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Capturing Intelligence Contracts Poses Challenges To Small Businesses

June 2009
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

 

During a meeting at Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts, members of the Northeast Regional Council for Small Business Education and Advocacy discuss how to increase small business participation in government contracting. The council meets quarterly and comprises small business officers from defense agencies and procurement technical assistance centers as well as industry representatives.

Companies must persevere to gain the community’s confidence.

Intelligence agencies have many secrets, and among them is how small firms can do business with them. Seeking work in this arena requires persistence and patience along with a solid business plan and knowledge of these agencies’ needs. It is not an activity for the faint of heart. Individuals with decades of experience in the intelligence community concur that small businesses have a lot to offer, but building a strong relationship with intelligence organizations requires hard work on both sides.

When deciding to pursue business with the intelligence community, small firms face a number of Catch-22 circumstances. They need to know the agencies’ needs, but the community is reluctant to share information for fear of revealing vulnerabilities. Small companies need customers who are willing to talk about their solutions publicly; however, the community must remain tight-lipped about the technologies it uses. Many times, personnel and their facility must have security clearances, but these cannot be obtained without already having a contract for a classified project. And, some projects require firms to partner with other companies—sometimes large, sometimes small—but many small businesses are reluctant to share information about their solutions with other firms.

To overcome these speed bumps before they become roadblocks to working with the intelligence community, experts in both small business and various intelligence agencies have been building insights into this secretive world. They agree that making an inroad into conducting business with the community starts with proper preparation; a company must map out a strategy. Then, it must position itself to be able to work in the classified environment. A firm also must develop a business plan that does not rely on intelligence community business alone. Finally, it should determine if working with a large company or another small firm best positions it to provide the solutions the community needs.

Capt. Mark F. Greer, USN (Ret.), vice president, business solutions, McNeil Technologies Incorporated, Springfield, Virginia, has had the opportunity to see the interaction between small businesses in the intelligence community from both sides. He spent 26 years in the Navy as an intelligence officer, and his last tour was as the director of information technology for the Office of Naval Intelligence. When he retired, Capt. Greer spent four years as the deputy chief information officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). After more than 30 years in government service, he left the DIA to join McNeil Technologies.

Capt. Greer contends that creating a solid business plan and conducting research to recognize the community’s requirements is crucial, but admits that determining the community’s needs is not always a simple task. Although the various agencies have Web sites, it is nearly impossible to find e-mail addresses or telephone numbers. Despite this fact, it is up to small businesses to educate themselves and not rely on the government to reach out.

“Companies that offer products need just as much if not more help than the services people. If someone wakes up one morning and says, ‘Hey, I want to be a small business and do information technology work for the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency], and it’s now the federal government’s responsibility to teach me how to do that,’ it’s absurd. If you don’t already know how to do that, you’d better pick another customer. It’s like waking up one morning and saying, ‘I think I’d like to be a steelworker. I don’t know anything about it, but now it’s the government’s job to make me a  steelworker,’” Capt. Greer says.

The captain relates that he has spoken with several small business owners who express the desire to work with the intelligence community because it is lucrative. However, many of these companies do not have former intelligence community employees on their staffs and have not done their research, he states.

“My point is that you’ve got to come with a little bit of something that differentiates you from someone else. That’s where the product guys are different [than service firms], because they have a really neat, unique patentable idea that no one else has and the government needs,” Capt. Greer says.

Although it may be difficult to find details about intelligence community agencies’ technical or management gaps, they are not impossible to figure out: Their requirements often are identical to those in the commercial sector. On the product side, the community needs traditional information technology products such as cutting-edge information infrastructure management technology, the captain relates. While most large data centers in the world are not staffed with personnel but instead take advantage of automation for monitoring systems, this is not always the case with intelligence community sites. “We could free up staggering amounts of money in the government to go do things if we could just manage our infrastructure more efficiently,” Capt. Greer says.

The other two technologies Capt. Greer believes to be important to the intelligence community are sensors and new ways to manage volumes of data. In the area of sensors, the community is interested in small form factor sensors that can detect chemicals, sound, motion or imagery. He allows that because many types of sensors already exist, the data they gather needs to be managed, fused and understood. This latter requirement reveals the need for a new search technology such as link analysis programs that connect the dots, the captain offers.

On the services side, Capt. Greer advises that small businesses come to the table with “a set of no-kidding commercial best practices with people who are certified in those respective fields.” In his eyes, certification from the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) is the most useful when a small business wants to work with the intelligence community. Although International Organization for Standardization, or ISO, certifications are beneficial, they do not guarantee that everyone who will be working on a project is certified.

Gwyn L. Whittaker, chief executive officer, Mosaic Incorporated, Oak Hill, Virginia, also has some ideas about capabilities intelligence community need. Whittaker has experience both in the intelligence community and now as a small business owner. She opened Mosaic right on the heels of September 11, 2001, after finding herself in New York City two blocks away from the World Trade Center on that tragic day. She was there on a business trip to meet with Merrill Lynch when the airplane flew into the first tower.

As with so many others, the experience changed her life. After returning home, she began to reorder her priorities. She read a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) article that said counterterrorism was akin to assembling a mosaic. This inspired the name of her company, which specializes in hiring very experienced people in the intelligence community arena. The company has hosted meetings between people who are in different intelligence agencies and has introduced government off-the-shelf capabilities from one agency to another.

One of the first capabilities the community requires, according to Whittaker and her Mosaic team, is building enterprise-services-based admission requirements. The question is how to develop a solution once and then leverage it across the community from a capability standpoint. For example, when developing a search engine, it must be able to serve the entire enterprise, not just a single program or single agency. “The real value that the DNI [Director of National Intelligence] is bringing to the community is enabling enterprise services,” Whittaker says.

