Smart Tech Acquisition Starts with Asking Tough Questions

June 22, 2021

Panelists chat about technological innovation during a Q&A session of the 18th Annual Acquisition Research Symposium

Research and Reflections from the 18th Annual Acquisition Research Symposium

How can the Navy and the Department of Defense best use and acquire capabilities made possible by emerging technologies like artificial intelligence? That question, and the many answers to it, ran throughout the recent symposium panel, “Enhancing Acquisition with Artificial Intelligence and Cybersecurity.” Rear Admiral Lorin Selby, Chief of Naval Research, chaired the panel and kicked off conversation with some thoughts on how Naval acquisition and larger structures throughout DoD need to change to address today’s technologies and threats.

Echoing an assessment that has become a common refrain, Shelby said, “The acquisition model we have is tuned for about 1985. It’s tuned for an adversary that is technologically inferior and economically inferior to us. That is not the case today with a nation like China. Some of the topics we have today in this panel are critical to that discussion. How do you go after the things our acquisition system is not tuned to do?”

He continued, saying that the problem demands “structural reforms,” not just reforms to the acquisition system. “It’s a pretty robust conversation right now in the OPNAV staff and in the ASN(RDA) organization. What’s the to-be state for these kinds of systems? How do we move these technologies faster? How do we find early adopters, get the warfighters involved early and really move these technologies through the pipeline? How do we get across the valley of death we all like to talk about?”

Papers discussed during this panel covered how to identify and measure risk in artificial intelligence systems, how to develop effective cybersecurity strategies, and how to determine requirements for AI and other new technologies.  Conversation during the question-and-answer period of the panel showed consensus on the need to rethink requirements and risk assessments, as well as new educational models that integrate knowledge of technology with broader understanding of complex management issues.

The Role of Graduate Education

Acknowledging the pacing threat China is presenting in the domain of higher education, Selby admitted that “we have a tremendous national security challenge with STEM talent in this country. We do not create enough STEM graduates, but China does.”

Tom Housel, professor in the Information Sciences Department of Naval Postgraduate School, countered this claim with a different perspective: “You may be right about that in terms of numbers of engineers, but the engineers that worked for me when I was an executive at [an Italian telecommunications company] were Italian and had a really good liberal arts background in addition to their engineering – and they were better problem solvers than my higher educated guys at [an American telecom company].”

Carol Woody, Technical Manager for Cyber Securing Engineering at the Software Engineering Institute, concurred that there is a problem with basic engineering training: “Most engineers are taught to decompose a problem. We have to look at synergies and broader strategic pictures. The decomposition mindset is getting in the way. People don’t understand that they have to think through the complexity.” This overly narrow thinking can also be found in the current approach to work in what she called “stovepipes of excellence,” or small, focused technical areas that don’t fit the big strategic picture.

Scaling Innovation in the Defense Acquisition System

This need to think of technology as not just a technical, but a strategic, solution was reinforced when Selby asked the panelists to share their thoughts on how DoD can scale up the kind of technological innovation that is occurring in organizations like the Air Force’s Kessel Run. During that conversation, panelists agreed that decision makers should begin by asking, “what problem are we trying to solve?” rather than simply finding a way to acquire the latest emerging technology.

Carol Woody offered that “Too frequently the requirements are defined around the technology and not around the business problem or the program problem they’re actually trying to solve.” Selby agreed: “we tend to go right to the answer.” He also shared that he has been working with Steve Blank, founder of the Lean Startup Method, to think more carefully about problem identification in Naval acquisition. (Blank spoke to NPS students last year enrolled in an entrepreneurship course piloting the Hacking for Defense methodology.)

As the conversation ended, Housel offered an example of how NPS’ model of higher education can create transformational thinking. He recalled having “a student who came from the Pentagon straight into a Ph.D. program. It took us a year to get him out of drawing clouds and arrows and ‘then a miracle happens.’” Selby and other panelists smiled in recognition of this abstract way of communicating.  Housel said NPS can help military professionals break out of this mindset: “If we can just define the problem clearly, and you tell us what your goal and purpose is, it helps us help you. And that’s what Naval Postgraduate School is for – it’s to help the Navy.”  

As the panel concluded, Selby reiterated his message that to incorporate technological and intellectual innovation, DoD needs structural change: “unless you do that, the culture will eat you for lunch… and you’ve got to have a powerful vision to drive the entire workforce in the right direction.”

Watch the four minute conversation on innovative thinking.



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