WASHINGTON – The COVID-19 pandemic forced the Pentagon’s top IT agency to roll out collaboration tools at record speed and scale to a workforce that largely went remote.

The pandemic sent organizations across the United States scrambling to support mass telework, but none had to meet the size and scale of the Defense Department with its millions of employees. One of the major initiatives rushed out by IT leadership at the Defense Department was the Commercial Virtual Remote Environment, a Microsoft Teams environment that provided remote collaboration tools to DoD users across the world.

The platform has more than 1 million users and provides secure access to unclassified work. According to Caroline Kuharske, senior strategic planner for the services directorate and the strategic communication lead for CVR, the document sharing platform and cloud storage capability has been one of the most popular tools CVR supports.

Kuharske told C4ISRNET that part of the success was because early on in the pandemic the team “really clearly defined goals and what the outcome needed to be.”

“The more that you’re able to message early, with both internal and external sources, that definitely helps to create that narrative that, ‘yes, we are in a very unfamiliar state, but we are going to be able to do our jobs for this nation,’” Kuharske said.

The new platform meant users had to learn new tools, which is always a challenge. Kuharske said that the DoD IT leadership set up training programs for employees “to provide that level of comfort to where these warfighters weren’t focused on how hard this may be, but rather, ‘I can use this new tool and complete my mission.’”

The CVR platform’s self-service capability allows users to reset passwords and accounts without contacting a help desk, a function that has provided $21 million in service desk savings, according to Kuharske.

DISA had to do more than just roll out the CVR platform to ensure mission continuity during work from home. Another critical component was DISA’s Defense Collaboration Services program office, led by program manager Carey Burris. which rolled out a chat tool to Android devices to allow 135 employees to message with DoD employees from their mobile device. According to Burris, the typical timetable to scale the services they provided would take two to three months, but during the pandemic they did it in five weeks.

“Everyone understood the sense of urgency and that need. And how the entire department was department was depending on us,” Burris said. “There was a lot of synergy and just collaboration among the group. So it was just involvement of everyone understanding that ‘hey, this is something that we’ve got to get done.’”

The DCS program also used automation to deploy the tools faster.

“If it’s done manually, sometimes individuals move away from the script. They may think ‘okay, I got a shortcut’ or ‘I can skip this process to move it along.’ But if you’re using automated tools and you’re running those tools, it’s a repeatable process that it’s going through and you don’t have to worry about things being missed,” Burris said.

Some capabilities are likely to remain once work returns to normal. The CVR environment is a temporary solution, but top IT leaders at the DoD have said that an enduring solution will be implemented in June 2021 with higher security levels.

“We know we need a more enduring solution but [one] that keeps the same functionality of CVR, which allows us to talk to people at IL-2, talk to people not on the Department of Defense Information Network,” DoD principal deputy CIO John Sherman said at C4ISRNET’s CyberCon event Oct. 28.

Andrew Eversden covers all things defense technology for C4ISRNET. He previously reported on federal IT and cybersecurity for Federal Times and Fifth Domain, and worked as a congressional reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune. He was also a Washington intern for the Durango Herald. Andrew is a graduate of American University.

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