COMMENTARY

Army e-mail plan ignores AKO success

E-mail obsession distracts from AKO's critical strengths

Robert J. Guerra is a partner at consulting firm Guerra and Kiviat.

There’s an old saying that no good deed goes unpunished. In our IT community, we seem to have adapted that to no successful program goes unchallenged.

Recently, we have seen some fairly superficial articles about the inadequacies of the Army’s hugely successful Army Knowledge Online (AKO) program. Here we have an incredibly successful program being subjected to fairly simplistic evaluations about its least critical but often-used function: e-mail. To make matters worse, the Defense Department is prepared to invest more than $100 million to duplicate that functionality in another program.

Why is e-mail such an insignificant but highly visible part of AKO? Because through AKO, soldiers can communicate with soldiers, DOD employees can communicate with one another, and moms, dads, brothers and sisters can communicate with our heroes who are serving our country.

That is a lot of people, but it is also a small part of a hugely successful knowledge management system and innovation platform. That’s the part everyone seems to miss in AKO: The “K” stands for knowledge. AKO affords our soldiers a collaboration mechanism for information sharing about the bad guys who want to kill them and hurt us. The military has now extended the functionality of AKO to provide DOD’s only mobility platform that works with Common Access Cards (CACs), thereby enabling warfighters to use their iPhones, Droid phones and Windows Mobile devices to perform their missions from anywhere in the world.

Beyond core e-mail services, AKO supports Web mail, e-mail threads and discussion groups as knowledge management tools. It also provides CAC-enabled secure access to 600 critical Army applications. It supports CAC-based access and secure log-in for DOD’s Secret IP Router Network. It hosts more than 40 Army websites and provides a gateway to more than 30 knowledge centers.

All told, AKO gets more than 800,000 hits a day. Someone must like it or it wouldn’t be used so frequently. For the future, Army plans to include what is known as AKO Go Mobile, which will provide AKO communications on personal digital assistants and upgrade network response times.

AKO’s success story makes all the more puzzling DOD’s recent decision to direct money from Navy fuel savings to provide funds for the Army to acquire an e-mail system. Army officials argue that e-mail is essential to the Global Network Enterprise Construct, an initiative to collapse the service’s disparate network and battle command components into five network service centers. But why buy a $125 million e-mail solution when we already have one that supports almost 3 million people 800,000 times a day?

More troubling is the fact that 90 percent of our warfighters — those between the ages of 18 and 26 — are members of a generation that largely views e-mail as an outdated form of communication. Our warfighters don’t need e-mail; they need an innovation engine that provides secure mobile collaboration tools, which AKO does.

As a nation, we are facing massive budget deficits, with Congress fighting over whether we should keep 10-year-old tax cuts or cut off unemployment benefits for people in desperate need of money. It does not make sense to take more than $100 million in real savings from a Navy program and invest it in a new e-mail solution for the Army when e-mail is available for all but free as part of the broad range of AKO’s knowledge management features.

In the movie “Big,” Tom Hanks said, “I don’t get it. Why would anyone want a toy like that?” That seems to be an appropriate comment about this e-mail effort, doesn’t it?

About the Author

Robert J. Guerra is a partner at the consulting firm Guerra and Kiviat.

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