The intelligence community also needs companies to develop services instead of applications and to separate data from applications. When services can be reused and data can be shared across organizations, stovepipes will be eliminated, she explains.

 

Contractors recover a ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that was launched from an MK V special warfare boat. Military intelligence agencies and the services are working closely with business to develop innovative intelligence-gathering technologies.

Whittaker agrees with Capt. Greer that virtualization and cloud computing are two of the key needs of the intelligence community. These would enable personnel from different places to access the same data. While they can pose huge challenges in access and protection areas, the U.S. government needs to start taking advantage of these capabilities, she maintains.

Related to this area is the need for shared access control. This involves maintaining identities so that community personnel can look at different data based on an established policy that controls availability. “Even finding out that the information is out there is probably the bigger thing, and I think a lot of the things that are being implemented now in some of the DNI initiatives will help enable that,” Whittaker says.

Another community need that Whittaker’s team identified mirrors Capt. Greer’s call for faceted search and guided navigation of data. “How do you ask questions of the data in multiple ways so it provides you with different perspectives? How do you ask very detailed questions that are ad hoc and specific to your interests, and then receive the answers that are categorized around that?” Whittaker asks.

For example, in the past, CIA personnel were organized along geographical lines such as specializing in Russia or China. However, today they work in functional areas, so staff members are looking at information about counterterrorism or finance. Analysts tracking finances need to access the same data as analysts investigating terrorism, and then extract the data they need.

Whittaker believes that small businesses can assist the community with many of these challenges. “If you can offer the government paths to solving some of the challenges, then you can really make a difference in this space,” she says. Mosaic, for example, has 15 staff members, many of whom have held senior leadership positions in the intelligence community. They also have spent time in industry, so they know some of the commercial solutions. Last year, Mosaic generated $4 million in revenue after being in business only seven years.

While seven years may seem a long time to some, small businesses that want to work with the intelligence community must understand that this arena requires patience and persistence, Whittaker and Capt. Greer agree. In addition, small companies should not base their business planning on working solely with community agencies. Diversification is key because the acquisition decision cycle can be very long. Capt. Greer points out that the funds the U.S. Defense Department is spending today left program managers’ hands nearly two summers ago, in June or July of 2007. As such, it has been nearly two years since companies have had the opportunity to influence where the money will be spent. “It’s counterintuitive, but understanding how that works is an important component of educating small businesses,” Capt. Greer says.

Gayle von Eckartsberg, principal, Gale Force V LLC, Arlington, Virginia, agrees that digging into the intelligence community’s acquisition processes can be a tough row to hoe, particularly for companies that have new products, early products and technology products. “It’s challenging because the whole acquisition process is really opaque, and most companies don’t have security clearances so they’re in some respects groping in the dark to ascertain what the customers’ actual needs are. In fact, In-Q-Tel’s role was to help bridge that gap,” von Eckartsberg explains.

Von Eckartsberg spent seven years at In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s incubator for entrepreneurs, and she now has become an entrepreneur in her own right. Gale Force V focuses on strategic communications and works primarily with the Defense Department, which includes some intelligence segments.

“It’s hard to find the belly button in these organizations,” she continues. “For any small business the main thing they want to do—in addition to getting a contract or selling a product—is to get feedback so they can make their product better. That’s very hard information to get from the IC [intelligence community].”

Eventually, companies tend to do fairly well, she maintains, and with the assistance of organizations such as In-Q-Tel, they can put together their own teams and gain traction in the intelligence community. “It takes a couple of years, so they have to have a lot of patience and persistence. They often may get some traction from some unclassified Defense Department programs faster, for example, than they do within the intelligence community; but it’s hard work,” von Eckartsberg notes.

Technologies and services that can assist the intelligence community with using new media and virtual worlds are among the top of its needs, she maintains, particularly with the number of digital natives who are beginning to fill the ranks of the community’s agencies.

Von Eckartsberg and Whittaker agree that the cultural sea change is and will continue to be one of the biggest challenges the intelligence community faces. Whittaker calls it the Age Divide. “The new analysts coming are Gen X and Gen Y, and they have the mentality not only of sharing everything and collaborating but also of expecting very immediate gratification. It’s very tactical and quick-moving versus in the past when it’s been the more strategic-thinking people that have decades of experience in all aspects of problems; they [the experienced analysts] know about cultural, geopolitical, geography issues,” Whittaker notes. This is a big challenge, and the community is divided about the role of analysts today, she adds.

With all of these changes and the cloak of secrecy that often covers what product and service solutions the intelligence community truly needs, Whittaker issues a challenge to all government agencies: “I would challenge the government to have small business offices in every agency, and that these offices are real advocates and proactive in that space. Those are not currently there. I think from an executive standpoint … there needs to be an awareness of the benefits of small, agile, innovative, collaborating entities that can provide tremendous benefits, and that they have to be fostered or the small businesses will turn to other places. And it’s got to be at the top, and it’s got to be enabled through contracting,” Whittaker states.

Although Capt. Greer disagrees with Whittaker on this point, he is in absolute agreement with her about the benefits that small businesses bring to the intelligence community. While agility often tops the list, the captain says that entrepreneurs also bring with them an attention to detail, innovation and a greater willingness to assume risk.

WEB RESOURCES
National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency: https://www1.nga.mil/About/WorkingWithUs/Pages/default.aspx and https://www1.nga.mil/About/WorkingWithUs/Pages/SmallBusiness.aspx
National Security Agency Small Business Office: www.nsa.gov/business/small_business_office/index.shtml
Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA): www.dia.mil/contracting/osbp.htm
In-Q-Tel: www.iqt.org
Mosaic Incorporated: www.mosaic-inc.com
McNeil Technologies Incorporated: www.mcneiltech.com