Incoming: Workarounds Abound for Industry and Government Collaboration
First things first: Happy New Year, and let this be the beginning of a return to normalcy!
The best part of walking a trade show floor is seeing the unexpected: prototypes of new technology, novel ways to solve the government’s challenges and coincidental meetings with new contacts. As the year unfolds, indications are that trade shows will follow the 2020 model: default to online gatherings while holding out hope for in-person events. In some cases, there will be hybrid meetings featuring both elements.
Is the symbiotic government-industry-academia relationship prepared for this long term? Are existing channels supportive enough for all sides to exchange information and meet the government’s national security needs?
The formal opportunities for government to learn about industry solutions are necessary and helpful. Requests for information (RFIs) and requests for proposal (RFPs) provide an ethical way for agencies to collect information on solutions that would be delivered under a contract. But as one-way communications, RFIs and RFPs are limited in how well they increase understanding among participants.
Another popular option, industry day events, suffers from the same pandemic circumstances as trade shows. They place multiple contractors in front of agency staff to learn about requirements and opportunities, but many are now virtual and subject to latency or other Internet connectivity problems. Limited opportunities for questions and answers highlight how they do not have the same serendipitous dynamic as in-person events.
Under another choice, cooperative research and development, an agency and company agree to work on a specific problem without divulging any information about the intellectual property involved. This is a useful tool but is not always scalable and does not lend itself to producing readily available solutions.
The limited impact of these channels for engagement is further restricted when factoring in the loss of key participants from higher education and research institutes. Accounting for up to one-third of presentations at some conferences, these contributors bring a perspective that goes beyond the business case for a solution. They present ideas about what is possible with technology, its positive or negative uses, tangential issues and how to prepare for all related outcomes.
There are three considerations to evolve the interaction among government, industry and academia. First, it takes a conscious effort to stimulate strategic thinking and collaboration. For example, small groups of companies and institutions can band together and hold socially distant meetings for agency leaders to learn about particular topics. Discussions and demonstrations would make the RFI process “live” without the din of a trade show floor or the distractions that can happen with an online session. Overhead microphones for questions and a traffic light system at entry points are pandemic precautions that meeting professionals are considering.
Second, each audience can recommit to virtual conferences to stay connected. Overall exhibition spending is about one-third of what it was in 2019, according to a report from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), and virtual meetings are the readily available substitute. Even though these gatherings have limitations in terms of audience engagement, the industry is creative and is figuring out how to increase interest levels, how to standardize platform features and how to provide an interactive experience that meets government requirements.
Finally, there’s no need to wait for the events industry to figure out a better way or for the pandemic to subside. Participants can create more of their own meetings organically so that necessary knowledge transfer takes place.
The common thread in these traditional and new ways of connecting is that it takes relationships to get the government’s work done. At a high level, that means engaging the overseers in the government, the practitioners from industry and the academics from industry and various research organizations. It also implies that at the program level, skilled professionals always will be needed to deliver value by giving context to data, providing a differentiator for programs and enabling mission success.
Maj. Gen. Jennifer Napper, USA (Ret.), is a vice president in Perspecta Inc.’s defense group. She previously served as director of cybersecurity plans and policy for the U.S. Department of Defense Cyber Command, and she led the U.S. Army’s Network Enterprise Technology Command (NETCOM).