• Members of DISA’s NetOps Solutions collaborate on innovative enhancements for capabilities that automate many key functions of DISA’s services and infrastructure. Photography by Kevin Headtke, DISA Visual Information Services Branch
     Members of DISA’s NetOps Solutions collaborate on innovative enhancements for capabilities that automate many key functions of DISA’s services and infrastructure. Photography by Kevin Headtke, DISA Visual Information Services Branch

Information Agency Innovates Innovation

The Cyber Edge
June 6, 2017
By Alana Johnson

Two new initiatives launch DISA forward to deliver new capabilities.

The Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) is discovering and evolving disruptive technologies with the formation of its burgeoning Innovations Systems and Engineering Directorate (ISED). Evolved from the agency’s former Chief Technology Office and the Enterprise Engineering division, the directorate is to identify and develop future technologies and information sharing capabilities and apply them to innovative solutions, demonstrating proof of concept and operational utility for mission partners and combatant commands.

Steeped in a culture of technologically driven capabilities and landscapes, the agency is committed to exploiting innovation to support its missions. “We seek out new technologies and leverage them to satisfy technical gaps identified by DISA, the Department of Defense or the combatant commands to bring new solutions to the forefront,” says Charlie Fields, chief of the Technology Innovation Office. “From my perspective, innovation can be a brand new technology, or it can be utilizing technologies we already have in new, innovative ways.”

Fields emphasizes that innovation is not always rolling out revolutionary, disruptive technologies. Much of innovation centers on the deliberate application of knowledge, lessons and resourcefulness to advance technology incrementally to satisfy the needs and expectations of customers.

Heading into the next fiscal year, the ISED will focus on two major innovation initiatives that will assist in accelerating the delivery of capability to the agency, its mission partners and the warfighter.

First is Systems Engineering, Technology, and Innovation (SETI), a new indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contract vehicle for the Defense Department that is rooted in innovation to meet the complex information technology engineering and developmental requirements for mission requirement owners. SETI will merge and streamline critical engineering expertise to research, design, develop, implement, integrate and optimize Defense Department information technology capabilities, systems and solutions. SETI enables the agency to move toward a highly efficient approach for engineering support and services procurement, with a focus on innovation throughout the developmental life cycle.

The second initiative plays to the agency’s goal of changing the internal culture by disrupting the status quo with a new innovative process called DISA-ruptive. DISA-ruptive allows the entire DISA workforce to submit enhancement ideas on a business process, technology or the use of emerging technologies in unique ways to increase efficiency and ultimately move the agency to be a more innovation-focused organization. 

“DISA-ruptive is based off processes of Silicon Valley and large tech companies to foster innovation among all employees in their everyday work,” Fields explains. “It’s ambitious for us because DISA has never offered the innovation process to the workforce in terms of garnering new ideas, and the excitement and support is spreading.”

In April, Lt. Gen. Alan Lynn, USA, DISA director and commander of the Joint Force Headquarters–Department of Defense Information Network (JFHQ-DODIN), hosted the Defense Innovation Board, an advisory panel composed of industry leaders in technology and innovation. The agency’s DISA-ruptive initiative was briefed to several technology titans, including a major search engine vice president and a top social media executive.

“They were very supportive and offered help down the road as we roll this out,” Fields reports. “Once they saw our process and the road we are taking, they acknowledged they are seeing similar efforts within their own companies.”

Conceived by a simple conversation in the summer of 2016, getting DISA-ruptive from the concept stage to initial rollout in May 2017 was an ambitious goal for the agency. Likewise, it is a prime example of how industry meetings and conferences can have huge effects for the department.

For DISA-ruptive to be successful, it was imperative to have leadership buy in very early in the process. “This is unique because it impacts the entire work force, therefore we did our due diligence to socialize this initiative and notify senior leaders of our goals and objectives,” states DISA-ruptive Program Manager Jeanelle Holder. “To reach this point, we had to do a lot of groundwork to gain agency-wide support.” 

