Incoming: The Defense Department Must Step Boldly Toward Information Technology Modernization

March 1, 2019
By Lt. Gen. Susan Lawrence, USA (Ret.)

In today’s increasingly complex, dynamic and digital-centric world, the Defense Department’s success will hinge on how well it takes on the characteristics of an agile workforce. This requires qualities such as agility, responsiveness, efficiency, resiliency, innovation and hyperawareness of the many environments it inhabits.

Information technology, smartly managed, can deliver all these capabilities. So it is no surprise that in the most successful agencies, technology is leading the charge toward new business models and new ways of thinking and working.

Information technology is no longer just an enabler. It is fundamental to how federal agencies operate. And as technology continues to rapidly advance, we are witnessing the role of information technology shift accordingly to become a leading change agent.

Five years ago, when I was serving as the CIO/G-6 for the Army, all technology resources were required to be government-owned and operated. Today, as we confront the rapid digitization of everything, there is a growing recognition of the value of acquiring software-as-a-service (SaaS), platform-as-a-service (PaaS) and infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS). These approaches just make sense. I am personally realizing that everything-as-a-service (EaaS) is the way to deliver information technology. The Defense Department cannot afford to invest in every rapid-fire technology advancement, but it cannot afford to miss out on them either.

Defense Department leaders, like those at other agencies, generally understand the need to modernize. But they contend with well-known obstacles such as budget constraints, cultural and organizational resistance, competing priorities, and scant expertise and confusion with modern technologies and the innovative models used to deliver them.

These challenges clearly hamper progress. My company recently surveyed 200 federal government information technology executives across defense and civilian agencies about the state of their information technology, and the results were notable. Broadly speaking, federal agencies are making some limited progress with information technology modernization, yet significant gaps persist in aligning their technology priorities with mission objectives.

For example, most federal information technology organizations—70 percent of those surveyed—still view themselves as mission enablers rather than change agents within their agencies.

Also, the commercial cloud is seeing limited adoption among federal agencies. More than half of the respondents—54 percent—run 25 percent or less of their infrastructure in the cloud. Moreover, only one in five respondents can be considered pacesetters, with half or more of their systems running in commercial cloud infrastructures.

Other modernization avenues, such as SaaS applications, digital platforms and self-service analytics, remain largely untapped.

Respondents said the amount, pace and scope of change affecting their information technology infrastructures, strategies, organizations and operations are significantly less than the technology changes they see affecting their personal lives.

So what can information technology leaders within the Defense Department do to better deliver on the promise of modernization? They must reimagine how they operate and deliver value.

They can accomplish this by becoming business leaders within their departments. That means drawing clear lines between technology and mission outcomes, leveraging their deep understanding of technology’s potential to educate other agency leaders about the art of the possible and crafting strong strategies and business cases for their modernization priorities.

Information technology leaders also should embrace new objectives. All aspects of the enterprise are becoming digitized, so leaders and their staffs must forge new and extensive partnerships and collaborations. This means shifting to shared vision and objectives with a greater focus on impact and outcomes, not just performance. An effective way to accelerate this is by deploying information technology talent directly into the mission, business and operations, where they can work together to achieve common goals.

Everyone must prepare for constant change. The Defense Department is used to continuous reinvention, whether it is the creation of a new space force, the launch of a new military operation, the transition from one weapon platform to another, a base closure or even a uniform change. But the department’s digital operations must be far more agile, resilient and responsive given the increasing velocity of change we see occurring in technology advancement, cybersecurity and data-centric warfare. To dramatically lower the threshold to change, information technology leaders must promote a shift toward digital platforms and liquid environments—liquid workforces, data, and applications—that can rapidly meet new requirements.

Such approaches will help, but a critical factor in determining how quickly or slowly the Defense Department can modernize its information technology operations is its culture. Department leaders must think hard about how to shift the culture from being overly risk averse to more risk tolerant. That will be the topic of my next column.

Lt. Gen. Susan Lawrence, USA (Ret.), is managing director, Joint Forces Sector, Accenture Federal Services. She previously served as the CIO/G-6 for the U.S. Army as well as the Commanding General for the Army’s Network Enterprise Technology Command (NETCOM).

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