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DISA Looks to Small Business for Innovation

A gold mine of unique capabilities and technologies is enticing the information agency.
A U.S. Army logistics management specialist instructs a soldier in the installation of the Joint Capabilities Release—Logistics System in an Army vehicle. The Defense Information Systems Agency increasingly is looking to small business for innovative communications and electronics technologies that can be acquired and deployed rapidly.

A U.S. Army logistics management specialist instructs a soldier in the installation of the Joint Capabilities Release—Logistics System in an Army vehicle. The Defense Information Systems Agency increasingly is looking to small business for innovative communications and electronics technologies that can be acquired and deployed rapidly.

The very qualities that define small businesses—agility, flexibility, inherent innovation—are driving the Defense Information Systems Agency to increase its efforts to bring their capabilities under the big tent of defense network services.

With the agency, known as DISA, tasked with providing warfighters and decision makers with the best in information technology, it must incorporate capabilities faster than is possible through normal acquisition processes involving large contractors. Ongoing efforts such as regular outreach and prime contract set-asides are being supplanted with new segmented contracts and drives to bring in nontraditional firms.

Small businesses provide DISA with the opportunity to access technologies and services that the agency ordinarily would not receive from large companies, states Sharon Jones, director of the DISA Office of Small Business Programs. She elaborates that small firms own proprietary data and software that have provided specific capabilities unavailable elsewhere. Also, small businesses have more flexibility to customize their goods and services to suit DISA’s needs directly, she notes.

“Small businesses show up willing to customize and wanting to work with their customers,” Jones relates. “They show up wanting to give the best possible products and services they have to ensure our mission success. They bring in leading technology trends, they have more of a pulse of what’s going on in the community, and they bring that talent and information to the agency through their products and services.

“They do have access to innovation, whether they’re in the SBIR [Small Business Innovation Research] program or whether they’re in the Rapid Innovation [Fund] program,” she continues. ‘They have become an integral part of how we do business here at this agency. And, at the end of the day for us, it really comes down to, ‘Are we doing everything we can to support that warfighter?’”

For large multimillion dollar procurements, DISA usually has a small business suite for firms with leading technologies, good performance accountability and access to innovation. “Those contracts are going to be right in their sweet spot to pursue,” Jones says. “Having our large procurements with a separate suite for small business really opens up our door to innovation in ways that it never had before. [Small businesses] can bring in smart solutions and services that can support all of DISA’s endeavors.”

In addition to these dedicated small business suites, DISA looks to small businesses for cost savings and efficiencies that used to be the purview of open contracts. Instead, the program office will establish small business awards to achieve these goals programmatically.

Jones reports that for the past five years, DISA has met or exceeded its prime contract small business participation goal, with $1.4 billion to $1.7 billion in small business awards for each of the past four years.

But the agency is not resting on its laurels. DISA is striving to engage more Historically Underutilized Business Zone (HUBZone) small businesses within its contracting opportunities, Jones reports. It is her office's goal to achieve DISA’s HUBZone small business goal and to provide enough contracting opportunities for HUBZone companies to attain a $100 million level. Other small and disadvantaged business categories have reached that level, but HUBZone firms have not, she admits.

So, DISA is engaging more HUBZone companies in its contracting process. This effort includes new marketing research techniques to identify and reach out to HUBZone companies. Jones cites a recent HUBZone showcase in which 29 eligible companies met to learn DISA’s needs and determine if their technologies and capabilities could be a good fit.

The agency also is pushing its large prime contractors to include more small businesses to meet government-mandated targeted goals. Efforts include establishing small business participation plans so that prime companies can commit to using small firms within their own large contract awards.

One outreach thrust is an agency leadership speaker series known as Leaning Forward. Jones will ask one DISA senior leader to have a conversation with small businesses about what their part of the agency is doing. Giving this insight into part of DISA’s technical direction helps firms provide better proposals, she says. A separate monthly orientation session features agency guest speakers to improve understanding by small business.

For the future, Jones wants a better website for the agency’s Small Business Office. Her wish list includes a more interactive site with more information—a “My Own Small Business Website” approach to companies.

Social media may play a greater role. Jones wants to use Facebook as a means of becoming more involved with small businesses. Her office also will implement small business webinars using DISA’s YouTube channel.

Federal regulations restrict her office’s activities, so it must work on different ways of outreach rather than types of contracting. “We’re going to do everything we can to highlight small businesses within our environment.”

Jones views her office as the primary gateway for small business involvement with DISA. She urges small firms that have not done business with the agency to reach out to her office rather than contact individual program managers. Facility clearances, certifications and apps are just some of the capabilities that companies should bring to the table as part of their value proposition for a contract, and the office can direct small businesses to the appropriate program managers for their capabilities.

She urges small businesses to review DISA’s November 2016 Forecast to Industry for key updates on upcoming acquisition. The Federal Business Opportunity website should be reviewed for contracting opportunities, she adds, if for no other reason than just to become familiar with the types of requirements that DISA is seeking from small businesses. “It is critical, for small businesses to really pursue opportunities here, that they understand what the agency’s needs are,” Jones declares.

Jones also emphasizes that small businesses should participate in the AFCEA Defensive Cyber Operations Symposium (DCOS) in Baltimore June 13-15. “This is a key gateway to engage with many DISA senior leaders as well as our program managers and our acquisition staff to gain a potential understanding of opportunities,” she states.

“Small business should not be a wallflower,” she declares. “Don’t wait to be watered—given a contract—you’re going to have to earn that contract and be awarded it.”

DISA will be expanding on these small business approaches at the Defensive Cyber Operations Conference in Baltimore June 13-15.