUSA and buying shrink-wrapped software off the shelf," Dow said. However, "[interfacing with legacy systems] is one of the biggest challenges of this program," he said.

Al Rogers, vice president at AMS, said that despite the challenge of integrating SPS with the slew of legacy systems currently deployed throughout the department, "the government made the best decision that they could in [the] time frame [allowed]." In addition, every deployment has proven to be different for every user community because no one organization has the same infrastructure and technical capabilities, he said. "It's premature to judge ultimately how it is going to turn out," Rogers said.

Payton Smith, manager of strategic studies with Federal Sources Inc., said that given the scope and complexity of the SPS undertaking, there were bound to be hiccups in the program, both technical and cultural.

"I think AMS is right in citing culture change problems as a major factor," Smith said. However, user complaints about the system need to be taken seriously, he said. Managing the level of expectation throughout the user community is probably an area where AMS and DOD could have done more, he said.

"Although SPS is commercial off-the-shelf software, there is a substantial amount of DOD-specific development that has gone into it," Smith said. "It has become an important lesson learned for other federal agencies that might be considering deploying enterprise applications."

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SPS at a Glance

Highlights of SPS Version 4.1b

* Increased flexibility in using contract clauses* Updated reporting requirements* Performance improvements* Defect corrections

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