IT investment: Are we building the necessary foundation for information agility?

For more than 30 years, Andy Blenkarn has worked in the public and private sectors to deliver information technology (IT) projects. Today, as a senior executive with Hewlett-Packard’s Global Government Industry group, he helps large public organizations to transform their operations with communications and computer networking solutions. He spoke with Vanguard about global advances in defence IT and the challenges and opportunities they present to Canada’s military.

What does today’s defence information technology environment look like to a global company like yours, and how would you position Canada in that analysis?

Two things are happening at the same time. Canada and its allies are being asked to commit forces to more missions and different kinds of missions in support of national and international operations – all demanding increasing volumes of information and data sharing among partners, improved cross-domain security and improved information management for operational benefit. Speed and quality of information are critical to the success of today’s and tomorrow’s C4ISR operations. Domestic economic stresses are also calling for transformation in many areas. These calls are often read as cost-control and demands for fewer people to do more with less, and do it with a range of international and cross-government partners. Information technology can square the circle. In fact, in large measure it will have to.

IT infrastructure and innovative enabling technologies are absolutely critical to the future transformation agenda, but we’re not putting sufficient investment in this area. It seems that we are trying to skip the required investment in IT infrastructure and cyber security components, and jumping to real-time situational awareness and information sharing with strategic partners. Well, yes, we all want to get there, but there is good reason why other quite established militaries are putting huge investments into the infrastructure. It is not infrastructure for its own sake. It’s infrastructure for real-time operational benefit and information sharing. The private sector calls it competitive value but in the military realm, it can mean life and death.

I think our forces need information agility, from the back office to the battlespace. How can you structure to support that? What is the opportunity in terms of context-aware data? There is a huge demand for real-time information – from sensing technologies, to mobile devices, to asset tracking – be it physical asset locations or proximity of people, goods and assets. This has consequences. Never before has the volume of information been so great. In my mind, that leads to two primary solutions: the whole theme of bringing it all together – the data fusion concept – and ensuring it is accurate and about real-time. The infrastructure, the applications and the governance, including physical and cyber security, are all critical building blocks that enable real-time sharing of data. We want the value of data and real-time information, but we’re not sure we want to make the strategic investments necessary to drive this outcome. Well, these are foundational building blocks that really need to be modernized and put in place.

How have other countries arrived at “yes” in their defence IT modernization plans?

The United States is perceived to be way out in front in terms of linking information value to the battlespace. They refer to this as net-centric warfare. What does that mean and why is it important? They have spent considerable time demonstrating and researching the value of real-time information access, authentication, and management. And they have leveraged industry to help deliver it. We refer to this capability in Canada as Network Enabled Capability. Canada has always been a little bit different, due to our broader mandates in terms of our peacekeeping roles, military operations, etc., but whether it is disaster relief or emergency response in support of flooded parts of this country, or Haiti, or NATO operations, all the same elements have to be in place in terms of rapidly bringing information together. So I think a lot of other governments have invested in various building blocks and many strategic pieces of research in terms of ‘what is networked enabled capability?’ or ‘what are the elements we need to put in place?’ They have developed digital strategies to support a modern and information-rich defence environment and they have executed on that strategy to drive the required investments needed to support the future vision of a modern defence operation.

In equipment terms, the Canadian Forces went through the decade of darkness, followed by almost a decade of deployment. What was the impact of that bust and boom on information technology?

During the intense period of deployment I think we have missed some of the key IT enablers that we could have leveraged and that we still need. The reality is from an IT perspective, information and real-time situational awareness, command and control (C2) are so important. Today companies like mine and our partners are putting a huge focus on C2, on linking command and control to logistics, personnel, and asset management, all within a much broader cyber security framework. I think Canada could make more investment and derive significantly more benefit and value.

The volume of data in practically any context you look at is simply too great for anyone to manually gather and integrate. You cannot roll it up and know where your assets are, be they people or physical inventory. You can’t do this with old tools. I have spoken with a number of military leaders, and it is well recognized that we need to adopt more agile, integrated solutions. They know they could have the ability to look on-screen and see where the resources are and their allocation. Manual processes and manual ‘data fusion’ alone do not support real-time situational awareness. We can’t take an old paradigm of data collection, aggregation, and presentation and apply it to today’s fast-changing, real world. You won’t get the required information if you don’t have the fundamental building blocks in place. I don’t think we have done a good job of communicating the importance of connecting the power of information to policy outcomes. We need to link that powerful message, or we will go forward with stand-alone IT projects instead of a broader program transformation and vision, attached to policy outcomes and enabled by agility, speed to deploy, real-time information and cost effectiveness.

An example from the public safely arena is very real. The city of Anaheim, California, has real-time situational awareness for first responders, so the police and the fire fighters know what is happening on the ground. They can even patch the mayor in, if necessary, to a live video feed of the operation. In the military there is similar real-time situation awareness needs. However, investment in technology alone can’t bring all those worlds together. There is a huge change management component required to designing, building, and managing an information-rich C2 operation. We cannot design it as a foundational level infrastructure solution without communicating the business value and the policy outcomes that it is going to drive. Business and public value need to be demonstrated to drive motivation and change.

