Navy seeks data analytics to help overhaul personnel practices

The Navy is at the beginning of what it thinks will be a long overhaul of its personnel practices, which officials say are too rigid and based on long-outdated concepts of talent management. To succeed, officials say they’ll need new data analytics capabilities to help determine what’s right and wrong with the current system, and they’re asking industry for help.

What exactly does the Navy want to buy?

It’s not entirely sure yet, which is why it made the data analytics project one of the first three topics for its new Innovation Cell, a rapid acquisition experiment it launched Thursday with the aim of involving industry extremely early in the development process.

Next week, rather than publishing a set of pre-determined requirements, the Navy will issue an enterprise challenge statement outlining the problems it’s trying to solve in broad strokes.

Laura Knight, the program manager in charge of the data analytics drive, said the Navy needs to quickly aggregate and analyze data from its existing digital warehouses of personnel, pay, training and education data to spot patterns and trends in a sea of information that spans several stovepiped systems.

“We have to gather, process, analyze, integrate and disseminate data in real- time, but you have to use some existing IT sources. We have what we have, we have to be able to make it work with the infrastructure we have, at least that’s what we think. But you might have other ideas, and we want to hear them,” Knight said, during an industry day the Navy hosted for the Innovation Cell’s initial rollout Thursday in Tysons Corner, Virginia. “We want to be able to use statistical methods. There’s a lot of stuff out there about visualizing data, but the big goal here is to discover previously unknown relationships. We can already do a lot of analysis on structured data and see things. It’s the things we can’t see that we’re looking for.”

Knight said the tool also should perform predictive analysis and future modeling based on historical data, giving leaders actionable insights into, for instance, which talent management practices might have contributed to successful careers for individual sailors.

“We have a top-notch sailor, and we’ve got her training information in one database, her education in another one, her personnel information over here, but what makes certain individuals promote quickly? Wouldn’t it be neat to find out, ‘Look, I’ve got these 10 really successful sailors and they all had a common instructor or they went to the same class or they were recruited from the same city, whatever it is,'” she said. “That’s a simple case, but there are so many use cases, and that’s why we’re looking for help. What are all the things we should be looking at? What are all the connections we might be able to make to help the Navy do better by its people?”

Addressing years of neglect

The Navy improved data insight as an integral part of a 10-year overhaul of what Vice Adm. Bill Moran, the chief of Naval Personnel, called an “industrial-age” personnel system that focuses more on quantity than quality and clings to a rigid, up-or-out approach to promotion and career development.

“I look at the system we have today and it reminds me of a ’57 Chevy that’s in great need of a new engine and modern electronics,” he said in a video message to the fleet earlier this month. “We need to take it into the 21st century. Our current personnel system was built back in the 1940s. We haven’t changed a whole lot other than changing to an all-volunteer force in the ‘70s and the Goldwater-Nichols Act in the ‘80s; fundamentally, it’s the same car. The information system is cumbersome and slow, and people at the deckplates do not have the data to make quick, smart decisions. We’re relying on crayons and hammers and chisels to pass around the information we need. That’s the fundamental thing we need to change, but there are several things we’ve got in motion today.”

Knight said the Navy is investing in improvement to several underlying personnel IT systems within her portfolio — collectively known as Sea Warrior — an area the Navy sees as having been long-neglected. So the new data analytics tool should be able to work with those systems, not replace them. And ideally, it will be usable by personnel managers at all levels of the Navy.

“An important thing industry needs to discuss with us is how this would work with the other business intelligence tools and assets we already have. And it has to work with what we already generate from a data perspective. If you have other ideas that can soften that requirement, that’s what we want to hear. That’s why we don’t want to write down a big requirement right now; we don’t know,” she said. “But we do think the potential user base is large. So it has to be an affordable solution in terms of licensing. The desire is that it’s not just something that sits in our headquarters for our analysts, but that it’s pushed down to commanders and all of the other folks who are managing our people.”

New capabilities and innovations

The challenge statement the Navy will issue on its website next week will differ from the traditional requests for information contractors are used to seeing in IT procurements. It will invite anyone from traditional defense companies to garage start-ups to submit white papers proposing responses to the problems the service has identified, and if they believe the Navy’s asking the wrong questions, officials want them to say so.

Knight’s office plans to host another industry session 60-to-90 days late as part of what the Navy calls the “discovery” phase — the first of four, quick-turnaround phases in the innovation cell process. From there, officials will begin to settle on more concrete requirements that will lead up to an eventual acquisition, with possible short-term pilot projects along the way.

The data analytics project is in a less-mature stage than many of the projects the Navy imagines running through the innovation cell construct. But Victor Gavin, the Navy’s program executive officer for enterprise information systems, said in general, the objective is to insert new capabilities onto Navy networks in a total cycle time of about a year. In the first year, the service predicts it will spend roughly $20 million to $25 million on three projects.

“This is more about innovating our acquisition process than innovating new technologies,” Gavin told reporters. “It is very clear that in IT, unlike the rest of the things the Navy does, the true R&D investments are coming from industry. The challenge is how we better leverage those investments, and that’s what the innovation cell process is about: how we quickly understand those new technologies, understand how they can fit in our environment and how we insert them on our networks to improve our security and improve the lives of our sailors and marines.”

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TAG: DoD Navy Technology Acquisition Innovation Cell Workforce Talent management Bill Moran Victor Gavin Laura Knight Industry Jared Serbu

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