Send in the Clowns–Putin, Trump, the Fifth Column, and the importance of history

When Benito Mussolini was seen on newsreels in the United States it was as a “rotund, strutting clown, who struck pompous poses from his Roman balcony and tried to upstage Adolf Hitler when they first met, in Venice in 1934.” Much of this impression was established thanks to Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 film “The Great Dictator,” where the Il Duce character was effectively lampooned by the actor Jack Oakie. This reinforced the widely held public prejudice in England and among many Americans that “Mediterranean Peoples,” especially Italians, were inferior oafs, unintelligent and clownish hotheads. Intellectuals and world leaders would come to regret underestimating the Italian autocrat, who was just the first of fascist and quasi-fascist leaders to wreak havoc on the world.

As with Mussolini, Hitler and the Nazis were first seen as a clown show with their thuggish behavior, mediocre backgrounds, buffoonish uniform-like garb, their appropriation of mythic symbols, and their completely unintelligible and ignorant interpretations of history and society. It was noted that Hitler himself was ignorant, lazy, a self-absorbed narcissist, and overly theatrical in his public appearances. He also effectively tapped into the grudges and nationalistic lies that cleaved German society, finding convenient scapegoats, especially Jews and other vulnerable groups, lumping them in with Communists and external threats to “German-speakers.”

Yet, so effective was the disinformation and propagandist jumble of Nazi ideas and assertions to define themselves and intentions, that even today intellectuals debate the definition of fascism, and whether clearly quasi-fascist governments like those under Franco in Spain and Pinochet in Chile were really fascist governments, despite the not only clear linkage to the methods and ideas of fascism, but the evidence of the dead bodies.

One would think that this debate was closed with Umberto Eco’s definition of Ur-fascism, (who knew about fascism first-hand) but we still get hand-wringing and pearl-clutching from intellectual Mugwumps who continue to want to obfuscate this issue. And for the uneducated on this subject–no–liberals and socialists aren’t fascists (or communists) or even close; especially given that they are usually among the first ones rounded up and murdered by fascist and quasi-fascist thugs along with Jews and others outside the fascist tribe.

Thus, about two weeks ago, I was struck by the comments of Sergey Lavrov, the Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, regarding Ukraine and the West. He posited an alternative and counter-factual interpretation of history that is astounding in its echo of fascist movements. As he cautioned the West from coming to Ukraine’s aid, he referenced Russian historical continuity, the importance of uniting “Russian speakers,” and warning the West of the so-called lessons from the latest version of Russian ultra-nationalist self-delusional history that puts forth the notion of a single Eurasian people under Russian rule. Here is what he is saying: the various countries and ethnic groups from the border of Sweden down to Germany, and to Moldova, and, perhaps, to Serbia are within Russia’s orbit. He would sweep away these countries and peoples, murdering anyone in his way.

Vladimir Putin has shown himself to be an obviously corrupt kleptocrat, sociopath, narcissist and mediocrity. What he lacks in intellectual honesty and character, he more than compensates with ruthlessness, murderous intent, and links to the powerful oligarchs that keep him in near-totalitarian power. He is a fanatic. Fanatics, as Aldous Huxley noted, can be defeated because they compensate for a secret doubt, but they are also dangerous since any opposition or disagreement is interpreted as a hostile act. When such an individual has nuclear weapons, which this tyrant has been all too vocal in referencing, the situation is dangerous.

But the United States and its allies have overcome existential threats in the past, and make no mistake, Putin and the current Russian government is an existential threat. I served my country in the U. S. Navy for almost 23 years during the Cold War. I deployed to the theaters of contention close to the Soviet Union and Communist China. I also served, at times, as a special weapons courier. My military colleagues, and anyone paying attention, knew and developed the steel to oppose the imperial ambitions of those nations knowing that we were under nuclear threat by hostile powers. We also accepted the fact that in case of an attack on us, that retaliation against these countries would be swift and overwhelming.

Last night Mr. Putin delivered an unhinged and self-deluded speech. He is a clown. The clowns in this world have caused a tremendous amount of human suffering and destruction. As Hannah Arendt noted, evil is banal. The clowns of this world, augmented by our so-called post-truth era, create an environment for banality to thrive. They spread the sickness–the pandemic–of their deranged minds onto the world.

Thus, almost in a caricature of the comedy of life, Donald Trump, the dictator’s sycophant and a man of personal cowardice unknown in any previous U. S. president, praises the evisceration of Ukraine. The man is a Quisling and compromised. He and his followers, who act as a cult, and cult-like, change and contort their minds on a dime to align with his statements, represent a dangerous anti-democratic and–yes–anti-American Fifth Column.

The election of Joe Biden and the corrective of American democracy is the trigger that caused this crisis because Putin thought he had neutralized the United States. His Quisling is in exile, though he has more than a few mini-quislings waiting in line. As all extreme narcissists, he actually believed his own delusion. This is an attack borne of desperation. Unfortunately Ukraine is the pawn he has chosen. It is timed to undermine American democracy and seed division, so that he can realize his other imperial ambitions in threatening our allies and defeating democratic self-government–government of the people, by the people, and for the people–in Europe and elsewhere. He hates what we are. Anyone who supports him shares in that hate.

Wake up. History is calling.

Shake it Out – Embracing the Future of Program Management – Part Two: Private Industry Program and Project Management in Aerospace, Space, and Defense

In my previous post, I focused on Program and Project Management in the Public Interest, and the characteristics of its environment, especially from the perspective of the government program and acquisition disciplines. The purpose of this exploration is to lay the groundwork for understanding the future of program management—and the resulting technological and organizational challenges that are required to support that change.

The next part of this exploration is to define the motivations, characteristics, and disciplines of private industry equivalencies. Here there are commonalities, but also significant differences, that relate to the relationship and interplay between public investment, policy and acquisition, and private business interests.

Consistent with our initial focus on public interest project and program management (PPM), the vertical with the greatest relationship to it is found in the very specialized fields of aerospace, space, and defense. I will therefore first begin with this industry vertical.

Private Industry Program and Project Management

Aerospace, Space & Defense (ASD). It is here that we find commercial practice that comes closest to the types of structure, rules, and disciplines found in public interest PPM. As a result, it is also here where we find the most interesting areas of conflict and conciliation between private motivations and public needs and duties. Particularly since most of the business activity in this vertical is generated by and dependent on federal government acquisition strategy and policy.

On the defense side, the antecedent policy documents guiding acquisition and other measures are the National Security Strategy (NSS), which is produced by the President’s staff, the National Defense Strategy (NDS), which further translates and refines the NSS, and the National Military Strategy (NMS), which is delivered to the Secretary of Defense by the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the various military services, which is designed to provide unfettered military advise to the Secretary of Defense.

Note that the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and the related agencies, including the intelligence agencies, operate under a strict chain of command that ensures civilian control under the National Military Establishment. Aside from these structures, the documents and resulting legislation from DoD actions also impact such civilian agencies as the Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), among others.

The countervailing power and checks-and-balances on this Executive Branch power lies with the appropriation and oversight powers of the Congress. Until the various policies are funded and authorized by Congress, the general tenor of military, intelligence, and other operations have tangential, though not insignificant effects, on the private economy. Still, in terms of affecting how programs and projects are monitored, it is within the appropriation and authorization bills that we find the locus of power. As one of my program managers reminded me during my first round through the budget hearing process, “everyone talks, but money walks.”

On the Aerospace side, there are two main markets. One is related to commercial aircraft, parts, and engines sold to the various world airlines. The other is related to government’s role in non-defense research and development, as well as activities related to private-public partnerships, such as those related to space exploration. The individual civilian departments of government also publish their own strategic plans based on their roles, from which acquisition strategy follows. These long terms strategic plans, usually revised at least every five years, are then further refined into strategic implementation plans by various labs and directorates.

The suppliers and developers of the products and services for government, which represents the bulk of ASD, face many of the same challenges delineated in surveying their government counterparts. The difference, of course, is that these are private entities where the obligations and resulting mores are derived from business practice and contractual obligations and specifications.

This is not to imply a lack of commitment or dedication on the part of private entities. But it is an important distinction, particularly since financial incentives and self-interest are paramount considerations. A contract negotiator, for example, in order to be effective, must understand the underlying pressures and relative position of each of the competitors in the market being addressed. This individual should also be familiar with the particular core technical competencies of the competitors as well as their own strategic plans, the financial positions and goals that they share with their shareholders in the case of publicly traded corporations, and whether actual competition exists.

The Structure of the Market. Given the mergers and acquisitions of the last 30 years, along with the consolidation promoted by the Department of Defense as unofficial policy after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the lapse of antitrust enforcement, the portion of ASD and Space that rely on direct government funding, even those that participate in public-private ventures where risk sharing is involved, operate in a monopsony—the condition in which a single buyer—the U.S. government—substantially controls the market as the main purchaser of supplies and services. This monopsony market is then served by a supplier market that is largely an oligopoly—where there are few suppliers and limited competition—and where, in some technical domains, some suppliers exert monopoly power.

Acknowledging this condition informs us regarding the operational motivators of this market segment in relation to culture, practice, and the disciplines and professions employed.

In the first case, given the position of the U.S. government, the normal pressures of market competition and market incentives do not apply to the few competitors participating in the market. As a result, only the main buyer has the power to recreate, in an artificial manner, an environment which replicate the market incentives and penalties normally employed in a normative, highly diverse and competitive market.

Along these lines, for market incentives, the government can, and often does, act as the angel investor, given the rigorous need for R&D in such efforts. It can also lower the barriers to participation in order to encourage more competition and innovation. This can be deployed across the entire range of limited competitors, or it can be expansive in its approach to invite new participants.

Market penalties that are recreated in this environment usually target what economists call “rent-seeking behavior.” This is a situation where there may be incumbents that seek to increase their own wealth without creating new benefits, innovation, or providing additional wealth to society. Lobbying, glad-handing, cronyism, and other methods are employed and, oftentimes, rampant under monosponistic systems. Revolving-door practices, in which the former government official responsible for oversight obtains employment in the same industry and, oftentimes, with the same company, is too often seen in these cases.

Where there are few competitors, market participants will often play follow-the-leader and align themselves to dominate particular segments of the market in appealing to the government or elected representatives for business. This may mean that, in many cases, they team with their ostensible competitors to provide a diverse set of expertise from the various areas of specialty. As with any business, profitability is of paramount importance, for without profit there can be no business operations. It is here: the maximization of profit and shareholder value, that is the locus of power in understanding the motivation of these and most businesses.

This is not a value judgment. As faulty and risky as this system may be, no better business structure has been found to provide value to the public through incentives for productive work, innovation, the satisfaction of demand, and efficiency. The challenge, apart from what political leadership decides to do regarding the rules of the market, is to make those rules that do exist work in the public interest through fair, ethical, and open contracting practices.

