USMA cadets tackle valid Army training issue
June 27, 2014
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (July 2, 2014) -- Last September, one sociology/social sciences professor in the West Point systems engineering department challenged four seniors to tackle a capstone project they won't soon forget. He asked them to develop a plan that would reduce the Army's reliance on computer support contractor personnel deployed to the field by way of improving training for Soldiers.
Unlike a traditional senior project, this idea did not come from a textbook; rather, it came directly at the request of the Army's Project Manager Mission Command (PM MC).
"In this department, we make a concerted effort to place cadets in situations where they are exposed to real clients with real problems," said Dr. Bruce Keith, faculty advisor for the United States Military Academy (USMA) School of Systems Engineering. "They must work with clients very closely to address and potentially resolve those problems."
PM MC, assigned to the Program Executive Office for Command, Control, Communications-Tactical (PEO C3T), fields many of the systems requiring support from contractors, who are called Field Service Representatives (FSRs). However, nearly all of PM MC's systems are shifting from multiple, standalone mission command systems to an integrated, web-based environment under the Command Post Computing Environment (CP CE). With powerful and user-friendly apps merged onto a common operating picture of the battlefield, implementing the CP CE will decrease system complexity; Soldiers will train on one desktop, one time, across the entire Army.
"The CP CE is simplifying systems, and thus provides us with an opportunity to streamline the FSR effort," said Richard Makola, senior logistician for training, Readiness Management Division (RMD) under PM MC and lead for the USMA effort. "As such, we asked the cadets to provide one optimal recommendation that would minimize support costs and maximize value."
They soon realized that finding a solution was going to be more than challenging, especially since they were used to working in an academic environment.
"I remember the first discussions with PM MC stakeholders where we were trying to make sense of all the acronyms, and then make sense of the problem that was embedded in those acronyms," Keith said.
To help them clearly define the problem, the cadets employed a soft systems methodology, meaning the team took an ambiguous problem and deconstructed it into a "rich picture." They then spent two months studying how the Army organizes its training program. The cadets first explored how the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) connected to both PM MC and to an Army unit, and then they attempted to identify the disconnects between the three. The first issue they found was that Soldiers on the ground are in a dynamic environment, yet Army training is established from the top down. Rigid training protocols managed through basic training, advanced training or even in some schoolhouses do not allow for fluid feedback from the Soldiers.
The cadets then determined that in contrast, Army personnel are very fluid; Soldiers constantly have Permanent Change of Station (PCS) moves, meaning a unit is never created and dissolved at the exactly the same time. Without the right people from the right Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) positions, aligning computing support could be very difficult.
Once the cadets established the problem, they discovered additional roadblocks to a solution. For example, PM MC does not have authority to change TRADOC or Personnel Command (PERSCOM) doctrine; in other words, PM MC could not recommend creating new MOS positions or modifying the training protocols. While this discovery was a source of frustration for the cadets, it was an integral part of the process to underscore the problem's complexity; namely, that even large Army organizations are bound to Army protocol.
"I think that was a wonderful educational insight on the part of the cadets; it was an 'aha' moment," Keith said. "It was during this part of the project that they began to see the dynamics of the Army they were about enter."
The cadets ultimately created a set of assumptions that identified the limitations presented to PM MC, which basically kept existing doctrine and MOS positions status quo.
Throughout the semester, the cadets continually posed the overarching question to one another, which was how could they pull the FSR out of the support process without the entire process falling apart.
Fortunately, they could look within their own four walls for a guideline -- the West Point teaching model.
About two-thirds of the West Point faculty are called rotating faculty; they are captains and majors that are sent off to receive master's degrees and then return for approximately three years to teach. However, with no teaching skills, they must rely on those who rotated in before them.
"We call this building the bench," Keith said. "You ensure that those rotating faculty that are in their third year have taken a leadership role and used their experience in mentoring the brand new rotating faculty."
The cadets determined that this type of fluidity could work well for the Army, and they created their "ideal" solution based on this model.
However, in keeping with their assumptions, they understood that an "ideal" solution was not currently feasible and instead developed four alternative models:
1. Keep the current system, which maintains all FSR support
2. Expand master gunner training, which trains Soldiers how to operate and maintain their own network and mission command systems, allowing the Army to keep pace with the rapid fielding of emerging network technology
3. Couple MOS position with INFOSYS programs, which designates certain MOS positions as permanent users of INFOSYS programs.
4. Blend model numbers two and three
Through continual sessions with PEO C3T and PM MC stakeholders, the cadets identified the true costs associated with FSRs and which training attributes were either critical or "nice to have" to determine which alternative was most feasible.
"I'm proud of the way our team stepped up to new challenges, such as hosting our first of several teleconferences, conducting interim-progress briefings with senior faculty members within the Department of Systems Engineering and networking with a wide variety of Army contractors," said John Crowley, one of the cadets and now a 2nd lieutenant.
They ultimately chose the blended model, which combined the modifications from both alternatives two and three. This blended model addresses the lower-level user population through MOS coupling and the higher-level user population through expanded Digital Master Gunner training. By addressing both of these groups, the team felt they could best build the bench and thus significantly reduce the Army's reliance on FSRs.
The cadets' findings corroborated with an independent study previously conducted by PEO C3T.
"We were very impressed with the cadets' methodical approach to this problem, and pleased to see their findings were in line with ours," said Rich Licata, field support optimization chief, PEO C3T. "While we can't change existing TRADOC doctrine, PEO C3T is presenting this model to TRADOC as a suggestion for future CP CE training."
After eight months of collaboration, PM MC representatives joined the cadets for their capstone project ceremony.
"The practical experience of each of these challenges undoubtedly played a key role in our professional development as both students and leaders," Crowley said. "As a newly commissioned officer in the Army, I'm looking forward to applying these newly developed skills to solve new and important problems that may come my way."