Where will tomorrow’s wars be won?
The answer to that question is very different now than it would have been only ten years ago, because the battlespace has expanded into new arenas so quickly – perhaps most notably into the digital realm.
Whether fighting on traditional fronts (land, sea, and air), in cyberspace, or in space itself, victory hinges on our ability to make accurate, lightning-fast decisions based on massive volumes of data generated by sensors, machines, drones, and other digital systems – in addition to the sources of intelligence that have informed defense-related decisions for decades.
Ultimately, winning is about having the knowledge and insight to make smarter decisions faster than our opponents. But as quickly as defense organizations may want to move, a myriad of well explored and publicly discussed factors, like large bureaucracies, outdated acquisition processes, antiquated policies, and so on, hinder institutional transformation on the scale and at the rate needed to adapt to the increasingly digital environment.
Meanwhile, today’s opponents are fierce, nimble, digitally enabled and unencumbered by the deliberative, process-oriented environment in which mature defense organizations operate.
Core to unlocking digital capabilities is the application of advanced analytics already in use throughout the business world. But too often, “analytics inertia” is restraining progress and breaking free requires understanding why it exists at all.
Here are a few reasons and insights on how to gain momentum.
Defense organizations must preserve the flexibility to acquire the best software without fear of becoming locked into a solution that may be unsuitable in the future, as technology and missions change. If a technology partner isn’t delivering desired results, or if the mission and priorities change, they must be replaceable.
Many defense leaders holding the responsibility to obtain mission-critical software – those “close” to mission success for the organization, like analytics solutions supporting intelligence and targeting in operationally focused organizations – are often reluctant to contract with commercial providers for fear the software may become too central to mission success and the company may gain disproportionate leverage in the relationship over time. Instead, their default mode is to build software capabilities themselves – with the help of large consulting organizations, working with internal technology experts and other stakeholders.
While this approach can be time- and resource-intensive, it effectively bypasses “vendor lock-in.” But in a sense, the locked-in relationship has just shifted to a reliance on perpetual services costs as the software is built internally from scratch, iterated to meet requirements and then maintained by a platoon of developers.
This is the best-case scenario, because many such endeavors never evolve beyond the “perpetual iteration phase” – where entities focused on delivering services are content to remain, for obvious reasons.
The history of defense contracts is littered with examples of this type of dysfunctional relationship, making it too easy for defense leaders to overlook the fundamental shift that has occurred among commercial software providers over the last decade or so. Following their own run-ins with vendor lock-in, the business community changed their own software requirements for commercial vendors – requiring these solutions be more easily replaced.
Today, this has become a key selling point for software providers, which has made their solutions more modular than ever before based on an acknowledgement that true commercial software is “built to be replaced.” This has fundamentally changed the vendor/buyer relationship – making it easier for defense organizations to benefit from the ready-to-implement capabilities of the world’s leading technology solutions.
Analytics at scale
Whether using data for intelligence purposes, supply chain management, or any number of highly sensitive, mission-critical initiatives, defense organizations traffic in data at an exponential scale. As a result, there is a widespread belief throughout defense organizations that the only way to manage these sprawling data volumes is to build solutions that are up to the task.
It is true that many commercial data management and analytics solutions are unable to handle military-grade data volumes. It is also a fact that a growing, elite class of commercial solutions are proving ready for the challenge – being used in business environments that operate at a scale comparable to defense applications. Nestle, for example, moves approximately 1 billion SKUs in their system in a 24-hour period.
The company must not only track these movements in real-time, but also requires highly sensitive forecasting capabilities for determining how to replenish these SKUs, as well as all the raw materials required to support their production, all over the world. There are many global technology companies dealing with similar grand-scale data on a daily basis. Many of these commercially available capabilities can be repurposed to fit defense requirements, giving defense leaders a solution that has real world “street cred” through analog commercial use cases with a 70% or greater viability the first day deployed into a defense technical environment.
Imagine a scenario in which a defense organization has entered into a contract with an analytics solution provider that fits the “replaceability” requirement, and then decides to replace them. New systems, processes, and capabilities are successfully implemented with a new provider…but the data is another story. The previous provider used a proprietary data format that requires extensive, time-consuming translation efforts in order to reconstitute it in a workable format. This is the painful reality facing too many defense leaders – and it is entirely avoidable.
Defense leaders in charge of analytics software purchasing decisions can apply one simple criteria to avoid difficult software transitions in the future: If the solution relies on a proprietary data format, disqualify it. Instead, focus on solutions that ensure an organization’s data will be returned in a standard, non-proprietary format it can use forever.
Where will tomorrow’s wars be won? They will be won in conference rooms, board rooms, and laboratories around our country. They will be won wherever risk tolerant leaders engage to push existing inertia a little off trajectory. Ultimately these future wars will be won at the intersection of data, speed and trust.
David Roddenberry, Jr. is Defense and Intelligence Industry Advisor at SAS, a supplier of data analytics software and services.