To do this successfully requires contracting and negotiating expertise. To many executives and non-contracting personnel, negotiations appear to be a zero-sum game. No doubt, popular culture, mass media and movies, and self-promoting business people help mold this perception. Those from the legal profession, in particular, deal with a negotiation as an extension of the adversarial processes through which they usually operate. This is understandable given their education, and usually disastrous.

As an attorney friend of mine once observed: “My job, if I have done it right, is to ensure that everyone walking out of the room is in some way unhappy. Your job, in contrast, is to ensure that everyone walking out of it is happy.” While a generalization—and told tongue-in-cheek—it highlights the core difference in approach between these competing perspectives.

A good negotiator has learned that, given two motivated sides coming together to form a contract, that there is an area of intersection where both parties will view the deal being struck as meeting their goals, and as such, fair and reasonable. It is the job of the negotiator to find that area of mutual fairness, while also ensuring that the contract is clear and free of ambiguity, and that the structure of the instrument—price and/or cost, delivery, technical specification, statement of work or performance specification, key performance parameters, measures of performance, measures of effectiveness, management, sufficiency of capability (responsibility), and expertise—sets up the parties involved for success. A bad contract can no more be made good than the poorly prepared and compacted soil and foundation of a house be made good after the building goes up.

The purpose of a good contract is to avoid litigation, not to increase the likelihood of it happening. Furthermore, it serves the interests of neither side to obtain a product or service at a price, or under such onerous conditions, where the enterprise fails to survive. Alternatively, it does a supplier little good to obtain a contract that provides the customer with little financial flexibility, that fails to fully deliver on its commitments, that adversely affects its reputation, or that is perceived in a negative light by the public.

Effective negotiators on both sides of the table are aware of these risks and hazards, and so each is responsible for the final result, though often the power dynamic between the parties may be asymmetrical, depending on the specific situation. It is one of the few cases in which parties having both mutual and competing interests are brought together where each side is responsible for ensuring that the other does not hazard their organization. It is in this way that a contract—specifically one that consists of a long-term R&D cost-plus contract—is much like a partnership. Both parties must act in good faith to ensure the success of the project—all other considerations aside—once the contract is signed.

In this way, the manner of negotiating and executing contracts is very much a microcosm of civil society as a whole, for good or for bad, depending on the practices employed.

Given that the structure of aerospace, space, and defense consists of one dominant buyer with few major suppliers, the disciplines required relate to the details of the contract and its resulting requirements that establish the rules of governance.

As I outlined in my previous post, the characteristics of program and project management in the public interest, which are the products of contract management, are focused on successfully developing and obtaining a product to meet particular goals of the public under law, practice, and other delineated specific characteristics.

As a result, the skill-sets that are of paramount importance to business in this market prior to contract award are cost estimating, applied engineering expertise including systems engineering, financial management, contract negotiation, and law. The remainder of disciplines regarding project and program management expertise follow based on what has been established in the contract and the amount of leeway the contracting instrument provides in terms of risk management, cost recovery, and profit maximization, but the main difference is that this approach to the project leans more toward contract management.

Another consideration in which domains are brought to bear relates to position of the business in terms of market share and level of dominance in a particular segment of the market. For example, a company may decide to allow a lower than desired target profit. In the most extreme cases, the company may allow the contract to become a loss leader in order to continue to dominate a core competency or to prevent new entries into that portion of the market.

On the other side of the table, government negotiators are prohibited by the Federal Acquisition Regulation (the FAR) from allowing companies to “buy-in” by proposing an obviously lowball offer, but some do in any event, whether it is due to lack of expertise or bowing to the exigencies of price or cost. This last condition, combined with rent-seeking behavior mentioned earlier, where they occur, will distort and undermine the practices and indicators needed for effective project and program management. In these cases, the dysfunctional result is to create incentives to maximize revenue and scope through change orders, contracting language ambiguity, and price inelasticity. This also creates an environment that is resistant to innovation and rewards inefficiency.

But apart from these exceptions, the contract and its provisions, requirements, and type are what determine the structure of the eventual project or program management team. Unlike the commercial markets in which there are many competitors, the government through negotiation will determine the manner of burdening rate structures and allowable profit or margin. This last figure is determined by the contract type and the perceived risk of the contract goals to the contractor. The higher the risk, the higher the allowed margin or profit. The reverse applies as well.

Given this basis, the interplay between private entities and the public acquisition organizations, including the policy-setting staffs, are also of primary concern. Decision-makers, influences, and subject-matter experts from these entities participate together in what are ostensibly professional organizations, such as the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA), the Project Management Institute (PMI), the College of Scheduling (CoS), the College of Performance Management (CPM), the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE), the National Contract Management Association (NCMA), and the International Cost Estimating and Analysis Association (ICEAA), among the most frequently attended by these groups. Corresponding and associated private and professional groups are the Project Control Academy and the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).

This list is by no means exhaustive, but from the perspective of suppliers to public agencies, NDIA, PMI, CoS, and CPM are of particular interest because much of the business of influencing policy and the details of its application are accomplished here. In this manner, the interests of the participants from the corporate side of the equation relate to those areas always of concern: business certainty, minimization of oversight, market and government influence. The market for several years now has been reactive, not proactive.

There is no doubt that business organizations from local Chambers of Commerce to specialized trade groups that bring with them the advantages of finding mutual interests and synergy. All also come with the ills and dysfunction, to varying degrees, borne from self-promotion, glad-handing, back-scratching, and ossification.

In groups where there is little appetite to upend the status quo, innovation and change, is viewed with suspicion and as being risky. In such cases the standard reaction is cognitive dissonance. At least until measures can be taken to subsume or control the pace and nature of the change. This is particularly true in the area of project and program management in general and integrated project, program and portfolio management (IPPM), in particular.

Absent the appetite on the part of DoD to replicate market forces that drive the acceptance of innovative IPPM approaches, one large event and various evolutionary aviation and space technology trends have upended the ecosystem of rent-seeking, reaction, and incumbents bent on maintaining the status quo.

The one large event, of course, came about from the changes wrought by the Covid pandemic. The other, evolutionary changes, are a result of the acceleration of software technology in capturing and transforming big(ger) dataset combined with open business intelligence systems that can be flexibly delivered locally and via the Cloud.

I also predict that these changes will make hard-coded, purpose-driven niche applications obsolete within the next five years, as well as those companies that have built their businesses around delivering custom, niche applications, and MS Excel spreadsheets, and those core companies that are comfortable suboptimizing and reacting to delivering the letter, if not the spirit, of good business practice expected under their contracts.

Walking hand-in-hand with these technological and business developments, the business of the aerospace, space and defense market, in general, is facing a window opening for new entries and greater competition borne of emergent engineering and technological exigencies that demand innovation and new approaches to old, persistent problems.

The coronavirus pandemic and new challenges from the realities of global competition, global warming, geopolitical rivalries; aviation, space and atmospheric science; and the revolution in data capture, transformation, and optimization are upending a period of quiescence and retrenchment in the market. These factors are moving the urgency of innovation and change to the left both rapidly and in a disruptive manner that will only accelerate after the immediate pandemic crisis passes.

In my studies of Toynbee and other historians (outside of my day job, I am also credentialed in political science and history, among other disciplines, through both undergraduate and graduate education), I have observed that societies and cultures that do not embrace the future and confront their challenges effectively, and that do not do so in a constructive manner, find themselves overrun by it and them. History is the chronicle of human frailty, tragedy, and failure interspersed by amazing periods of resilience, human flourishing, advancement, and hope.

As it relates to our more prosaic concerns, Deloitte has published an insightful paper on the 2021 industry outlook. Among the identified short-term developments are:

  1. A slow recovery in passenger travel may impact aircraft deliveries and industry revenues in commercial aviation,
  2. The defense sector will remain stable as countries plan to sustain their military capabilities,
  3. Satellite broadband, space exploration and militarization will drive growth,
  4. Industry will shift to transforming supply chains into more resilient and dynamic networks,
  5. Merger and acquisitions are likely to recover in 2021 as a hedge toward ensuring long-term growth and market share.

More importantly, the longer-term changes to the industry are being driven by the following technological and market changes:

  • Advanced aerial mobility (AAM). Both FAA and NASA are making investments in this area, and so the opening exists for new entries into the market, including new entries in the supply chain, that will disrupt the giants (absent a permissive M&A stance under the new Administration in Washington). AAM is the new paradigm to introduce safe, short-distance, daily-commute flying technologies using vertical lift.
  • Hypersonics. Given the touted investment of Russia and China into this technology as a means of leveraging against the power projection of U.S. forces, particularly its Navy and carrier battle groups (aside from the apparent fact that Vladimir Putin, the president of Upper Volta with Missiles and Hackers, really hates Disney World), the DoD is projected to fast-track hypersonic capabilities and countermeasures.
  • Electric propulsion. NASA is investing in cost-sharing capabilities to leverage electric propulsion technologies, looking to benefit from the start-up growth in this sector. This is an exciting development which has the potential to transform the entire industry over the next decade and after.
  • Hydrogen-powered aircraft. OEMs are continuing to pour private investment money into start-ups looking to introduce more fuel-efficient and clean energy alternatives. As with electric propulsion, there are prototypes of these aircraft being produced and as public investments into cost-sharing and market-investment strategies take hold, the U.S., Europe, and Asia are looking at a more diverse and innovative aerospace, space, and defense market.

Given the present condition of the industry, and the emerging technological developments and resulting transformation of flight, propulsion, and fuel sources, the concept and definitions used in project and program management require a revision to meet the exigencies of the new market.

For both industry and government, in order to address these new developments, I believe that a new language is necessary, as well as a complete revision to what is considered to be the acceptable baseline of best business practice and the art of the possible. Only then will organizations and companies be positioned to address the challenges these new forms of investment and partnering systems will raise.

The New Language of Integrated Program, Project, and Portfolio Management (IPPM).

First a digression to the past: while I was on active duty in the Navy, near the end of my career, I was assigned to the staff of the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology (OUSD(A&T)). Ostensibly, my assignment was to give me a place to transition from the Service. Thus, I followed the senior executive, who was PEO(A) at NAVAIR, to the Pentagon, simultaneously with the transition of NAVAIR to Patuxent River, Maryland. In reality, I had been tasked by the senior executive, Mr. Dan Czelusniak, to explore and achieve three goals:

  1. To develop a common schema by supporting an existing contract for the collection of data from DoD suppliers from cost-plus R&D contracts with the goal in mind of creating a master historical database of contract performance and technological development risk. This schema would first be directed to cost performance, or EVM;
  2. To continue to develop a language, methodology, and standard, first started and funded by NAVAIR, for the integration of systems engineering and technical performance management into the program management business rhythm;
  3. To create and define a definition of Integrated Program Management.

