Collaboration gets DOD’s modernization on track

Business transformation progressing after years of problems

In just over a year, the Defense Department has made more progress on its business systems modernization project than it did in the past 10. Paul Brinkley, deputy undersecretary of Defense for business transformation, and his team in the Business Transformation Agency have been largely responsible for the turnaround. Under Brinkley, the BTA has put in place the necessary disciplines, such as an enterprise architecture, common data rules, data standards, a governance structure and business rules to perform transactions, that are not only paying dividends, but are getting their advances noticed across the federal government.

DOD no longer is focused on just reducing its business systems. The department is trying to get a better accounting of where the money’s going. The services and agencies currently spend more than $4.2 billion a year to maintain roughly 4,700 business systems. The goal also is to ensure that those systems are interoperable with the business enterprise architecture the department is building, officials have said.

Even the Government Accountability Office, which has put the project on its high-risk list for the past decade, has complimented DOD’s progress over the past 12 months.

With this experience behind him, Brinkley talked with GCN about DOD’s progress, the future of the program and what other agencies can learn from the department’s experiences.

GCN: Describe how you are turning around the business modernization effort in the Defense Department.

BRINKLEY: I would begin by emphasizing that this is not an individual effort—business modernization is a major priority for deputy secretary [Gordon] England, undersecretary [Kenneth] Krieg, undersecretary [Tina] Jonas, my colleague, deputy undersecretary Thomas Modly, and many of my peers in the Defense Department.

As we invest to modernize our business operations across this vast organization, we must ensure that our business systems are interoperable to support the needs of joint military operations, and that they enable financial transparency and accountability down to the lowest level of the organization.

We ensure this interoperability by aligning investments with the DOD Business Enterprise Architecture, which is the set of business rules, data standards and systems that are necessary to enable activities that are common across the department.

We create accountability for delivering these modernization programs on schedule through the Enterprise Transition Plan, a comprehensive document that lays out costs, milestones, and capabilities for each of our modernization programs.

Finally, to create accountability for DOD-wide business initiatives and programs, last fall we established the Defense Business Transformation Agency. Think of the BTA as the “corporate headquarters” enablement function—the accountable organization that ensures the corporatewide requirements of DOD are met in the most rapid and cost-effective manner possible.

It is not responsible for service or agency-specific projects, but rather the efforts that are “corporate,” or DOD-wide in their scope.

GCN: What would you recommend to other federal agencies to get their business systems in order?

BRINKLEY: Offering advice to other agencies is a bit presumptuous, although I do think there are themes that we have identified that would be consistent across other organizations. Specifically, it appears that many federal initiatives are attempting to implement systems that are not aligned with the management structure of the organization.

You cannot run a centralized process or business system if your management is completely decentralized, with no empowered centralized process or organizational leadership.

Management has to define its desired end state and then align its business system investments to achieve that end state.

GCN: Why is systems modernization so hard?

BRINKLEY: Because it is too easy for new business systems to be sold as a proxy for confronting tough management decisions.

As technology has evolved, it is very tempting for management in large organizations to launch business systems projects in an effort to avoid management issues—issues with processes, issues with centralization versus decentralization of organizations, any number of issues.

Inevitably, these core issues eventually become roadblocks in a systems project, and the project is re-scoped or killed—another failed business systems initiative that really was a failed management exercise.

In reality, it isn’t systems modernization that is hard—it is management that is hard. Failed systems modernization is often a symptom of failed management. But management is rarely held accountable for business systems failures—they are almost always spun as information technology problems instead.

This is why our alignment of our business transformation effort with the business leadership of the DOD has been so important. DOD business transformation is led by business executives within the department, under the direct oversight of the deputy secretary of Defense—not by IT alone.

Business transformation is about confronting your management issues and defining a desired future state, then aligning IT services with that future state. That sets the stage for successful business systems projects.

GCN: To date, what remains the hardest part of your job?

BRINKLEY: Defense Business Transformation will take years of sustained effort. We’re working to embed a culture that focuses on continuous, steady improvement—with measurable outcomes in increments no greater than every six months.

Large-scale corporate transformation successes have taken many years to complete. My tenure here will end, as will the tenure of most of my colleagues, long before DOD has transformed its operations to the level required.

Creating the conditions to sustain this effort is the most challenging part of this job. There is no silver bullet solution to business transformation in any organization.

GCN: What is the next step for the BTA office in its business modernization efforts?

BRINKLEY: Operationally, we will continue to deliver against our published milestones every six months, building momentum and a sense of accomplishment in the organization.

Success is contagious—we are only beginning to demonstrate success. We have to iteratively demonstrate value—to create enough momentum that this effort becomes unstoppable.

From an initiative perspective, we’ve just launched our new assessment process for business systems—called the Enterprise Risk Assessment Model. This process is designed to better align our business system modernization acquisitions with industry best practices and to reduce the time required to deliver business systems.

GCN: At what point will you be satisfied that the department has turned this business systems picture around?

BRINKLEY: Continuous improvement implies never being satisfied. IT and business practices are not static—world-class business practices are always moving ahead, and we have to rapidly close the gap between DOD and best practices, then continue to improve.

Our goal is to create a culture that is never satisfied—I guess when we’ve achieved that goal then I’ll be personally satisfied, but the organization should never feel that way.

About the Author

Connect with the GCN staff on Twitter @GCNtech.


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