DoD gets serious about technology transfer to the troops

A new group within DoD seeks to track how well new technology makes its way to the troops.

A new group within DoD seeks to track how well new technology makes its way to the troops. Heidi Shyu, the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering said DoD will use advanced data analytics to do the job at hand. The team is called, “The Transition Tracking Action Group” or T-Tag. For details, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin talked with DoD’s Chief Data Officer for Research and Engineering, Cyrus Jabbari.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin Well, first of all, tell us to tag. What is this all about and what problem is it trying to solve?

Cyrus Jabbari The Transition Tracking Action Group, or the Tag, is all about enhancing the department’s visibility on its investments using data analytics, breaking data silos, and unifying them together in novel ways so that we can have better insight over what we are doing, what we have invested in, and therefore oversight.

Tom Temin And when you say invested in, you mean what exactly what areas of investment do you look at.

Cyrus Jabbari A number of different types of technology investments. So, the department prioritizes 14 critical technology areas. That’s been a key focus for us to get a better handle of how are we road mapping for those 14 critical technology areas, and what are things that are in the pipeline that we are developing or that we could take from the commercial sector? What the Transition Tracking Action Group cares about, though, is the whole wealth of technology investments, from research and engineering to acquisition that exist along that lifecycle that we could better observe, better get a hold of, and better bring to the warfighter or to the field.

Tom Temin What are some of those critical technologies? You mean like directed energy? Artificial intelligence?

Cyrus Jabbari Yes, that’s exactly right. Of the 14 critical technology areas, Heidi Shyu’s vision for technology competition says that there are these quote unquote, seed areas of emerging technology think biotechnology, quantum and so forth. Then there are these more commercially adopted technology areas that we prioritize, such as trusted artificial intelligence and autonomy or advanced computing and software. And then there are more defense specific critical technology areas like hypersonics directed energy, the ones you alluded to. So those are the critical technology areas that we prioritize. But we don’t just want to get greater fidelity on the critical technology areas. There are other technology areas that the department prioritizes. I think in the Navy, for example, naval power or maritime systems in the Army, soldier mobility or lethality. And then obviously, with the announcement of the replicator initiative, we have niche combinations of technologies, such as what Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks announced the focus for replicator in this first tranche will be on what are called all domain autonomous, a tradable or ADA2 technologies. We want to get a better grapple of across research, engineering, and acquisitions, and throughout the defense innovation ecosystem. What is in the pipeline and how can we better leverage it?

Tom Temin Right. So, what is the impediment to understanding the total picture now?

Cyrus Jabbari I think within any large organization, as you would see across industries, we are discovering that there is a huge need to get data outside of the data silos that they exist in. There’s been a significant move within the Department of Defense to be responsive to Congress, to make sure that we could at least get a greater hold of our financial data. And we’ve made significant strides since at least 2018, when the department established its first universe of transactions through the Advancing Analytics, otherwise known as Advanced Enterprise Data Analytics Platform, where we unified all of the different general ledger accounting systems across DoD and had them talk to each other so we could create a common financial operating picture with great fidelity and near real time visibility. And so, since that innovation within dog, there’s been a lot of work from the battlefield to the boardroom to break data silos. The TTAG is trying to focus on something that is of common interest, not only within the department’s research and engineering and acquisition and requirements communities, but also to Congress and the common taxpayer when they want to make sure that we could answer questions on what is in the valley of death or what made it across the Valley of Death, and how efficient are we being in tracking those things across or within those valleys?

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Cyrus Jabbari. He’s the chief data officer for research and engineering at the Defense Department. And I guess this is also a way that you can avoid duplication of investment. Or, you know, one company getting money for the same thing from two different far-flung pieces of DoD. Not that that could ever happen.

Cyrus Jabbari Well, I think that with any greater insights, very wise senior leader actually coined the term, at least to me for the first time, that with greater insight, you can provide greater oversight. These are things that our leadership says should have been or could have been perhaps prioritized. To answer these age-old questions that it sounds like TTAG is trying to address right now. Tracking technology transitions, as you know, is not something that has just sprung up in the year 2024. That interest has existed for decades. So, we want to, using the novel innovations in tools, in policy and process changes that have been taking place in the past few years. Want to capitalize on that? Break data silos so that we could provide greater insight and therefore support better oversight.

Tom Temin Right. So, besides oversight and accountability, what you have to have, though, is there an element of making sure that, golly, this technology has so much promise. Why isn’t it productized quicker? Why isn’t it turning into an acquisition and getting it into the troops’ hands, so to speak? Which is the ultimate goal of all of this?