I largely achieved the first two during my relatively brief period there.

The first became known and the Integrated Digital Environment (IDE), which was refined and fully implemented after my departure from the Service. Much of this work is the basis for data capture, transformation, and load (ETL) today. There had already been a good deal of work by private individuals, organizations, and other governments in establishing common schemas, which were first applied to the transportation and shipping industries. But the team of individuals I worked with were able to set the bar for what followed across datasets.

The second was completed and turned over to the Services and federal agencies, many of whom adopted the initial approach, and refined it as well to inform, through the identification of technical risk, cost performance and technical achievement. Much of this knowledge already existed in the Systems Engineering community, but working with INCOSE, a group of like-minded individuals were able to take the work from the proof-of-concept, which was awarded the Acker in Skill in Communication award at the DAU Acquisition Research Symposium, and turn it into the TPM and KPP standard used by organizations today.

The third began with establishing my position, which hadn’t existed until my arrival: Lead Action Officer, Integrated Program Management. Gary Christle, who was the senior executive in charge of the staff, asked me “What is Integrated Program Management?” I responded: “I don’t know, sir, but I intend to find out.” Unfortunately, this is the initiative that has still eluded both industry and government, but not without some advancement.

Note that this position with its charter to define IPM was created over 24 years ago—about the same time it takes, apparently, to produce an operational fighter jet. I note this with no flippancy, for I believe that the connection is more than just coincidental.

When spoken of, IPM and IPPM are oftentimes restricted to the concept of cost (read cost performance or EVM) and schedule integration, with aggregated portfolio organization across a selected number of projects thrown in, in the latter case. That was considered advancement in 1997. But today, we seem to be stuck in time. In light of present technology and capabilities, this is a self-limiting concept.

This concept is technologically supported by a neutral schema that is authored and managed by DoD. While essential to data capture and transformation—and because of this fact—it is currently the target by incumbents as a means of further limiting even this self-limited definition in practice. It is ironic that a technological advance that supports data-driven in lieu of report-driven information integration is being influenced to support the old paradigm.

The motivations are varied: industry suppliers who aim to restrict access to performance data under project and program management, incumbent technology providers who wish to keep the changes in data capture and transformation restricted to their limited capabilities, consulting companies aligned with technology incumbents, and staff augmentation firms dependent on keeping their customers dependent on custom application development and Excel workbooks. All of these forces work through the various professional organizations which work to influence government policy, hoping to establish themselves as the arbiters of the possible and the acceptable.

Note that oftentimes the requirements under project management are often critiqued under the rubric of government regulation. But that is a misnomer: it is an extension of government contract management. Another critique is made from the perspective of overhead costs. But management costs money, and one would not (or at least should not) drive a car or own a house without insurance and a budget for maintenance, much less a multi-year high-cost project involving the public’s money. In addition, as I have written previously which is supported by the literature, data-driven systems actually reduce costs and overhead.

All of these factors contribute to ossification, and impose artificial blinders that, absent reform, will undermine meeting the new paradigms of 21st Century project management, given that the limited concept of IPM was obviously insufficient to address the challenges of the transitional decade that broached the last century.

Embracing the Future in Aerospace, Space, and Defense

As indicated, the aerospace and space science and technology verticals are entering a new and exciting phase of technological innovation resulting from investments in start-ups and R&D, including public-private cost-sharing arrangements.

  1. IPM to Project Life-Cycle Management. Given the baggage that attends the acronym IPM, and the worldwide trend to data-driven decision-making, it is time to adjust the language of project and program management to align to it. In lieu of IPM, I suggest Project Life-Cycle Management to define the approach to project and program data and information management.
  2. Functionality-Driven to Data-Driven Applications. Our software, systems and procedures must be able to support that infrastructure and be similarly in alignment with that manner of thinking. This evolution includes the following attributes:
    • Data Agnosticism. As our decision-making methods expand to include a wider, deeper, and more comprehensive interdisciplinary approach, our underlying systems must be able to access data in this same manner. As such, these systems must be data agnostic.
    • Data neutrality. In order to optimize access to data, the overhead and effort needed to access data must be greatly reduced. Using data science and analysis to restructure pre-conditioned data in order to overcome proprietary lexicons—an approach used for business intelligence systems since the 1980s—provides no added value to either the data or the organization. If data access is ad hoc and customized in every implementation, the value of the effort cannot either persist, nor is the return on investment fully realized. It backs the customer into a corner in terms of flexibility and innovation. Thus, pre-configured data capture, extract, transformation, and load (ETL) into a non-proprietary and objective format, which applies to all data types used in project and program management systems, is essential to providing the basis for a knowledge-based environment that encourages discovery from data. This approach in ETL is enhanced by the utilization of neutral data schemas.
    • Data in Lieu of Reporting and Visualization. No doubt that data must be visualized at some point—preferably after its transformation and load into the database with other, interrelated data elements that illuminate information to enhance the knowledge of the decisionmaker. This implies that systems that rely on physical report formats, charts, and graphs as the goal are not in alignment with the new paradigm. Where Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint are used as a management system, it is the preparer is providing the interpretation, in a manner that predisposes the possible alternatives of interpretation. The goal, instead, is to have data speak for itself. It is the data, transformed into information, interrelated and contextualized to create intelligence that is the goal.
    • All of the Data, All of the Time. The cost of 1TB of data compared to 1MB of data is the marginal cost of the additional electrons to produce it. Our systems must be able to capture all of the data essential to effective decision-making in the periodicity determined by the nature of the data. Thus, our software systems must be able to relate data at all levels and to scale from simplistic datasets to extremely large ones. It should do so in such a way that the option for determining what, among the full menu of data options available, is relevant rests in the consumer of that data.
    • Open Systems. Software solution providers beginning with the introduction of widespread CPU capability have manufactured software to perform particular functions based on particular disciplines and very specific capabilities. As noted earlier, these software applications are functionality-focused and proprietary in structure, method, and data. For data-driven project and program requirements, software systems must be flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of analytical and visualization demands in allowing the data to determine the rules of engagement. This implies systems that are open in two ways: data agnosticism, as already noted, but also open in terms of the user environment.
    • Flexible Application Configuration. Our systems must be able to address the needs of the various disciplines in their details, while also allowing for integration and contextualization of interrelated data across domains. As with Open Systems to data and the user environment, openness through the ability to roll out multiple specialized applications from a common platform places the subject matter expert and program manager in the driver’s seat in terms of data analysis and visualization. An effective open platform also reduces the overhead associated with limited purpose-driven, disconnected and proprietary niche applications.
    • No-Code/Low-Code. Given that data and the consumer will determine both the source and method of delivery, our open systems should provide an environment that supports Agile development and deployment of customization and new requirements.
    • Knowledge-Based Content. Given the extensive amount of experience and education recorded and documented in the literature, our systems must, at the very least, provide a baseline of predictive analytics and visualization methods usually found in the more limited, purpose-built hardcoded applications, if not more expansive. This knowledge-based content, however, must be easily expandable and refinable, given the other attributes of openness, flexibility, and application configuration. In this manner, our 21st century project and program management systems must possess the attributes of a hybrid system: providing the functionality of the traditional niche systems with the flexibility and power of a business intelligence system enhanced by COTS data capture and transformation.
    • Ease of Use. The flexibility and power of these systems must be such that implementation and deployment are rapid, and that new user environment applications can be quickly deployed. Furthermore, the end user should be able to determine the level of complexity or simplicity of the environment to support ease of use.
  1. Focus on the Earliest Indicator. A good deal of effort since the late 1990s has been expended on defining the highest level of summary data that is sufficient to inform earned value, with schedule integration derived from the WBS, oftentimes summarized on a one-to-many basis as well. This perspective is biased toward believing that cost performance is the basis for determining project control and performance. But even when related to cost, the focus is backwards. The project lifecycle in its optimized form exists of the following progression:

    Project Goals and Contract (framing assumptions) –> Systems Engineering, CDRLs, KPPs, MoEs, MoPs, TPMs –> Project Estimate –> Project Plan –> IMS –> Risk and Uncertainty Analysis –> Financial Planning and Execution –> PMB –> EVM

    As I’ve documented in this blog over the years, DoD studies have shown that, while greater detail within the EVM data may not garner greater early warning, proper integration with the schedule at the work package level does. Program variances first appear in the IMS. A good IMS, thus, is key to collecting and acting as the main execution document. This is why many program managers who are largely absent in the last decade or so from the professional organizations listed, tend to assert that EVM is like “looking in the rearview mirror.” It isn’t that it is not essential, but it is true that it is not the earliest indicator of variances from expected baseline project performance.

    Thus, the emphasis going forward under this new paradigm is not to continue the emphasis and a central role for EVM, but a shift to the earliest indicator for each aspect of the program that defines its framing assumptions.
  1. Systems Engineering: It’s not Space Science, it’s Space Engineering, which is harder.
    The focus on start-up financing and developmental cost-sharing shifts the focus to systems engineering configuration control and technical performance indicators. The emphasis on meeting expectations, program goals, and achieving milestones within the cost share make it essential to be able to identify fatal variances, long before conventional cost performance indicators show variances. The concern of the program manager in these cases isn’t so much on the estimate at complete, but whether the industry partner will be able to deploy the technology within the acceptable range of the MoEs, MoPs, TPPs, and KPPs, and not exceed the government’s portion of the cost share. Thus, the incentive is to not only identify variances and unacceptable risk at the earliest indicator, but to do so in terms of whether the end-item technology will be successfully deployed, or whether the government should cut its losses.
  1. Risk and Uncertainty is more than SRA. The late 20th century approach to risk management is to run a simulated Monte Carlo analysis against the schedule, and to identify alternative critical paths and any unacceptable risks within the critical path. This is known as the schedule risk analysis, or SRA. While valuable, the ratio of personnel engaged in risk management is much smaller than the staffs devoted to schedule and cost analysis.

    This is no doubt due to the specialized language and techniques devoted to risk and uncertainty. This segregation of risk from mainstream project and program analysis has severely restricted both the utility and the real-world impact of risk analysis on program management decision-making.

    But risk and uncertainty extend beyond the schedule risk analysis, and their utility in an environment of aggressive investment in new technology, innovation, and new entries to the market will place these assessments at center stage. In reality, our ability to apply risk analysis techniques extends to the project plan, to technical performance indicators, to estimating, to the integrated master schedule (IMS), and to cost, both financial and from an earned value perspective. Combined with the need to identify risk and major variances using the earliest indicator, risk analysis becomes pivotal to mainstream program analysis and decision-making.

