4 challenges accompanying modular development

As modular development expands with the support of Office of Management and Budget, it's not all easy. The approach to building a project in smaller bits creates certain challenges that integrated project teams need to think about in the early stages of the process, according to guidance from OMB.

OMB unveiled the new framework to encourage agencies to abandon multiyear IT development methods for the more agile approach. Officials said federal IT has been marred with runaway IT projects that squandered billions of dollars and lagged behind schedule. Even by the time some of these initiatives were rolled out, they were often over budget or had become obsolete.

As teams break down their projects into smaller bits, they likely will face outdated processes for managing risk. The leftover processes may be aligned to the “waterfall approach” that has been used in the past in areas such as software development. In the waterfall approach, a team would begin at the requirements phase and move into design and implementation and end with maintenance. Officials said agencies should consider whether the setups work in light of the change in method.

Officials also will have to join together a disparate group of key players in a project’s development. Agencies should include their experts from the IT, acquisition and finance offices, as well as the people who will use the system or program once completed. They need to further understand that the integration gets more complicated when multiple contractors are involved in various aspects.

“The more projects, the greater the potential challenge to integrate the parts,” OMB officials wrote in the guidance.

OMB warns that gaps may develop in responsibility and accountability without solid integration.

Alongside integration is communication. OMB said that teams will need to emphasize communications when work is done only by certain sectors of the team. It puts a demand on a strong integrated project team.

Finally, modular development adds more work. Each project potentially creates extra assignments for the acquisition officers. For example, the officers may have to make more awards in a short amount of time. The work can also increase how long it takes to deliver a capability, the document states.

Despite the challenges, OMB points out that the benefits are there both from the IT and the acquisition.

For IT, agencies can know sooner whether their solutions will work successfully as planned. Organizations use modular approaches to define high-level requirements, and then continue to refine their needs throughout the process of continual reassessment.

For acquisition, the modular approach balances the government’s need for fast access to rapidly changing technology and risk management.

OMB added that, all the while, agency officials need to balance changing technology and incentivizing contractors’ performance against a stable program with strong management.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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