Everyone Hates S&T
Science and Technology (S&T) organizations play a critical role in the federal government, providing the research and development needed to ensure the United States maintains a competitive edge. Organizations such as the Office of Naval Research (ONR), CIA DS&T, and SOCOM S&T, DHS S&T are responsible for developing advanced technologies that can be used by our domestic security, military, and intelligence services. Unfortunately, many of the operational personnel within these organizations perceive S&T to be ineffective and impede progress. Let's explore why many acquisition professional and end-users have negative views of S&T, how S&T should fit into the acquisition process, and how we might make things better.
How Should S&T Fit with Acquisition?
The federal government has extensive acquisition processes for acquiring items or services for use by its departments or agencies. One of, if not the most complex being the DoD's Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System (JCIDS). The purpose of this system is to identify capability gaps and determine the best way to fill them. S&T organizations are responsible for the early investment in solutions to meet these gaps, yet they often come up against roadblocks from acquisition professionals who do not see the benefits.
For those unfamiliar with the S&T role, imagine a straight line, at the end is the end-user who needs the new capability. On the other end of the line is the S&T organization that is supposed to be solving their problems. In between are the engineering and development folks who take the new tech and incorporate it into a product that users can use and the acquisition professionals whose job it is to buy and deliver those products.
So, What's the Problem?
End-users are one of the most important stakeholders in any S&T organization’s work. They fundamentally own the gaps for which S&T is developing capabilities and are the ones who will be using the technology developed by S&T organizations. The impact that end-users can have on the S&T process is incredible; direct feedback at key points in the development process reduces wasted development effort and aid in focusing technology on their actual problems. So, S&T organizations rightly engage with end-users to gain their critical insights. The challenge comes when end-users see the realm of the possible from their engagement with S&T folks and in-turn rightly expect to see the technology in their hands. The reality is unfortunately, from S&T starting to work on a problem to the output technology reaching the end-user typically takes more than a decade. By the time that technology reaches the field, the end-user who initially influenced its development might be retired.
Acquisition Program Managers (PM's) and other acquisition professionals are also critical in the process, they ultimately have the responsibility to serve those demanding customers. PM's have a lot to manage; sustaining the things they have already fielded to end-users, upgrading, and updating them year over year, and keeping an eye on new capabilities coming from the engineering and development shops. They must do all these things while staying on budget and on schedule, which is no easy task. What PMs tend to resent is an end-user asking why they can’t have the new hot tech that an S&T organization showed them and an S&T organization that is off in la-la land not having to answer to those end-users. Or worse an S&T organization that provides new technology to the end-users directly "throwing it over the fence" with no follow through, sustainment, or follow-on development.
Engineering and Development shops are in a similar situation to the PM's, they have a job to do; working on the upgrades and updates that the PM's pay for. While it may seem like a slow, boring process, end-users telling PM's what they need, PM's in-turn telling Engineering and Development shops, and the new capabilities coming back through is slow, plodding, and progressive, but it works. What tends not to work is an S&T organization approaching the Engineering and Development shops with a new technology that the PM never asked for, that's not their job.
It's Just Sales
To improve this situation, S&T organizations need to get into sales. The term "technology transition" obfuscates the fact that to transition your technology, you need to be connected to end-users to understand their problems, bureaucrats to understand their processes, and with leadership to align with their priorities. If you look at the processes and initiatives of S&T organizations that are trying to up their tech transition game, then boil down all the jargon: "end-user engagement", "strategic partnership", "transition pipeline", demonstrations and field trials", "rapid innovation through iteration", it's all just well-trodden sales techniques.
1. Know your customer and what they need/want.
2. Know how they buy stuff.
3. Know who makes the decisions.
4. Know when and why they buy stuff like yours.
5. Stay engaged, consistently and persistently.
There are many sales books that articulate these concepts better, so I won’t try. If you want to get better at technology transition, read a best seller sales book, but replace "customer" with "end-user", "program manager", and "senior leader", you'll may be surprised how insightful the advice is for your technology transition challenges.