Conclusions from Part Two

The ASD industry is most closely aligned with PPM in the public interest. Two overarching trends that are transforming this market that are overcoming the inertia and ossification of PPM thought are the communications and information systems employed in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which opened pathways to new ways of thinking about the status quo, and the start-ups and new entries into the ASD market, borne from the investments in new technologies arising from external market, geo-political, space science, global warming, and propulsion trends, as well as new technologies and methods being employed in data and information technology that drive greater efficiency and productivity. These changes have forced a new language and new expectations as to the art of the necessary, as well as the art of the possible, for PPM. This new language includes a transition to the concept of the optimal capture and use of all data across the program management life cycle with greater emphasis on systems engineering, technical performance, and risk.

Having summarized the new program paradigm in Aerospace, Space, and Defense, my next post will assess the characteristics of program management in various commercial industries, the rising trends in these verticals, and what that means for the project and program management discipline.

Shake it Out – Embracing the Future in Program Management – Part One: Program and Project Management in the Public Interest

I heard the song from which I derived the title to this post sung by Florence and the Machine and was inspired to sit down and write about what I see as the future in program management.

Thus, my blogging radio silence has ended as I begin to process and share my observations and essential achievements over the last couple of years.

Some of my reticence in writing has been due to the continual drumbeat of both outrageous and polarizing speech that had dominated our lives for four years. Combined with the resulting societal polarization, I was overwhelmed by the hyper-politicized environment which has fostered disinformation and dysfunction. Those who wish to seek my first and current word on this subject need only visit my blog post, “In Defense of Empiricism” at the AITS Blogging Alliance here.

It is hard to believe that I published that post four years ago. I stand by it today and believe that it remains as valid, if not more so, than it did when I wrote and shared it.

Finally, the last and most important reason for my relative silence has been that I have been hard at work putting my money and reputation where my blogging fingers have been—in the face of a pandemic that has transformed and transfigured our social and economic lives.

My company—the conduit that provides the insights I share here—is SNA Software LLC. We are a small, veteran-owned company and we specialize in data capture, transformation, contextualization and visualization. We do it in a way that removes significant effort in these processes, ensures reliability and trust, to incorporate off-the-shelf functionality that provides insight, and empowers the user by leveraging the power of open systems, especially in program and project management.

Program and Project Management in the Public Interest

There are two aspects to the business world that we inhabit: commercial and government; both, however, usually relate to some aspect of the public interest, which is our forte.

There are also two concepts about this subject to unpack.

The first is distinguishing between program and project management. In this concept, a program is an overarching effort that may consist of individual efforts that, together, will result in the production or completion of a system, whether that is a weapons system, a satellite, a spacecraft, or an engine. It could even be a dam or some other aspect of public works.

A project under this concept is a self-contained effort separated organizationally from the larger entity, which possesses a clearly defined start and finish, a defined and allocated budget, and a set of plans, a performance management feedback system, and overarching goals or “framing assumptions” that define what constitutes the state of being “done.”

Oftentimes the terms “program” and “project” are used interchangeably, but the difference for these types of efforts is important and goes beyond a shallow understanding of the semantics. A program will also consider the lifecycle of the program: the follow-on logistics, the interrelationship of the end item to other components that will constitute the deployed system or systems, and any iterative efforts relating to improvement, revision, and modernization.

A word on the term “portfolio” is also worth a mention in the context of our theme. A portfolio is simply a summary of the projects or programs under an organizational entity that has both reporting and oversight responsibility for them. They may be interrelated or independent in their efforts, but all must report in some way, either due to fiduciary, resource, or oversight concerns, to that overarching entity.

The second concept relates to the term “public interest.” Programs and projects under this concept are those that must address the following characteristics: legality, governance, complexity, integrity, leadership, oversight, and subject matter expertise. I placed these in no particular order.

What we call in modern times “public interest” was originally called “public virtue” by the founders of the United States, which embody the ideals of the American Revolution, and upon which our experiment in democratic republicanism is built. It consists of conducting oneself in a manner in which the good of the whole—the public—outweighs personal interests and pursuits. Self-dealing need not apply.

This is no idealistic form of self-delusion: I understand, as do my colleagues, that we are, at heart, a commercial profit-making enterprise. But the manner in which we engage with government requires a different set of rules and many of these rules are codified in law and ethical practice. While others do not always feel obliged to live by these rules, we govern ourselves and so choose to apply these virtues—and to seek to support and change our system to encourage such behavior to as to be the norm—even in direct interactions with government personnel where we feel these virtues have been violated.

Characteristics of Public Interest Programs

Thus, the characteristics outlined above apply to program and project management in the public interest in the following manner:

Legality: That Public Interest Programs are an artifact of law and statute and are specifically designed to benefit the public as a whole.

At heart, program and project management are based on contractual obligations, whether those instruments apply internally or externally. As a result, everyone involved in the program and project management discipline is, by default, part of the acquisition community and the acquisition process. The law that applies to all government acquisition systems is based on the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR). There are also oversight and fiduciary responsibilities that apply as a result of the need for accountability under the Congressional appropriations process as well as ethical standards that apply, such as those under the Truth in Negotiations Act (TINA). While broad in the management flexibility they allow, violations of these statutes come with serious consequences. Thus, as a basis for establishing hard and fast guardrails in the management of programs and projects. Individual government agencies and military services also publish additional standards that supplement the legal requirements. An example is the Department of Defense FAR Supplement (DFARS). Commercial entities that hold government contracts in relation to Program Management Offices (PMOs) must sign on to both FAR and agency contractual clauses, which will then flow down to their subcontractors. Thus, the enforcement of these norms is both structured and consistent.

Governance: That the Organizational Structure and Disciplines deriving from Public Interest Programs are a result of both Contract and Regulatory Practice under the concept of Government Sovereignty.

The government and supplier PMOs are formed as a result of a contractual obligation for a particular purpose. Government contracting is unique since government entities are the sovereign. In the case of the United States, the sovereign is the elected government of the United States, which derives its legitimacy from the people of the United States as a whole. Constitutionally, the Executive Branch is tasked with the acquisition responsibility, but the manner and method of this responsibility is defined by statute.

Thus, during negotiations and unlike in commercial practice, the commercial entity is always the offeror and the United States always the party that either accepts or rejects the offer (the acceptor). This relationship has ramifications in contract enforcement and governance of the effort after award. It also allows the government to dictate the terms of the award through its solicitations. Furthermore, provisions from law establish cases where the burden for performance is on the entity (the supplier) providing the supplies and services.

Thus, the establishment of the PMO and oversight organizations have a legal basis, aside from considerations of best business practice. The details of governance within the bounds of legal guidance are those that apply through agency administrative law and regulation, oftentimes based on best business practice. These detailed practices of governance are usually established as a result of hard-learned experience: establishment of disciplines (systems engineering and technical performance, planning, performance management, cost control, financial execution, schedule, and progress assessment), the periodicity of reporting, the manner of oversight, the manner of liaison between the supplier and government PMOs, and alignment to the organization’s goals.

Complexity: That Public Interest Programs possess a level of both technical and organizational complexity unequaled in the private sector.

Program and project management in government involves a level of complexity rarely found in similar non-governmental commercial efforts. Aligning the contractual requirements, as an example, to an assessment of the future characteristics of a fighter aircraft needed to support the U.S. National Defense Strategy, built on the assessments by the intelligence agencies regarding future threats, is a unique aspect of government acquisition.

Furthermore, while relying on the expertise of private industry of such systems that support national defense, as well as those that support space exploration, energy, and a host of other needs, the items being acquired, which require cost type R&D contracts that involve program management, by definition are those where the necessary solutions are not readily available as commercial end items.

Oftentimes these requirements are built onto and extend existing off-the-shelf capabilities. But given that government investment in R&D represents the majority of this type of spending in the economy, absent it, technology and other efforts directed to meeting defense, economic, societal, climate, and space exploration challenges of the future would most likely not be met—or those that do will benefit only a portion of the populace. The federal government uniquely possesses the legal legitimacy, resources, and expertise to undertake such R&D that, pushing the envelope on capabilities, involves both epistemic and aleatory risk that can be managed through the processes of program management.

Integrity: The conduct of Public Interest Programs demands the highest level of commitment to a culture of accountability, impartiality, ethical conduct, fiduciary responsibility, democratic virtues, and honesty.

The first level of accountability resides in the conduct of the program manager, who is the locus of integrity within the program management office. This requires a focus on the duties the position demands as a representative of the Government of the United States. Furthermore, the program manager must ensure that the program team operate within the constraints established by the program’s or project’s contractual commitments, and that it continues to work to meeting the program goals that align with the stated interests and goals of the organization. That these duties are exercised regardless of self-interest is the basis of integrity.

This is not an easy discipline, and individuals oftentimes cannot separate their own interests from those of their duties. Yet, without this level of commitment, the legitimacy of the program office and the governmental enterprise itself is threatened.

In prior years, as an active-duty Supply Corps officer, I came across cases where individuals in civil service or among the commissioned officer community confused their own interests—for promotion, for self-aggrandizement, for ego—with those duties demanded of their rank or position. Such confusions of interests are serious transgressions. With contracted-out positions within program offices adding consulting and staffing firms into the mix, with their oftentimes diversified interests and portfolios, an additional layer of challenges is presented. Self-promotion, competition, and self-dealing have all too often become blatant, and program managers would do well to enforce strict rules regarding such behavior.

The pressures of exigency are oftentimes the main cause of the loss of integrity of the program or project. Personal interrelationships and human resource management issues can also undermine good order and discipline necessary for the program or project to organize itself into a cohesive, working team that is focused on a common vision.

Key elements mentioned in our opening thesis regarding ethical conduct, adherence to democratic virtues which include acceptance of all members of the team regardless of color, ethnicity, race, sexual identity, religion, or place of national origin. People deserve the respect and decency deriving from their basic human rights to enjoy human dignity, as well as of their position. Adding to these elements include honesty and the willingness to accept and report bad news, which is essential to integrity.

An organization committed to the principle of accountability will seek to measure and ensure that the goals of the program or project are being met, and that ameliorative measures are taken to correct any deficiencies. Since these efforts oftentimes involve years of effort involving significant sums of public monies, fiduciary integrity is essential to this characteristic.

All of these elements can and should exist in private, commercial practices. The difference that makes this a unique characteristic to program management in the public interest is the level of scrutiny, reporting, and review that is conducted: from oversight agencies within the Executive Department of the government, to the Congressional oversight, hearing and review processes, agency review, auditing and reporting, and inquires and critiques by the press and the public. Public interest program management is life in a fishbowl, except in the most secret efforts, and even those will eventually be subject to scrutiny.

As with a U.S. Navy ship that makes a port of call in a foreign country, the actions of the conduct of crew will not only reflect on themselves or their ship, but on the United States; so it is also with our program offices. Thus, systems of programmatic governance and business management must anticipate in their structure the level of adherence required. Given the inherent level of risk involved in these efforts, and given the normal amount of error human systems create even with good intentions and expertise, establishing a system committed to the elements of integrity creates a self-correcting one better prepared to meet the program’s or project’s challenges.

