NEWS AT SEI
This article was originally published in News at SEI on: March 1, 2003
In this era of newly streamlined regulations, everyone involved in U.S. government acquisition hopes to benefit from a process that is more agile and efficient. Yet the government’s acquisition, development, and maintenance of software and software-intensive systems continues to be risky. While some acquisition projects may use disciplined processes that lead to success, inconsistent software acquisition practices continue to result in projects that are past due and over budget.
Since its inception, the SEI has been helping U.S. government acquisition programs in their efforts to improve their processes and minimize risks. Recently, the SEI formalized this ongoing support by creating the Acquisition Support Program (ASP), a group devoted to addressing the unique demands and challenges of acquisition.
The ASP functions as an “experience factory”—a group researching the current state of acquisition, distilling expertise, documenting best practices, and disseminating results. Recording the know-how of government acquisition experts is especially crucial today because many senior government employees will soon be retiring, taking with them knowledge accumulated through years of experience.
By working directly with key acquisition programs to help them achieve their objectives, ASP staff members will refine their understanding of the acquisition environment and improve their ability to characterize that environment for others through best practices and lessons learned. “Working in this area is not new for the SEI,” says ASP Program Director Brian Gallagher. “It’s just new to approach it in this way.”
Central to the operation of the ASP are the Chief Engineers, one for the Army, one for the Navy, one for the Air Force, and one for the Coast Guard. Each Chief Engineer is responsible for quarterbacking the SEI’s acquisition efforts for their respective service branch. Equally important, they also are responsible for coordinating across services, ensuring identification of Department of Defense (DoD)-wide acquisition trends, and applying common solutions where appropriate.
A second key component of the ASP is the Acquisition Improvement Team (AIT). AIT is the backbone of ASP, providing the skills and knowledge to execute SEI engagements with individual programs. Team members leverage their individual specialization and expertise on cross-service assignments and meet periodically to exchange ideas.
Rounding out the ASP organization is the Knowledge, Integration, and Transfer team, whose job is to facilitate the accumulation and dissemination of knowledge through case studies, lessons learned, courses, and the like.
The ASP’s first task is to establish strategic impact programs (SIPs) with the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard. A SIP is a multi-year program of work, part of the strategy of a senior acquisition official who is committed to improvement and change within a particular acquisition community and industry base. The services are eager to begin work with the ASP. In a November 2002 memorandum, Claude Bolton, currently assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics, and technology, announced that he “chartered the Software Engineering Institute…to be ‘at point’” in a joint effort to “promote a dramatic improvement in the acquisition of software-intensive systems.” Bolton was also the keynote speaker at the first annual Acquisition of Software-Intensive Systems Conference, an SEI-sponsored conference held in Washington, D.C. this past January.
While the ASP helps acquirers make incremental improvements in the acquisition of software-intensive systems, it will also benefit SEI technical programs by providing opportunities to implement and improve new technologies through acquisition pilots. It has already established such pilots with the Army, Navy, and Air Force. The ASP will pursue acquisition pilots in cases where the match between an SEI technology and a government acquisition program presents an opportunity for acquisition-community learning. Pilots will allow the program to experiment with maturing SEI products and services in real-world acquirer contexts. Analyzing results and documenting lessons learned is part of the normal maturation process for SEI technical work, but the ASP also plans to disseminate these results and lessons to the acquisition community through case studies, course modules, workshops, publications, technical literature, and conferences.
Some of the ASP’s work will likely be done in conjunction with other organizations that study acquisition. ASP staff members see opportunities for collaboration with the Defense Acquisition University (DAU), federally funded research and development centers, and other organizations working to improve acquisition. Technical staff from the ASP met with representatives of the DAU early in February 2003 to discuss developing a community of practice.
The ASP’s broad challenges are to improve the software engineering skills of acquisition program managers and the acquisition workforce, encourage the use of best practices by collecting and disseminating lessons learned, and improve the government’s ability to acquire software-intensive systems. ASP engineers are currently working on engagements that involve the full spectrum of acquisition activities, from refining the language in acquisition contracts to continuously identifying and mitigating risk and complexity during system development and operational fielding. First and foremost, the ASP is interested in providing guiding principles for acquisition.
“We’re coming out of an era of process improvement where we’ve gotten quite disciplined about processes,” said Gallagher. “The challenge is to move in the direction of reform and embrace these ideas of agility and efficiency, but not throw away the very discipline that has been so hard won.”