Steps Toward Network-Centric Operation



John Morley

This library item is related to the following area(s) of work:

System of Systems

This article was originally published in News at SEI on: March 1, 2008

According to Input, a market research firm, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) is spending heavily on information technology (IT)—more than $23 billion in 2007 alone. What’s the top DoD priority for those dollars? David Wennergren, the DoD deputy Chief Information Officer and deputy assistant secretary of defense for information management and technology, says that the development of network-centric operation (NCO) is at the top of the list.

NCO refers to systems or activities that are enabled by large-scale communications networks. Thus, most modern military systems of systems are network-centric systems, and military operations are often network-centric operations. Wennergren says the purpose for NCO is to improve access to data.

NCO “calls for a shift in focus to the importance of sharing data and the awareness of data,” agrees Craig Meyers of the Software Engineering Institute (SEI). “It is important because threats are continually evolving, and the pace at which we can apply technology advances influences the outcome of defending against those threats,” Meyers adds.

“But today, acquisition and development are system-centric—that is reflecting a single-program, stovepipe view. Within in the program acquisition, there is sharing of data—but it is within the stovepipe, between a contractor and subcontractor, for instance. We need to move to a mission-centric, collaborative view that looks at the system-of-systems context to gain the benefits of network-centric operation,” Meyers says. “We need to acquire systems so that their integration as systems-of-systems can later occur.”

Meyers, along with SEI colleagues David Fisher and Pat Place, identified six conditions necessary for network-centric operations in a recent technical report. “The conditions are characteristics of network-centric operation. But they also point to the transition needed to operate in a network-centric environment,” Meyers says.

Six Conditions for Network-Centric Operation

  • The social and cultural environment in which systems of systems are acquired, developed, used, and evolved motivates collaborative behavior critical to achieving operational effectiveness.

    “The funding purpose directs the focus for the acquisition and development,” Meyers notes. “We need to see incentives that reward organizations for acting and interacting in cooperation and shared understanding of evolving operational needs.”
  • The legal and regulatory framework supports the acquisition of systems of systems.

    “Consider an example of the integrated master schedule [IMS],” Meyers says. “Regulation, policy, and practice dictate that an IMS, a machine readable [commercial off-the-shelf] COTS tool, be used. But what if different program managers use different tools for their IMSs? It’s a case of ‘I can’t read what your tool reports, and you can’t read what mine reports. How can those program managers share data?”
  • Management practices are sufficiently defined and performed to enable the acquisition of systems of systems.

    Management practices refine laws and regulations, according to Meyers. “With the IMS, for instance, management practices pertaining to the areas program managers work with—cost, schedule, risk, and performance—have to allow for the sharing of information. But the users, those in the operational environment, might point out that the acquisition and development of systems takes too long, costs too much, and doesn’t deliver what is needed to meet threats that have changed.
  • Governance is cooperative, distributed across the constituents, and applied selectively.  

    Governance involves policies for the control and coordination of IT resources, enforcement of those policies, and measurement of the outcomes. In a network-centric environment, according to the report, owners of the component systems must share governance rather than dictate it to one another. As a step toward meeting this requirement, Meyers notes that the new CMMI® for Acquisition (CMMI –ACQ) model includes a process area on agreement management that aims “to ensure that the supplier and the acquirer perform according to the terms of the supplier agreement” [1].
  • Engineering practices appropriate for evolving (including developing) systems of systems are available, widely understood, and applied.

    “We need to address how system engineering practices must change to enable us to acquire, build, operate, and maintain systems of systems,” Meyers points out. Traditional engineering practices just won’t work to build systems that can operate effectively in network-centric environments, according to the report. New engineering practices are needed that
    • emphasize flexibility and adaptability
    • envision operational use in a dynamic, uncertain world of continuously changing needs
    • exploit the benefits of emergent effects

  • A technology base exists that is capable of realizing the network-centric vision.

    Primarily, industry will supply the technology base for network-centric operations. In the report, Meyers points out that the DoD can spur the necessary research by industry into network-centric problems through organizations such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and service-branch-oriented research programs including the Army Research Office (ARO), Office of Naval Research (ONR), and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR). In addition, the technology base can be widened by leveraging technologies developed by coalition partners.

Meyers acknowledges that the list of conditions eventually will exceed six. But he underscores the importance of identifying and making progress toward achieving NCO.

“If we could acquire and develop the capabilities called for more closely to the time they are needed, how would that change the warfighters’ world?”


[1] CMMI for Acquisition, Version 1.2

Additional Information

To learn about the SEI workshop on interoperable acquisition, visit the Interoperable Acquisition Overview workshop page.

For information about Integration of Software-Intensive Systems, visit the ISIS pages on the SEI website.

For information about NCO, contact us using the link in the For More Information box at the bottom of this page.

Suggested Reading

Conditions for Achieving Network-Centric Operations in Systems of Systems

An Emergent Perspective on Interoperation in Systems of Systems

System-of-Systems Governance: New Patterns of Thought

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