Leadership: Programs in the Public Interest differ from equivalent commercial efforts in that management systems and incentives based on profit- and shareholder-orientations do not exist. Instead, a special kind of skillset is required that includes good business management principles and skills combined with highly developed leadership traits.

Management skills tend to be a subset of leadership, though in business schools and professional courses they tend to be addressed as co-equal. This is understandable in commercial enterprises that focus on the capitalistic pressures regarding profit and market share.

Given the unique pressures imposed by the elements of integrity, the program manager and the program team are thrown into a situation that requires a focus on the achievement of organizational goals. In the case of program and project management, this will be expressed in the form of a set of “framing assumptions” that roll into an overarching vision.

A program office, of course, is more than a set of systems, practices, and processes. It is, first and foremost, a collection of individuals consisting of subject matter experts and professionals who must be developed into a team committed to the vision. The effort to achieve this team commitment is one of the more emotional and compelling elements that comprise leadership.

Human systems are adaptive ones, complex, which react and are created by both incentives and sanctions. Every group, especially involving creative and talented people, starts out being a collection of individuals with the interrelations among the members in an immature state. Underlying the expression of various forms of ambition and self-identification among mature individuals is the basic human need for social acceptance, born from the individual personal need for love. This motivation exists psychologically in all individuals except for sociopaths. It is also the basis for empathy and the acceptance of the autonomy of others, which form the foundation for team building.

The goal of the leader is to encourage maturity among the members of the group. The result is to create that overused term “synergy.” This is accomplished by doing those things as a leader necessary to develop members of the group that fosters trust, acceptance, and mutual respect. Admiral James L. Holloway, Jr., in his missive on Naval Leadership, instructed his young officers to eschew any concept of perfectionism in people. People make mistakes. We know this if we are to be brutally honest about our own experiences and actions.

Thus, intellectual honesty and an understanding on what motivates people within their cultural mores, above all else, is essential to good leadership. Americans, by nature, tend to be skeptical and independently minded. They require a level of explanation and due diligence that is necessary to win over their commitment to a goal or vision. When it comes to professionals operating within public service in government—who take an oath to the Constitution and our system of laws—the ability to lead tends to be more essential than just good management skills, though the latter are by no means unimportant. Management in private enterprise assumes a contentious workplace of competing values and interests, and oftentimes fosters it.

Program and project management in the public interest cannot succeed in such an environment. It requires a level of commitment to the goals of the effort regardless of personal values or interests among the individual members of the team. That they must be convinced to this level of commitment ensures that the values of leadership not only operate at the top of the management chain, but also at each of the levels and lateral relationships that comprise the team.

The shorthand for leadership in this culture is that the leader is “working their way out of their job,” and “that in order to be a good leader one must be a good follower,” meaning that all members of the team are well-informed, that their contributions, expertise and knowledge is acknowledged and respected, that individual points of failure through the irreplaceable person syndrome are minimized, and that each member of a team or sub-team can step in or step up to keep the operation functioning. The motivating concept in these situations are the interests of the United States, in lieu of a set of stockholders or some fiduciary reward.

Finally, there is the concept of the burden of leadership. Responsibility can be can be delegated, but accountability cannot. Leadership in this context entails an obligation to take responsibility for both the mission of the organization and the ethical atmosphere established in its governance.

Oversight: While the necessity for integrity anticipates the level of accountability, scrutiny, oversight, and reporting for Programs in the Public Interest, the environment this encompasses is unique compared to commercial entities.

The basis for acquisition at the federal level resides in the Article Two powers of the president as the nation’s Chief Executive. Congress, however, under its Article One powers, controls appropriations and passes laws related to the processes, procedures and management of the Executive Branch.

Flowing from these authorities, the agencies within the federal government have created offices for the oversight of the public’s money, the methods of acquisition of supplies and services, and the management of contracts. Contracting Officers are given authority through a warrant to exercise their acquisition authority under the guidance and management of a senior acquisition authority.

Unlike in private business, the government operates under the concept of Actual Authority. That is, no one may commit the government except those possessing a warrant. Program Managers are appointed to provide control and administration of cost type efforts, especially those containing R&D, to shepherd these efforts over the course of what usually constitutes a multi-year effort. The Contracting Officer and/or the senior acquisition authority in these cases will delegate contract administration authority to the Program Manager. As such, it is a very powerful position.

The inherent powers of the Executive Branch and the Legislative Branches of government create a tension that is resolved through a separation of powers and the ability of one branch to—at least in most cases—check the excesses and abuses of the other: the concept of checks and balances, especially through the operation of oversight.

When these tensions cannot be resolved within the processes established for separation of powers, the third branch of government becomes involved: this is the Judicial Branch. The federal judiciary has the ability to review all laws of the United States, their constitutionality, and their adherence to the letter of the law in the case of statute.

Wherever power exists within the federal government there exists systems of checks and balances. The reason for this is clear, and Lord Acton’s warning about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely is the operational concept.

Congress passes statutes and the Judiciary interprets the law, but it is up to the Executive Branch through the appointed heads of the various departments of government down through the civil service and, in the case of the Department of Defense, the military chain of command under civilian authority, to carry out the day-to-day activities in executing the laws and business of the government. This creates a large base of administrative law and procedure.

Administrative Law and the resulting procedures in their implementation come about due to the complexities in the statutes themselves, the tests of certain provisions of the statutes in the interplay between the various branches of government, and the practicalities of execution. This body of law and procedure is oftentimes confused with “regulation” in political discussions, but it is actually the means of ensuring that the laws are faithfully executed without undue political influence. It is usually supplemented by ethical codes and regulations as well.

As a part of this ecosystem, the Program in the Public Interest must establish a discipline related to self-regulation, due diligence, good business practice, fiduciary control, ethical and professional conduct, responsibility, and accountability. Just as the branches of the federal government are constructed to ensure oversight and checks-and-balances, this also exists with normative public administration within the Executive Branch agencies.

This is often referred to both positively and, mostly among political polemicists in the negative, as the bureaucracy. The development of bureaucracies in government is noted by historians and political scientists as an indication of political stability, maturity, and expertise. Without bureaucracies, governments tend to be capricious and their policies uncertain. The practice of stare decisis—the importance of precedent in legal decisions—is also part and parcel of stability. Government power can be beneficial or coercive. Resting action on laws and not the whims or desires of the individual person is essential to the good order and discipline of the federal government.

As such, program and project managers, given the extensive latitude and inherent powers of their position, are subject to rigorous reporting, oversight, and accountability regimes in the performance of their duties. In R&D cost-type program and project management efforts, the risk is shared between the supplier and the government. And the government flows down this same regime to the contractor to ensure the integrity of the effort in the expenditure of public monies and under the performance and delivery of public contacts.

This leads us to the last important aspect of oversight: public scrutiny, which also includes the press as the Fourth Estate. When I was a young Lieutenant in the Navy working in contracts the senior officer to whom I was assign often remarked: “Never do anything that would cause you to be ashamed were it to end up being read by your grandmother in the Washington Post.”

Unlike private business where law, contractual obligation, and fiduciary responsibility are the main pressures on tolerated behavior, the government and its actions are—and must be—under constant public scrutiny. It is expected. Senior managers who champ against the bit of this check on official conduct misunderstand their role. Even the appearance of malfeasance or abuse can cause one to steer into the rocks and shoals.

Subject Matter Expertise: Given the interrelated characteristics of legality, governance, complexity, integrity, leadership, and oversight—linked to the development of a professional, permanent bureaucracy acting through a non-partisan civil service—the practices necessary to successfully shepherd such efforts has produced areas of expertise and specialization. These areas provide a basis for leveraging technology in gaining insight into meeting all of the requirements necessary to the good administration and control of Program Management in the Public Interest.

The structures and practices of program and project management are reflected in the private economy. Some of this is contractually prescribed and some of it is based on best business practice learned through hard experience. In the interplay of government and industry, most often an innovation in one has been refined and improved in the other, only to find its way back to practice on the originating “side” of the transaction.

Initially in our history this cross-fertilization occurred through extraordinary wartime measures: standardization of rifled weaponry passed down by Thomas Jefferson and Eli Whitney, and for railroad track gauge standards issued by the Union government during the Civil War, are just two examples that turned out to provide a decisive advantage against laissez faire and libertarian approaches.

As the complexity of private business concerns, particularly in the international sphere, began to mimic—and in many cases surpass—the size and technical complexity of many individual government efforts, partnerships with civil authorities and private businesses saw the need for industry standardization for both electrical and non-electrical components and processes. The former was particularly important in the “Current Wars” between Edison and Westinghouse.

These simple and earlier examples highlight the great conundrum of standardization of supply, practice and procedure in acquisition: the need for economy through competition of many sources for any particular commodity or item weighed against the efficiency and interoperability needed to continue operations. Buying multiple individual items with the same function but produced using differing standards creates a nightmare of suboptimization. Overly restrictive standards can and have had the effect of reducing competition and stifling innovation, especially if the standard is proprietary.

In standards setting there are several interests involved that must be taken into account: the technical expertise (technical, qualitative, etc.) that underlies the standard, the public interest in ensuring a healthy marketplace that rewards innovation, diversity, and price competitiveness, the need for business-to-business cooperation and synergy in the marketplace, and the preponderance of practice, among others. In the Defense industry this also includes national security concerns.

This last consideration provides an additional level of tension between private industry and government interests. In the competition for market share and market niches, businesses are playing a zero-sum game that shifts between allies and competitors. Still, the interest of individual actors is focused on making a proprietary product or service dominant in the target market.

Government, on the other hand, particularly one that operates as a republic based on democratic processes and virtues and a commitment to equal rights, has a different set of interests that are, in many cases, diametrically opposed to those of individual players in the marketplace. Government needs and desires a broad choice of sources for what it needs, while ensuring that qualitative standards are met under a fair and reasonable price. When it does find innovation, it seeks to reward it, but only for the limited terms, conditions, and period of the contractual instrument.

The greater the risk in these cases—especially when cost risk is shared—the greater the need for standards, especially qualitative ones. The longer the term of the effort, the greater the need for checks and balances through evaluation, review, and oversight. The greater the dollar value, the greater importance for fiduciary and contractual accountability.

Thus, subject matter expertise has evolved over time, aligned with the functions and end items being developed and delivered. These areas include:

Estimating – A critical part of program and project management, this is a discipline with highly specialized quantitative methods for estimating and projecting project costs, resources, and duration. It is part of the planning phase prior to program or project inception. It can be used to support budget planning prior to program approval, during negotiations and, after award, to inform the project plan.

