Across the Department of Defense, organizations are exploring the role of artificial intelligence in revamping how they carry out their daily work and accelerating how they deliver on missions. While these grassroots efforts have created pockets of innovation, defense organizations should now look to take a more systematic approach to leveraging AI in their operations.

One approach is to create an internal research and development team that looks across an organization and identifies areas in which AI might address existing pain-points and provide an operational edge. The goal of such a group is to bring together stakeholders — program managers, data scientists, engineers — who understand those pain-points and who can help drive programs forward.

For defense organizations, the time is right. AI has garnered top-level support at the Department, with an AI strategy that “directs DoD to accelerate the adoption of AI and the creation of a force fit for our time," according to a summary released earlier this year. Its goal is to make any technical, organizational and operational changes needed to “enable DoD to take advantage of AI systematically at enterprise scale.”

Likewise, Congress recognizes the importance of AI, not just to the national economy but to the Department of Defense, the intelligence community, and the larger national security arena. The Senate’s version of the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act is expected to include significant funding for AI initiatives in the military services.

To some extent, the use of artificial intelligence will be driven from the top-down — most notably by the Joint AI Center. The JAIC’s role, according to the strategy, is to identify, prioritize and select AI mission initiatives and to spearhead the development of use cases that “demonstrate value and spur momentum.”

Additionally, the JAIC will take the lead on national mission initiatives, a select set of high-priority tasks that address key issues that cut across the different services. It will work with individual services or agencies to help shape component-specific AI deployments.

But the department’s strategy also stresses the importance of innovation within the individual services and support agencies. “It is likely that the most transformative AI-enabled capabilities will arise from experiments at the ‘forward edge,’ that is, discovered by the users themselves in contexts far removed from centralized offices and laboratories,” the AI strategy states.

Without a doubt, a lot of innovation is already underway. For example, the Army is testing the idea of incorporating AI capabilities into drones as a way to provide greater situational awareness on the battlefield, while the Air Force is working with MIT to apply AI to a wide-range of fields, including maintenance and logistics, medical readiness and disaster relief. The Naval Research Lab is even investigating whether AI could help them identify employees who are at risk of quitting.

For service components and supporting agencies, the challenge is not to spark innovation so much as it is to align innovation with organizational and mission priorities.

That’s where the research and development team comes in. Such a team, drawing members from across different job functions, would bring an understanding of organizational priorities that is both broad and deep. The team would focus on identifying program areas in which AI could help address longstanding pain-points or evolving mission requirements.

But rather than operating as a formal organization with full-time, permanent members, the team could function as something of a standing task force, tapping into the talents of a broad pool of talent, with members contributing a portion of their time for defined stints.

Besides reducing the impact on the organization overall, this model would ensure a diversity of perspectives over time. Also, by involving a wide range of individuals, such an initiative would help develop and retain AI talent in-house.

In a sense, an R&D team provides a way to institutionalize innovation — cultivating creativity in a way that is both productive and sustainable. Sustainability is the key. Although AI remains a nascent field, defense organizations need to position themselves now for long-term success. To form an R&D team is to bet on the future of AI. It’s a bet that will pay off both now and in the years ahead.

Jamie Milne is the big data engagement manager at World Wide Technology.