ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- Applying a hybrid approach from case studies of corporate innovation programs, Army studies, programs, and other military innovation programs, the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Data and Analysis Center, known as DEVCOM DAC, is piloting a new innovation program to spur the passion of its people.
It began with an open call for project proposals from the workforce. If approved, a civilian can spend up to 20 percent of their time working to bring that project to life— a percentage partly inspired by Google and W.L. Gore’s innovation program models.
DEVCOM DAC’s program is designed to provide tools, resources, and a supportive environment to enable innovation without burdening individuals or compromising other tasks and goals. To further jumpstart workforce collaboration, communication and cohesion, selectees of funded proposals are paired with one or more senior technical experts spanning different divisions to offer guidance and mentorship.
A testament of workforce appetite, the pilot program garnered 24 proposals, five of which were selected Aug. 23 to receive funding.
“The workforce really stepped up and embraced the program,” Andrew Barnett, branch chief of the Joint Data and Risk Branch in the Warfighter Futures Integration Division said. He spearheaded the program, and according to the previous DEVCOM DAC Director, James Amato, Barnett was instrumental in putting the program in place.
Though Barnett credits DEVCOM DAC with a workforce full to the brim of employees pushing the envelope of data and analysis, he felt it was critical to create opportunity to innovate in areas not previously explored, whether it was due to an absence of allocated time, funding constraints or fear of failure. In this program, ‘failure’ is no scary word.
Not unlike innovation accelerator programs such as AFWERX, Army Applications Lab and xTechSearch, the DEVCOM DAC Innovation Program is embracing and empowering transformative innovation while redefining success and failure, welcoming the entire innovative process: lessons learned, knowledge gained and shared, communicated wins and wobbles—not solely the final product.
“As long as we’re learning, we’re not failing,” Mike McCarthy, division chief of DEVCOM DAC Warfighter Futures and Integration Division echoed.
For Dr. Oscar Pérez, panel member and cybersecurity analyst at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, the information sharing among subject matter experts and members of the workforce was immediately apparent. “People that were interested in a topic could then connect to someone else with a similar interest. Here’s a network of mentors to tap into if you have questions, hit a roadblock or need a new perspective,” he said. “And some of the proposed projects were already being worked on by other parts of the organization, so we’re becoming more aware of who is working on what. I think that is a great byproduct: that information across our own organization is being shared better.
The evaluation process for the proposals, described by Barnett as, “harnessing the passion of the panel and the passion of the people that submitted proposals,” was also a learning process in and of itself.
“The projects were so diverse that the initial rubric was not able to encompass everything,” Pérez said. “We used the rubric to start the conversation but ended up touching on many more parameters. There had to be a bigger conversation.”
Panel members attended all sessions to ensure a baseline for fair assessment and consistent scoring. Their diverse interests and areas of expertise—reflective of both the proposals and the workforce submitting them—allowed their review to be more thorough.
“It wasn’t a homogenous, unanimous decision,” Pérez continued. “We moved project by project, analyzing each detail: the feasibility, resources, number of partners... Because the composition of the reviewing board was so diverse, there was a great system of checks and balances.”
Rather than a board comprised of senior leadership, all panel members were members of the workforce, consisting of nine senior technical experts, none of which hold supervisory positions. “This created a safe, supportive space, a freedom for the workforce to express themselves,” Pérez said. “The environment is working properly, because we’re attracting not just senior staff, but new hires and people with varied backgrounds.”
From a web application for workforce developmental opportunities to an augmented reality network visualization software for real-time visualization of network traffic, each selected project identified a different potential problem and solution united by one commonality: projects were inspired by the workforce’s experiences, interests and expertise.
“Typically, we’re supporting projects with well-defined requirements from the top-down. This is different. This is from the bottom up,” Barnett said.
A 2019 electrical engineering graduate from the University of Texas at El Paso, and part of the DEVCOM DAC community for just over eight months before transitioning to the United States Marines Corps, Antonio Teijero’s experience echoed the collaborative nature Barnett aimed to instill. Excited about the opportunity to collaborate and learn, Teijero was included in cybersecurity analyst Michael Taylor’s project idea: an exploration into whether a central processing unit can be made vulnerable to a novel side channel cyber-attack.
Taylor, also hired around the same time as Teijero, found the program stimulating in both the freedom of format and the opportunity to bring research to fruition. “I liked how it was like an open, blank canvas,” he said. “The directions were concise but allowed us a lot of freedom to decide what we wanted to do and how we wanted to present it. That is what was most motivating: we were allowed to make the decisions to put the research together. The committee sketched up the framework, and we could fill in the details.”
Other chosen proposals included a modeling and simulation project quantifying the benefit of intentionally-added dispersion of nontraditional aim-point on lethal effectiveness, as well as a program plan coined, “The Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) Technician’s Backpack” aiming to improve readiness, nimbleness and efficiency while reducing supply shipments.
The selected project proposals were briefed to military deputy and deputy director COL Greg Smith and acting Executive Technical Director Dr. Thomas Stadterman on Aug. 21. The most impactful projects will be later briefed to senior leaders of the Army Futures Command and/or DEVCOM.
“The time is right, said COL Smith. “This program allows an avenue for individuals to step out of their comfort zone to bring up ideas without repercussion… This is a moment of change and the workforce embraced that change.”
Stadterman also endorsed the value of the program as a conduit to help shape the organization and its culture. “We want this to become an innate part of our [DEVCOM DAC] way of life. I’d like to continue to see the program run outside of the management chain by the technical panel, as really a grassroots program,” Stadterman said. “We want to make sure that this program is embraced by all levels of the organization—that the results of this program are accepted and utilized—and that the entire organization understands the value for these types of programs.”
As program possibilities are realized by the community, to include a connected network of mentors, an invigorated workforce, and a welcoming attitude toward problem-solving innovation, it’s clear that momentum has already begun.
Judging panel members have started to actively reach out to participants to formalize mentorship relationships, as well as meet on a biweekly basis to discuss progress and opportunities.
“The workforce in the trenches and on the frontlines realize the gaps in their own areas,” Pérez said. “This program helps us close those gaps.”
The DEVCOM Data and Analysis Center is an element of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command. DEVCOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Futures Command. Visit the DEVCOM website at www.army.mil/ccdc or DEVCOM DAC’s website at www.dac.ccdc.army.mil.