Systems Engineering – as described by the International Council of Systems Engineering, “a transdisciplinary and integrative approach to enable the successful realization, use, and retirement of engineered systems, using systems principles and concepts, and scientific, technological, and management methods.”

As it relates to program and project management, the technical documents related to providing the basis and structure of the lifecycle management of the end item application, including the application of technical standards, measures of effectiveness, measures of performance, key performance parameters, and technical performance measures. In simplistic terms, systems engineering defines when the item under R&D reaches the state of “done.”

Financial Management – at the program and project management level, the planning, organizing, directing and controlling the financial activities such as procurement and utilization of funds to adhere to the limitations of law and consistent with the terms and conditions of the contract and the its ancillary planning and execution documents.

At its core, financial management within this discipline includes the planning, programming, budgeting, and execution process for the financial requirements of successful program execution. As with any individual enterprise, cashflow for required activities with the right type of money determined by Congressional appropriation presents a unique and specialized skillset under program management in the public interest. Oftentimes the lack of funds necessary to address a particular programmatic risk or challenge can be just as decisive to program execution and success as any technical challenge.

Risk and Uncertainty – the concept of risk and uncertainty have evolved over time. Under classical economics (both Keynes and Knight), risk is where all of the future events and consequences of an action are known, but where specific outcomes are unknown. As such, probability calculus is applied to determine the risk management: mitigation and handling. Uncertainty, under this definition, is unknowable events that will result from our actions and is implicit in human action. There is no probability calculus or risk buy-down that can address areas of uncertainty. These definitions are also accepted under the concept of complexity economics.

My good colleague Glen Alleman (2013) at his blog, Herding Cats, casts risk as a product of uncertainty. This is a reordering of definitions, but not unuseful. Under Glen’s approach, uncertainty is broken into aleatory and epistemic uncertainty. The first—aleatory—comes from a random process, what Keynes, Knight, et al. would define as classical uncertainty. The second—epistemic—comes from lack of knowledge. The first is irreducible, which is consistent with classical economics and complexity economics; the second is subject to probability analysis and risk handling methodologies.

Both risk and uncertainty—aleatory and epistemic—occur within all phases and under each discipline within the project management environment. Any human action involves these forces of cause-and-effect and uncertainty—and limit our actions under the concept of “free will.”

Planning and Scheduling – usually these have been viewed as separate entities, but they are, in fact, part of a continuum, as are all of the disciplines mentioned, but more on that later in these blogs.

Planning involves the ability to derive the products of both the contract terms and conditions, and the systems engineering process. The purpose is to develop a high-level, time-phased plan that captures program events, deliverables, requirements, significant accomplishment criteria, and basic technical performance management achievement that will be the basis for a more detailed integrated master schedule.

The scheduling discipline is tasked with further delineating the summary tasks into schedule activities based on critical path methodology. A common refrain when I worked on the government side of program management was that you cannot eat an elephant in one gulp: you have to eat it one piece at a time.

As it relates to this portion of project methodology, I have, over the years, heard people say that planning and scheduling is more of an art instead of a science. Yet, the artifacts upon which our planning documents rest exist as part of the acquisition process and our systems and procedures are mature and largely standardized. The methods of systems engineering are precise and consistent.

The lexicon of planning and scheduling, regardless of the software applications or manual methods used, describe the same phenomenon and concepts, despite slightly different—and oftentimes proprietary—terminology. The concept of critical path analysis is well documented in the literature with slight, though largely insignificant, differences in application.

What appears as art is, in reality, a process that involves a great deal of complexity because these are the documents upon which all of the moving parts of the program are documented. Rather than art, it is a discipline that requires attention to detail and collaboration, aside from the power of computing.

Resource Management – as with planning and scheduling, resource management consists of a detailed accounting of the people, equipment, monies, and suppliers that are required to achieve the activities detailed in the program schedule.

In the detailed and specialized planning of projects and programs in the public interest, these efforts are cross-referenced and further delineated to the actual work that needs to be completed. A Work Breakdown Structure (or WBS), is the method of time-phasing the work using detailed tasks that integrate scope, cost, and schedule at the lowest level of achievement.

Baselining and Performance Management – are essential for project control in this environment. In this case, project and program schedule, cost, and resources are (ideally) risk adjusted and a performance management baseline is established: the basis for the assessment and control of the project.

This leads us to the methodology that is always on the cusp of being the Ozymandias of program management: earned value management or EVM. The discipline of EVM arose out of the Space Age era of the 1960s. The premise is simple: when undertaking any complex effort there is a finite amount of money and resources, and a target date for the needed end item. We need a method to determine whether the actual work performed in terms of budgeted resources and time is tracking to the plan to produce the desired end item application.

When looking at the utility of EVM, one must ask: while each of the disciplines noted above also track achievement over the lifecycle of the project or program, do any combine an analysis against budgeted time and resources? The answer is no, and so EVM is essential to management of these efforts.

Still, our other disciplines also track important information that is not captured by EVM. Thus, the entire corpus of our disciplines represents the project and program ecosystem. These processes, procedures, and the measures derived from them are interconnected. It is this salient fact that points us in the direction regarding the future of program management.

Conclusions from Part One

Given that we have outlined the unique and distinctive characteristics of public interest program management, the environment and basis upon which such program management rests, and the highly developed disciplines that have evolved as a result of the experience in system development, deployment, and lifecycle management, our inquiry must next explore the evolutionary nature of the program organization itself. Once identified and delineated, we must then determine the place of program organization within the context of developments in systems and information theory which will give us insight into the future of program management.

Innervisions: The Connection Between Data and Organizational Vision

During my day job I provide a number of fairly large customers with support to determine their needs for software that meets the criteria from my last post. That is, I provide software that takes an open data systems approach to data transformation and integration. My team and I deliver this capability with an open user interface based on Windows and .NET components augmented by time-phased and data management functionality that puts SMEs back in the driver’s seat of what they need in terms of analysis and data visualization. In virtually all cases our technology obviates the need for the extensive, time consuming, and costly services of a data scientist or software developer.

Over the course of my career both as a consumer and a provider of technology solutions, I have seen an evolution in software that began with simple point solutions being developed to automate particular manual processes, to more sophisticated solutions that are designed to automate a complex function. In most of these cases, a customer has identified a gap or deficiency in their requirements that represents an inefficiency or sub-optimization of their processes and then seek a software “tool” to acquire in order to address that specific purpose. The application of these “tools” combine to meet the overall vision of the organization or sub-system within the organization.

What Do You Do With A Problem Like “Tools”

The capabilities of software in terms of data handling capabilities and functionality double every 12-18 months in today’s environment. The use of the term “tools” for software, which is really based on a pre-2000 concept, is that in the mind’s eye software is analogous to any other tool. In the literature, particularly in that authored by consultants, this analogy is oftentimes extended to common household or construction tools: a wrench, a screwdriver, or a power drill. Under this concept each tool has a specific purpose and it is up to the SME to determine which tool is best for a specific job.

The problem with this concept is that not only is it obsolete, but it does great harm financially to the organization in terms of overhead costs, organizational efficiency and effectiveness.

First of all, most physical tools are fairly static in their specific use. A hammer is still a hammer, even if some sort of power is extended to give it power. It’s purpose remains to use force to insert a connective fastener, like a nail, into a medium, like a piece of wood. A nail gun, for instance, is a type of hammer. It is more powerful and efficient but, still, it is a glorified hammer. It is a superior tool in construction because it is more efficient, provides a consistency in quality, and is faster. It also eliminates the factors of arm strength, physical coordination, and visual alignment skills of the user; as anyone who has experienced a sore thumb as a result of a misaligned strike can attest. But a nail gun is still restricted to its specific function–sinking nails for the purpose of fastening.

Software, as it has evolved, was similarly based on the concept of a tool. The physical functions of a specific vocation were the first to undergo digitization: accountants and business operations personnel had spreadsheet software applications, secretarial and clerical staffs (yes, they used to exist) had word processing software, marketing and middle management could relay their ideas with presentation software, and the list went on.

As the power of software improved it followed the functions of traditional line-and-staff organizations. Many of these were built to replace the physical calculation of formulae and concepts that required a slide rule and, later, a scientific calculator. Soon scheduling software replaced manual GANTT planning, earned value software automated the calculation of basic EVM analytics, and risk software allowed for the complex formulation involved in assessing risk for the branch of a plan using simulated Monte Carlo analysis.

Each of these software applications targeted a specific occupation, and incorporated specific knowledge (functionality) required of that occupation.

Organizational software for multiple functions usually consisted of a suite of tools under the rubric of an ERP or Business Intelligence System. Modules and “bolt-ons” consisted of tying together business processes and point software requirements augmented by large software consulting staffs to customize the solutions. In actual practice, however, these were software tools tied together though a common brand and operating environment. Oftentimes the individual bolt-ons and tools weren’t even authored by the same development team with a common vision in mind, but a reaction to market forces that required a gap be filled through acquisition of a company or intellectual property.

Needless to say, these “enterprise” solutions aren’t that at all. Instead, they are a business-driven means to penetrate a vertical by providing scattershot functionality. Once inside a company or organization the other bolt-ons and modules are marketed in order to take over other business processes. Integration is achieved across domains through data transfer or other interpretive methods.

This approach has been successful, as it has been since the halcyon days when IBM dominated the computing market, especially among the larger software firms. It also meets many of the emotional and psychic needs of many senior managers. After all, the software firm–given its economic size–feels solid. The numbers of specialists introduced into the organization to augment staff provide a feeling of safety and accomplishment. C-level management and stockholders feel that risk is handled given that their software needs are being met at some level.

What this approach did not, and does not, meet is genuine data integration, especially given the realization that the data we have been using has been inadequate and artificially restricted based on what software providers were convincing their customers was the art of the possible. The term “Big Data” began to be introduced into the lexicon, and with it the economic realization that capturing and integrating datasets that were previously “impossible” to capture and integrate was (and presently is) an economic imperative.

But the approach of incumbents, whose priority is to remain “sticky” and to defend territory against new technologies, was to respond: “we have a tool for that.” Thus, the result has been the further introduction of inefficient individual applications with their inability to fully exploit data. Among these tools are largely “dumb”–that is, viewing data flat–data visualization tools that essentially paint pretty pictures from Excel or, when they need to be applied on a larger scale, default to the old business intelligence brute force approach of applying labor to derive the importance in data. Old habits are hard to change and what one person has done another can do. But this is the economic equivalent of what is called rent-seeking behavior. That is, it is inefficient and exploitative.

After all, if you buy what was advertised as a sports car you expect to see an engine under the hood and a transmission connected to a drivetrain and a pretty powerful one at that. What one does not expect is to buy the car but have to design and build the features of these essential systems while a team of individuals are paid by the hour to push us to where we want to go. Yet, organizations (and especially consultants) seem to be happy with this model when it comes to information management.