Within militaries, equipment often defines what missions can be performed successfully. Are we demanding enough from the potential of IT?

If we don’t know where people are, what equipment they have and what condition it’s in, or how we plan to support that mission logistically, and what the intelligence picture is, and how we plan to maintain the flow of intelligence, then we simply may not be able to fully support the operation and our partners to the required levels needed. Think about the new areas of operations. The stability of food supplies during and after operations can be a critical success factor. Do you have a plan to integrate NGO activities? It is no longer in many instances a pure defence operation. You can’t go shopping from silo to silo, getting different pieces of information in whatever particular format that organization has selected and expect to aggregate that into a real information service layer and then add on an executive information feed, if you haven’t thought that through. This implies adopting new governance, infrastructure and application strategies.

The Afghanistan mission is changing, and there is a Transformation exercise underway? Is this an opportunity to make sure IT occupies the right place in the new equation?

I think that the push has to come from programs and operations, from the business side of defence. It has to come from a clear understanding that to be agile and responsive to new missions that appear at lightning speed – for example our recent Libya deployment – including the ability to pull them together with all the right information, takes a total rethinking of how we share information. We don’t tend to share information across defence operations easily, particularly the way information is currently structured. It is going to take a business program change that is monumentally different, I think. The game needs to change from information silos to information sharing. Whether it is national security, international operations, disaster response or peacekeeping, we need to start threading in some innovative technologies.

Could the lack of modern defence IT become a showstopper?

If we don’t make some strategic investments, we will not be able to contribute to international operations in ways that Canada and Canadians will want. Without the enabling infrastructure, we will not achieve our desired outcomes – a simple statement but a complex challenge. The individual components really need to be integrated to drive value. The expectation is that Canada will be able to lead some missions and be a leading participant in others. That drives the need for integrated information. If we are not sharing data within our armed forces and across our own government where necessary, how do we expect to be a leading partner in coalition operations?

And there is no real barrier preventing this transformation. Canada has one of the richest and most capable information and communications technology sectors in the world. There is no debate about that. Industry delivers components and complete solutions from Canada to other countries around the world today, but the leveraging of Canadian technology and innovation is often happening outside Canada. We should be driving the integration and end-to-end solution development here in Canada.

What are the big lessons from IT modernization in other countries?

In other countries, defence departments have worked with industry to identify outcomes and develop solutions. The thrust elsewhere has been to use advanced infrastructure to break through information silos. There have been considerable cost savings of around 30 percent in some projects and services where innovative business models, technologies, and procurement models have been adopted. Canada is supporting a lot of innovative, small defence research and development projects. These are excellent and well-meaning projects, but we need to leverage these initiatives to help speed up the larger enterprise deployment strategy of solutions – particularly across command and control. We need to be far more nimble and focused on outcome-based procurements, based on business outcomes and aggressive timelines. We need to integrate cross-domain security and innovative cyber security solutions to enable tomorrow’s information sharing and real-time situational environment. On some projects the timelines are way too far in the future. That simply isn’t acceptable. We have to pick up the pace.

A couple of times I have alluded to ‘all of government’ and that is an important piece of the challenge DND faces. When you look across government, we spend a great deal of money on IT. But the real question is not what we are spending; it is how we are spending. There is so much opportunity to reallocate some of that spend to more information-rich and outcome-based delivery. If we were to leverage industry where industry performs best, we would get more than we are getting today, for the same dollar spent. I am seeing other governments develop innovative partnering principles with industry, as defined in the U.K. by the Office of Government Commerce.

I don’t really believe years of minority government are to blame – not entirely anyway. I think what we have lost is the focus on the role Canada can or should play and the innovation and investment needed to effectively fulfill that role. We have had disconnects between innovation, service delivery, service quality, demand for new efficiencies and desired outcomes. If you bring these together they will drive the trust we need to have industry as a valued partner, accountable for clear outcomes and service level commitments.

Canada has been an information technology leader. Can that be sustained?

Nobody is interested in seeing Canada lose its reputation as a public sector service delivery global leader. Canada has enjoyed a pretty prestigious position. We have some amazing individual projects, but individual projects do not represent a broader commitment to innovation or to a transformation agenda that is government-wide in scope. I think this is what we are missing. We need commitment and support for transformation from the political level to the bureaucratic leadership, and from industry. We need a unified vision of where we want Canada to be.

Belgium has used INDIGO sessions to drive industry-government innovation. They set out a transformation agenda and a linked digital strategy that was formed by bringing their so-called captains of industry together with government and NGOs, to form a broader transformation vision, program and journey. So where does Canada want to be? Industry can drive the market to a degree, but the reality is that the government spend today is significant, and we are not leveraging it to the fullest – nor adopting an overall innovation strategy to support a clear information management and vision for the future. We need to get past one-off projects and begin to think about creating global centres of excellence in Canada based on innovative projects, global technology, Canadian technology, partnering, and Canadian added value services – all with repeatable value. That’s our potential. We need to make it real.


An interview with Andy Blenkarn.

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