Cyrus Jabbari That’s exactly right. So it’s setting us up to get better insights into the investments we make and the products that make it to the warfighter, or have not yet made it to the warfighter, or could make it to the warfighter based on the requirements that we understand those requirements generated by the end users, the warfighters, the combatant commands, etc.. It’s also laying the groundwork, though, for us to understand and capitalize on our impact in economic security and economic growth. Through TTAG, we’ll get greater insights into the investments that we have made that ended up into the commercial sector, that ended up being productized and see our contributions to the commercial sector and private capital spaces. But better yet, it will be incredible to see insights such as those things that we initially invested in and were productized that we ended up buying on the back end and delivering to the warfighter. I’m very excited to see more information from those outputs.

Tom Temin And how does TTAG itself work? I mean, is there a room somewhere in the Pentagon that has a name t tag on it now, and who comprises T tag and who do you matrix with to get the information in and back out?

Cyrus Jabbari So TTAG, although formally established this past month, has actually been in the works in an informal capacity for about two years. Really, the background for what generated this was in May of 2021, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks announced the launch of an Innovation Steering Group and the Innovation Steering Group, or ISG. One of its main lines of efforts was to map this defense innovation ecosystem that everybody talks about, that you see being mapped in, I think, academic and commercial spaces. We wanted to get a greater handle of when we say the word innovation, what do we mean? And who is actually executing work in support of that in relation to the mapping of the defense innovation ecosystem, which I was very happy to support when it was first announced. We also noticed that everybody talks about technology transition, but we have different definitions for what transition means or what a technology even means. So, I was thrilled to support the first ever standardized definition of technology transitions and technology transition pathways that was codified in a joint memorandum from Honorable Heidi Shyu, our Chief Technology Officer, in conjunction with the Undersecretary for Acquisition and Sustainment, honorable Bill LaPlante, and then Undersecretary for policy. Colin Kahl. That memorandum was issued in April 2022. And as a data nerd, that helped me have a common lexicon where we could then start to search for and tag technology transitions, in the past year and a half, since we’ve been building out advanced analytics prototypes or pilots where within seconds, for example, for the first time ever, we can actually track the number of new entrants into the defense innovation ecosystem through research, development, test and evaluation dollars and see that within the past three years, it’s actually increased by 62%. Or we can track small business innovation research, small business technology transfer transitions, which get a lot of commentary externally within seconds, again through these prototypes. In addition to prototyping out solutions through unique data connections that we’ve built and demonstrated back to what was the Innovation Steering Group and community of interest within the department trying to attack this problem, we also created the Informal Transition Tracking Action Group, which was tasked to develop an initial set of recommendations in an implementation plan that would get the most senior leaders sign off from the Deputy Secretary of Defense to the Secretary of Army, Navy, Air Force, the Undersecretary, leaders within the office of the Secretary of Defense, and the chairman or Vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On what is the first attack we could make in breaking data silos, unifying data. And for the first time ever, getting a tranche of data that tracks technology transitions, as described earlier, that implementation plan is actually finalized. We are in our final moments of receiving approval, hopefully, and I look forward to keeping you updated on what we decide to do. But yes, TTAG is going to continue to prototype data analytics solutions and consider policy and process recommendations that need to address key data sets.

Tom Temin And by the way, that definition of transition, does that encompass the idea of not transitioning from research to a prototype, but transitioning into something, again, in a warfighter’s arsenal or toolset that’s actually deployable and useful for the mission?

Cyrus Jabbari Yes, we want to emphasize the importance of tracking things that make it to the field to demonstrate our return on investment. Absolutely.

Tom Temin So if you haven’t crossed the Valley of Death with it, then it hasn’t transitioned really well.

Cyrus Jabbari I think in a more meta sense, as described by, say, the Office of Strategic Capital, for example, there is not just one Valley of Death, but there are different valleys of death or stages. That idea needs to cross from lab to prototype, from prototype to product and product to scale. And so, you could think of something being in the field as that scale, moments that end state. We want to track across those valleys, within the valleys, but also across those different iterative steps, because that helps us then connect to technology solution, ideally, and its owner or its performer within the department to the next stage that could sherpa it across the valleys.

Tom Temin And your job as chief data officer, then, is to help people choose the right data that has to be combined to get the answer they want from different systems throughout DoD.

Cyrus Jabbari Yes, this is one of the most exciting parts of the digital transformation journey that I’ve seen in DoD, because as we’ve developed those prototypes that I alluded to, we’re seeing them being heavily integrated within common business processes that did not exist before. And so hopefully when we get this massive shift in transitions, data, and analytics, we will be able to enable the technology officer, the chief technology officer, and the various technology officers and users, acquirers across DoD and even researchers to see what’s in the wild and what’s maybe missing.

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