Thus, when a technology company like mine comes across a request for proposal, an informal invitation to participate in market research, or in exploratory professional meetings (largely virtual as of this writing), the emphasis and terminology is on software “tools”, which limits the ability of consumers to exploit technology because it mentally paints a picture that limits the definition of what software should do and can do.

This mindset, however, is beginning to change and, no doubt, our current predicament under the Coronavirus crisis will accelerate that transition.

To take our analogy one step further, we are long past the time when we must buy each component of an automobile individually and then assemble it in our own garage. Point solutions, which are set and inelastic, are like individual parts of the car.

Enterprise solutions consisting of different modules and datasets, oftentimes constructed from incompatible foundations, exacerbate this situation and add the element of labor to a supposedly automated process, like buying OEM products and having to upgrade the automobile we supposed bought to do its job, but still needed (with the help of a mechanic) to perform the normal functions of steering, stopping, and accelerating.

Open systems solutions provide more flexibility, but they can be both a blessing and a curse. The challenge is to provide the right balance of out-of-the-box point solution-type functionality while still providing enough flexibility for adaptability. Taking a common data approach is key to achieving this balance. This will require the abandonment of the concept of software “tools” and shifting the focus on data.

Data and Information Take Over: Two Models

The economic imperative for data integration and optimization developed from the needs of the organization and its practitioners–whether it be managers, analysts, or auditors working in a company, a business unit, a governmental agency, or a program or project organization–is to be positioned facing forward.

In order to face forward one must first establish a knowledge-based organization or, as oftentimes identified, a data-driven organization. What this means in real terms is that data is captured, processed, and contextualized so that its importance and meaning can be derived in a timely manner so that something can be done about what is happening. During our own present situation this is not just an economic imperative, but for public health an existential one for many of us.

Thus, we are faced with several key dimensions that must be addressed: size, manner of integration, contextualization, timeliness, and target. This applies to both known and unknown datasets.

Our known datasets are those that are already being used and populated in existing systems. We know, for example, that in program and project management that we require an estimate and plan, a schedule, a manner of organizing and tracking our progress, financial management and material management systems and others. These represent our pool of structured data, and understanding the lexicon of these systems is what is necessary to normalize and rationalize the data through a universal translator.

Our unknown datasets are those that require collection but, when done, is collected and processed in an ad hoc manner. Usually the need for this data collection is learned through the school of hard knocks. In other cases, the information is not collected at all or accidentally, such as when management relies on outside experts and anecdotal information. This is the equivalent of an organizational JOHARI window shown below.

Overview of Johari Window with quadrants
showing the relationships of self-knowledge and understanding

The Johari Window explains our perceptions and our relationship to the outside world. Our universe is not a construction of our own making or imagination. We cannot make our own reality nor are there “alternative facts.” The most colorful example of refuting this specious philosophical mind game is relayed to us in Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson.

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — “I refute it thus.”

We can deny what we do not know, or construct magical thinking. but reality is unmoved. In the case of Johnson he kicked the stone and the stone, also unmoved, kicked back in the form of the pain that Johnson felt when he “rebounded from it”.

Nor are the quadrants equal in our perceptual windows. Some people and organizations are very well informed and others less so, but the tension and conflict of our lives–both internally and externally–relates to expanding the “open” and “facade” portions of the Johari window so that we are not only informed of how others register us, but also to uncover the unknown, and to attempt to control how others perceive us in our various roles and guises.

We see this playing out in tracking the current Coronavirus pandemic. The absence of reliable widespread tests and testing infrastructure has impeded an understanding of the virus and the most effective strategies to deploy in dealing with it. Absent data, health and governmental agencies have been left with no choice but to use the same social distancing and travel restrictions deployed during the 1918 Influenza Pandemic and then, if lifting some of these, hope for the best.

This is the situation despite the fact that national risk assessments and risk registers, such as the U.S. National Security Council Pandemic Playbook and the U.K. National Risk Register, outlined measures to be taken given certain particular indicators. No doubt there are lessons to be learned here, but at the core lesson is the fact that, absent reliable and timely data that is converted into information that can be used in a decisive and practical manner, an organization, a state, or a nation risks its survival when it fails to imagine what information it needs to collect, absent the prosaic information that comes from performing the day-to-day routine.

Admittedly, there is no great insight here regarding this need (or, at least, there shouldn’t be). This condition is the reason why intelligence systems and agencies were created in the first place. It is why military and health services imagine scenarios and war-game them, and why organizations deploy brain-storming. Individuals and organizations that go into the world uninformed or self-deluded do not last long, and history is replete with such examples. Blanche DuBois relied on the kindness of strangers and we are best served by her experience as an archetype.

And yet, we still find ourselves struggling to properly collect, integrate, and utilize information at the same time that we have come to the realization that we need to collect and process information from larger pools of data. The root cause of this condition, as asserted above, rests in the mental framing of how to approach data and the problem that needs to be solved. It requires us to change the conceptual framework that relies on the concept of “tools.”

We can make this adjustment by realigning the object of the challenge so that it conforms with what we imagine to be the desired end-state. But, still, how do we determine what we need to collect? This is first a question of perception as opposed to one regarding knowledge: what one views as not only necessary but within the realm of possibility.

Once again, this dilemma is best served by models and, in this case, it is not unlike the Overton Window. Those preferring to eschew Wikipedia entries can also find a more detailed and nuanced definition at the source through the Mackinac Center for Public Policy website.

Overton Windows showing degrees of acceptability as modified by Joshua Trevino

Joseph Overton described the window as one of defining acceptable political policies in the mind of the public. He used the terms “more free” and “less free” to describe policies that think tanks recommend to describe the amount of government intervention, avoiding the left-right comparisons used by polemicists. Various adjustments and variations to the basic window have been proposed since his original use of the model, but it has been expanded to describe public perceptions in general on a host of socioeconomic concerns.

As with the Johari Window, I would posit that there is an analogous Overton Window in relation to information that frames what is viewed as the art of the possible. These perceptions influence the actions of decision-makers in assessing the risk involved in buying software solutions. When it comes to the rapidly developing field of data capture, transformation, and effective utilization, the perception from the start suggests some degree of risk and the danger of moving too quickly. For those in the field of data optimization, given that new technology capacity increases exponentially in shorter periods of time, the barrier here is to shift the informational Overton Window so that the market is educated on the risk-reward equation.

A Unified Model for Aligning Our Data

We have discussed two models up to this point in our exploration: an Informational Johari Window and an Informational Overton Window. Each of these models, using a simplified method, isolates different dimensions of the problem of data, which when freed of the concept of “tools” unlocking it, provides us with a clearer picture of the essential nature of its capture and utilization, and to what purposes.

We are now ready to take the next step in defining how to approach data to serve the strategic interests of the enterprise or organization.

For those of us in the information field, especially in the early years when applying solutions to line-and-staff organizations, what we found is that the very introduction of the new technology changed both the structure and nature of the organization. Initially we noted a sophisticated and accelerated version of the Hawthorne Effect. But there was something more elemental and significant going on.

Digital technology is amazingly attuned, especially when properly designed and deployed, to extend the functions of human knowledge gathering and processing. In this way it can be interpreted as an extension of human evolution–of the nature of human society acting as a complex adaptive system. In fact, there are so many connections between early physical, methodological, and industrial societal developments to digitization, such as the connection between the development of the Jacquard Loom to the development of the computer punch card (and there are others) that it seems that human society would have found a way to get to this point regardless of the existence of the intervening human pioneers, though their actual contributions are clear. (For further information on the waves of development see the books Future Shock and The Third Wave by Alvin Toffler.)

When many of us first applied digitized technology to knowledge workers (in my case in the field of contract management) we found that the very introduction of the technology changed perceptions, work habits, and organizational structures in very essential ways. Like the effect of the idea of evolution as described by Daniel Dennett, the application of digital evolution is like a universal acid–it eats through and transforms everything it touches.

For example, a report that, in the past, would have taken a week or two to complete, mostly because of the research required, now took a day or so. Procurement Action Lead Times (PALT) realized significant improvements since information previously only available in paper form was now provided on-line. At the same time, systems were now able to handle greater volumes of demand. As a result, customers’ expectations changed so much that they no longer felt that they had to hold back requests for fear of overloading the system and depend on human intervention. Suppliers, seeing many commodities experiencing steady and stable growth, reverted to just-in-time manufacturing.

Over time, typing pools and secretarial staffs, the former being commonplace well into the 1980s and the latter into the 1990s, except as symbols of privilege or prestige, disappeared. Middle management and many support staffs followed this trend in the early 2000s. Today, consulting services consisting of staffing personnel to apply non-value added manual solutions such as Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint slides to display data that has already been captured and processed, still manage to hold on in isolated pockets. That this model is not sustainable nor efficient should be obvious except for the continued support these models lend to the self-serving concept of “tools.”

Thus, the next step in the alignment of data capture and utilization to organizational vision is the interplay between our models. Practical experience suggests, though anecdotal, that as forward-facing organizations adopt more powerful digitized technologies designed to capture more and larger datasets, and to better utilize that data, that they tend to move to expand their self-awareness–their Informational Johari Window.

This, in turn, allows them to distinguish between structured and unstructured data and the value–the qualitative information content–of these datasets. This knowledge is then applied to reduce the labor and custom code required for larger data capture and utilization. In the end, these developments then determine what is the art of the possible by moving and expanding the Informational Overton Window.

Combining these concepts from a data perspective results in a combined model as illustrated below from the perspective of the subject:

Data Window of Perception and Possibility (Subject)

Extending this concept to the external subject (object or others) results in the following:

Data Window of Perception and Possibility (Object or Others)

This simplistic model describes several ways of looking at the problem of data and how to align it with its use to serve our purposes. When we gather data from the world the result can be symmetrical or asymmetrical. That is, each of us does not have the capacity to collect the same data that may be relevant to our existence or the survival of our organizations or institutions.

This same concept of symmetry and asymmetry applies to our ability to process data into information and–further–to properly apply information to when it will contribute to a decisive outcome in terms of knowledge, understanding, insight, or action.

As with the psychological Johari Window, our model takes it account the unknown within the much larger data space. Think of our Big Blue Ball (which is not so big) within the context of space. All of space represents the data of the universe. We are finding that the secrets of vast space-time are found in quanta as well in the observations of large and distant celestial events and objects. Data is everywhere. Yet, we can perceive only a small part of the universe. That is why our Data Window does not encompass the entire data space.

The quadrants, of course, are rarely co-equal, but for purposes of simplicity they are shown as such. As with the psychological Johari Window of self-awareness, the tension and conflict within the individual and its relationship with the external world is in the adjustment of the sizes of the quadrants that, hopefully, tend toward more self-awareness and openness. From the perspective of data, the equivalent is toward the expansion of the physical expansion of the Data Window while the quadrants within the window expand to minimize asymmetry of external knowledge and the unknown.

