As defense information-sharing requirements increase, industry must adapt along with the warfighter to address shifting priorities.
A push for force transformation across all branches of the military has brought about change in the research and development community and the collaboration technologies it creates. To meet the growing demand for accurate, relevant and timely information on the battlefield, scientists and engineers are focusing on interoperability, standards and advanced technologies.
But building a bridge to the warfighter takes work from both sides. Industry and the military must adapt current technologies to emerging criteria and address cultural barriers before rolling out new capabilities.
According to Vance Saunders, the military is not yet using the advanced collaboration technologies that are available. Saunders is the director of advanced distributed systems at Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Fairborn, Ohio. “Some of the basic tools are used quite a bit,” he explains. “At the simplest level, and it’s the level of what 90 percent of the world understands, collaborative tools are videoconferencing, chat, instant messaging, shared applications and threaded discussion. The de facto definition for collaboration is what we coin as human collaboration, meaning humans collaborating with other humans across a geographical distance using these tools. But collaboration goes way beyond that. If you are going to do real work in a distributed environment, other resources have to collaborate.”
To be effective in distributed environments, additional technology is required, Saunders says. Human-to-human collaboration addresses only the tip of the iceberg of what can be achieved with collaborative technology. The next level of capability is to operate in a distributive environment with human-to-computer and computer-to-computer capabilities.
For example, Ball Aerospace and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, have developed a technology called KnowledgeKinetics, which provides the means for human- and computer-based resources to work together, regardless of their geographical proximity and temporal relationships. It captures the shared knowledge, the organizational relationships and the procedural activities of personnel and shares them all within the enterprise. In addition, it enables ad hoc interactions while maintaining order and consistency. The AFRL also is working to provide a technology that will allow advanced concept systems to work through firewalls.
“These are the types of technologies we’ve been researching for the past six years and continue to research,” Saunders notes. “The advanced technologies are not being used right now because they are not understood; they are more complex; and they cause a cultural shift.”
Despite slow acceptance, Saunders shares that the user community is starting to recognize a need for advanced collaboration capabilities. “The Air Force has implemented the Air Force portal—a standard user interface for everyone in the Air Force,” he says. “Right now, a portal is nothing but access to static information. But the government has recognized a need for real business value. It wants to provide capabilities that could notify staff to do a task, give input back to a particular place, allow others to look collaboratively at those results and make decisions.”
The U.S. Army has a similar goal as part of its Objective Force emphasis, Saunders adds. One of the areas the service is trying to manage is its diversified research and development environment. The Army has research laboratories, research and development centers and other science and technology organizations, whereas the Air Force has all science and technology inside the AFRL. One of the Army’s goals is to demonstrate the advantages of the projects that each organization is managing.
“How do you collect information and show the synergy of the projects in support of the operational needs of the Army fighting force?” he asks. “How can you put a collaboration infrastructure in place—that’s way more than human beings collaborating—that would allow the Army to create a virtual equivalent of what the Air Force has set up physically? There would be one organized science and technology environment that brings disparate pieces together and allows you to focus their capabilities in showing support to the warfighter. If you can’t show the value of your technology to the warfighter, what good is it?”
Saunders shares that people are talking about the need for real business value and are starting to recognize the need for advanced collaboration capabilities, but issues about how to implement them must be addressed. “A tremendous effort is afoot to do things in standard ways,” he says. “Emphasis is being placed on using interoperable applications that can interchange information easily. Once you have that, you can bring in new technologies to bring in real business value.”
Interoperability is a tall order, but it is high on the military’s make-it-happen list, says Lt. Col. David M. Hagopian, USMC, action officer, knowledge superiority and collaboration, J-6V Global Command, Control, Communications and Computer Applications and Services Division, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “If we started with a blank sheet of paper, we could write the story much easier,” he shares. “That’s a luxury we don’t have. We are forced to bridge legacy systems to technologies that we want to use tomorrow. Some may argue that the best way to achieve interoperability is to have one proprietary solution, but that’s contrary to the American model.”
As part of the Collaboration Tiger Team established by Congress in 1999 to address the lack of interoperability between fielded collaborative tools, the U.S. Defense Department stood up the Collaboration Interoperability Working Group. Its charter is to work with industry to obtain input on future collaboration interoperability standards.
“The group is working toward open and public reference standards and taking what warfighters need, coupled with what industry is working on, then trying to massage the two so we can leverage industry’s brain power,” Col. Hagopian says. “The working group method is key to understanding each other and figuring out where the similarities and the differences are. There are also a lot of industry groups that we participate in. We want to make sure our warfighters can pick and choose the solution that’s good for them and their particular needs. But we also want to ensure that whatever they pick, it’s interoperable. We find that everyone doesn’t have the same requirements.”
The Joint Interoperability Test Command, headquartered in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, and specifically its Advanced Technology and Information Systems Branch, Indian Head, Maryland, also are seeing successes with its processes for conducting interoperability tests for collaboration tools. Industry has begun applying standards and is putting its products to the test. “The way we’re headed is interoperable and open standards as much as possible to help industry meet the needs of the warfighter,” the colonel shares. “Industry is interested in knowing what the standards are for Defense Department collaboration, learning how to get tested and making sure technologies are interoperable. They want to stay a part of the solution. Part of it is on us to publicly announce the industry-based standards.”
In addition to interoperability, the challenge with collaborative solutions is that they press the security/information assurance envelope. Collaborative sessions can be complex and persistent. “Collaboration and security present conflicting requirements,” Saunders says. “In a perfect world, information is out there and available to everybody, and you don’t have to worry about people doing bad things with it. In the real world, firewalls and security measures come up. The epitome of where we need to head with collaborative tools is in support of homeland security and defense. The way we would have prevented 9/11 the first time is if everyone were sharing information, but the technologies that keep things secure counteract technologies designed to be open and collaborative. We’re working on how to maximize collaborative technologies and address culture and security issues at the same time.”
Ultimately, collaboration is about people. “With the amount of information available today, if we were going to create an environment to prevent the next 9/11, we have to have advanced collaboration technology,” Saunders states. “We can’t do it any other way. The real challenge is to make advanced collaboration technologies even more user-friendly. Technology is not the long pole in the tent. Culture and security are.”
Col. Hagopian agrees, noting that technology is a small challenge, but, as in any organization, the real challenge is in the change process. The technology is only 10 percent of the equation, he says. The process is 10 percent, and the people are 80 percent. “These solutions are changing the way people work,” the colonel shares. “The biggest payoff in a change environment is going to be the people. A subsequent story could be ‘The Psychology of Change.’”