After receiving encouragement and guidance from DISA’s Development and Business Center director, Alfred Rivera, Holder’s team garnered backing from agency chief engineers and technical directors and senior executives across the agency. Outreach to other agencies, academia and organizations, such as the National Security Agency, Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx), the Department of Health and Human Services and Georgetown University, bolstered the team’s resolve that its efforts were not only applauded but also on par with industry best practices used to foster innovation.

After meeting with other innovation groups and learning from their successes, tools and methodologies, Holder says she boiled the DISA-ruptive foundation down to the mission model canvas, or MMC. The MMC is a business model adaptation for mission-driven organizations not centered on building revenue streams, she emphasizes, but instead focused on mission achievement.

“We believe DISA-ruptive will benefit the entire workforce, giving employees the opportunity to work on their passionate ideas and enhancing morale and collaboration across the agency,” Holder offers. “Our goal is to empower employees and help them understand that innovation does not mean invention.”

Holder adds that the entire DISA workforce can participate and have a positive effect on shaping the culture at DISA. Through DISA-ruptive, employees are paired with a mentor to help develop and socialize ideas. This approach aims to benefit both innovator and mentor as they engage and ask tough questions to move projects forward. Holder and Fields believe that as the agency gains efficiencies and solves problems through DISA-ruptive, it can be used as a template for other organizations to follow. 

“DISA’s work force is made up of very talented individuals with really great ideas, and we’re providing a platform for exploring new ways to achieve DISA's mission and work through those ideas from cradle to grave,” Holder says. “I’m excited and look forward to collaborating with innovation leaders inside and outside the [Defense Department].”

DISA-ruptive comes at a perfect time for DISA, as the agency is called on by the department to take on new and expanding mission sets. Fields identifies several ways DISA engages industry to help keep pace with, and meet, expectations of its customers and mission partners. 

“We have three primary ways to interface with industry to ensure we know what’s going on out there, and in return, give industry vision into the issues our mission partners need us to solve,” Fields explains.

First, technical exchange meetings (TEMs) are held weekly and allow vendors to present technologies that may be relevant or impactful to the agency and department. Second, through cooperative research and development agreements (CRADAs), DISA partners with industry and academia to look at emerging technologies. CRADAs give the government opportunities to work with industry partners without having a firm contract in place and without giving competitive advantages to industry partners absent a full and open competition.

Federal Technology Transfer Act of 1986

Designates authority to federal government entities to establish a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) between one or more federal agencies and one or more non-federal parties under which the government provides personnel, services, facilities, equipment, or other resources with or without reimbursement (but not funds to non-Federal parties). The non-federal parties provide funds, personnel, services, facilities, equipment, or other resources toward the conduct of specified research or development efforts which are consistent with the mission of the agency.

Source: Congress.Gov

“Contracts sometimes take a long time to be put in place. CRADAs allow us to work in partnership with industry in the meantime,” Fields notes. “This is especially important in the innovation space because technology matures so quickly and moves on. We need to be involved to maintain our stride.”

Lastly, industry conferences, events and summits, such as the AFCEA Defensive Cyber Operations Symposium, allow DISA to participate with the Defense Department and combatant commands in the technology community to have open discussions and look at technology from industry.  

Fields acknowledges these three things are not a panacea, but they are cornerstones for the agency to build solutions that affect the entire department. He stresses the need for ideas and collaboration to lay down preliminary work and foster discussions on the world of the possible.

“Every time we talk to industry we explore everything no matter how extraneous or small they think an idea may be,” said Fields. “Those sometimes lead to big solutions for big challenges.”

Moving forward, Fields is encouraged by the timely convergence of SETI and DISA-ruptive, along with TEMs, CRADAs and industry events. By implementing these tools, the newly-formed ISED office will assist in piloting the agency, its workforce and the department on a glide path toward the rapid delivery of disruptive technologies to the agency’s mission partners and warfighters around the world.

Alana Johnson is with the DISA Public Affairs Office.

DISA’s efforts at innovation will be explored in depth at AFCEA’s Defensive Cyber Operations Symposium in Baltimore June 13-15.

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