The physical limitations of symmetry, asymmetry, and the unknown portions of the data space is further limited by our perceptions. Our understanding of what is possible, acceptable, sensible, radical, unthinkable, and impossible is influenced by these perceptions. Those areas of information management that fall within some mean or midpoint of the limitations of our perceptions represent current practice and which, as with the original Johari Window, I label as “policy,” though a viable alternative label would be “practice.”

Note that there perceptions vary by the position of the subject. In the case of our own perceptions, as for those reading this post, the first variation of the model is aligned vertically. For the case of the perceptions of others, which are important in understanding their position when advocating a particular course of action, the perception model is aligned horizontally across the quadrants.

The interplay of the quadrants within the Data Window directly affect how we perceive the use of data and its potential. Thus, I have labeled the no-man’s-land portion that pushes into areas that are unknown to the subject and external object is labeled as “The Frontier.”

To an American a “frontier” is an unexplored country while, historically, in the Old World a “frontier” is a border. The former promises not only risk, but, also opportunity and invites exploration. The latter is a limitation. No doubt, my use of the term is culturally biased to the first definition.

Intellectually and physically, as we enter the frontier and learn what secrets await us there, we learn. For data we may first see a Repository of Babel and deal with it as if it were flat. But, given enough exploration we will learn its lexicon and underlying structure and, eventually, learn how to process it into information and harness its content. This, in turn, will influence the size of the Data Window, the relative sizes of the quadrants, and our perceptions of the art of the possible.

Conception to Application

This model, I believe, is a useful antecedent concept in approaching and making comprehensible what is often called Big Data. The model also helps us be more precise in how we perceive and define the term as technology changes, given that exponential increases in hardware storage and processing capabilities expand our Data Window.

Furthermore, understanding the interplay of how wee approach data, and the consequences of our perceptions of it, allow us to weigh the risk when looking at new technologies and the characteristics they need to possess in order to meet organizational goals and vision. The initial bias, as noted by Paul Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, is for people to stick with the status quo or the familiar–the devil they know–in lieu of something new and innovative, even when the advantages of adoption of the new innovation are clearly obvious. It requires a reorientation of thinking to allow the acceptance of the new.

Our familiar patterns when thinking about information is to look for solutions that are “tools.” The new, unfamiliar concept that we find challenging is the understanding that we do not know what we do not know when it come to data and its potential–that we must push into the frontier in order to do so–and doing so will require not only new technology that is oriented toward the optimization of data, its processing from information to knowledge, and its use, but also a new way of thinking about it and how it will align with our organizational strategy.

This can only be done by first starting with a benchmark–to practically take stock–of where we individually as organizations and where we need to be in terms of understanding our mission or purpose. For project controls and project management there is no area more at odds with this alignment.

Recently, Dave Gordon in his blog The Practicing IT Project Manager argued why project managers needed to align their projects with organizational strategy. He noted that in 2015, during the development of the “Talent Triangle” that the Project Management Institute found that a major deficiency noted by organizations was that project managers needed to take an active role in aligning their projects with organizational strategy.

As I previously noted, there are a number of project management tools on the market today and a number of data visualization tools. Yet, there are significant gaps not only in the capture, quality, and processing of data, but also in the articulation of a consistent data strategy that aligns with the project organization and the overarching organization’s business strategy, goals, and priorities.

For example, in government, program managers spend a large portion of the year defending their programs to show that they are effectively and efficiently overseeing the expenditure of resources: that they are “executing program.” Failure to execute program will result in a budget mark, or worse, result in a re-baseline, or possible restructuring or cancellation. Projected production may be scaled back in favor of more immediate priorities.

Yet, none of our so-called “tools” fully capture program execution as it is defined by agencies and Congress. We have performance management tools, earned value tools, and the list can go on. A typical program manager in government spends almost five months assessing and managing program execution, and defending program and only a few minutes each month reviewing performance. This fact alone should be indicative that our priorities are misaligned.

The intersection of organizational alignment and program management in this case is related to resource utilization and program execution. No doubt, project controls and performance management contribute to our understanding of program execution, but they are removed from informing both the program manager and the organization in a comprehensive manner about execution, risk, and opportunity–and whether those elements conflict with or align with the agency’s goals. They are even further removed from an understanding of decisions related to program execution on the interrelationships across spectrum of the project and program portfolio.

The reason for this condition is that the data is currently not being captured and processed in a comprehensive manner to be positioned for its effective exploitation and utilization in meeting the needs of the various levels of the organization, nor does the perception of the specific data needed align with organizational needs.

Correspondingly, in construction and upstream oil and gas, project managers and stakeholders are most concerned with scope, timeliness, and the inevitable questions of claims–especially the avoidance or equitable settlement of the last.

As with government, our data strategy must align with our organizational goals and vision from the perspective of all stakeholders in the effort. At the heart of this alignment is data and those technologies “fitted” to exploit it and align it with our needs.

Potato, Potahto, Tomato, Tomahto: Data Normalization vs. Standardization, Why the Difference Matters

In my vocation I run a technology company devoted to program management solutions that is primarily concerned with taking data and converting it into information to establish a knowledge-based environment. Similarly, in my avocation I deal with the meaning of information and how to turn it into insight and knowledge. This latter activity concerns the subject areas of history, sociology, and science.

In my travels just prior to and since the New Year, I have come upon a number of experts and fellow enthusiasts in these respective fields. The overwhelming numbers of these encounters have been productive, educational, and cordial. We respectfully disagree in some cases about the significance of a particular approach, governance when it comes to project and program management policy, but generally there is a great deal of agreement, particularly on basic facts and terminology. But some areas of disagreement–particularly those that come from left field–tend to be the most interesting because they create an opportunity to clarify a larger issue.

In a recent venue I encountered this last example where the issue was the use of the phrase data normalization. The issue at hand was that the use of “data normalization” suggested some statistical methodology in reconciling data into a standard schema. Instead, it was suggested, the term “data standardization” was more appropriate.

These phrases do not describe the same thing, but they do describe processes that are symbiotic, not mutually exclusive. So what about data normalization? No doubt there is a statistical use of the term, but we are dealing with the definition as used in digital technology here, just as the use of “standardization” was suggested in the same context. There are many examples of technical terminology that do not have the same meaning when used in different contexts. Here is the definition of normalization applied to data science from Technopedia, which is the proper use of the term in this case:

Normalization is the process of reorganizing data in a database so that it meets two basic requirements: (1) There is no redundancy of data (all data is stored in only one place), and (2) data dependencies are logical (all related data items are stored together). Normalization is important for many reasons, but chiefly because it allows databases to take up as little disk space as possible, resulting in increased performance.

Normalization is also known as data normalization

This is pretty basic (and necessary) stuff. I have written at length about data normalization, but also pair it with two other terms. This is data rationalization and contextualization. Here is a short definition of rationalization:

What is the benefit of Data Rationalization? To be able to effectively exploit, manage, reuse, and govern enterprise data assets (including the models which describe them), it is necessary to be able to find them. In addition, there is (or should be) a wealth of semantics (e.g. business names, definitions, relationships) embedded within an organization’s models that can be exposed for improved analysis and knowledge transfer. By linking model objects (across or within models) it is possible to discover the higher order conceptual objects for any given object. Conversely, it is possible to identify what implementation artifacts implement a higher order model object. For example, using data rationalization, one can traverse from a conceptual model entity to a logical model entity to a physical model table to a database table, etc. Similarly, Data Rationalization enables understanding of a database table by traversing up through the different model levels.

Finally, we have contextualization. Here is a good definition using Wikipedia:

Context or contextual information is any information about any entity that can be used to effectively reduce the amount of reasoning required (via filtering, aggregation, and inference) for decision making within the scope of a specific application.[2] Contextualisation is then the process of identifying the data relevant to an entity based on the entity’s contextual information. Contextualisation excludes irrelevant data from consideration and has the potential to reduce data from several aspects including volume, velocity, and variety in large-scale data intensive applications

There is no approximation of reflecting the accuracy of data in any of these terms wihin the domain of data and computer science. Nor are there statistical methods involved to approximate what needs to be accomplished precisely. The basic skill required to accomplish these tasks–knowing that the data is structured and pre-conditioned–is to reconcile the various lexicons from differing sources, much as I reconcile in my avocation the meaning of words and phrases across periods in history and across languages.

In this discussion we are dealing with the issue of different words used to describe a process or phenomenon. Similarly, we find this challenge in data.

So where does this leave data standardization? In terms of data and computer science, this describes a completely different method. Here is a definition from Wikipedia, which is the proper contextual use of the term under “Standard data model”:

A standard data model or industry standard data model (ISDM) is a data model that is widely applied in some industry, and shared amongst competitors to some degree. They are often defined by standards bodies, database vendors or operating system vendors.

In the context of project and program management, particularly as it relates to government data submission and international open standards across vendors in an industry, is the use of a common schema. In this case there is a DoD version of a UN/CEFACT XML file currently set as the standard, but soon to be replaced by a new standard using the JSON file structure.

In any event, what is clear here is that, while standardization is a necessary part of a data policy to allow for sharing of information, the strength of the chosen schema and the instructions regarding it will vary–and this variation will have an effect on the quality of the information shared. But that is not all.

This is where data normalization, rationalization, and contextualization come into play. In order to create data for the a standardized format, it is first necessary to convert what is an otherwise opaque set of data due to differences into a cohesive lexicon. In data, this is accomplished by reconciling data dictionaries to determine which items are describing the same thing, process, measure, or phenomenon. In a domain like program management, this is a finite set. But it is also specialized knowledge and where the value is added to any end product that is produced. Then, once we know how to identify the data, we must be able to map those terms to the standard schema but, keeping on eye on the use of the data down the line, must be able to properly structure and ensure interrelationships of the data are established and/or maintained to ensure its effective use. This is no mean task and why all data transformation methods and companies are not the same.

Furthermore, these functions can be accomplished efficiently or inefficiently. The inefficient method is to take the old-fashioned business intelligence method that has been around since the 1980s and before, where a team of data scientists and analysts deal with data as if it is flat and, essentially, reinvents the wheel in establishing the meaning and proper context of the data. Given enough time and money anything can be accomplished, but brute force labor will not defeat the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

In computing, which comes close to minimizing that physical law, we know that data has already been imbued with meaning upon its initial processing. In lieu of brute force labor we apply intelligence and knowledge to accomplish this requirement. This is called normalization, rationalization, and contextualization of data. It requires a small fraction of other methods in terms of time and effort, and is infinitely more transparent.

Using these methods is also where innovation, efficiency, performance, accuracy, scalability, and anticipating future requirements based on the latest technology trends comes into play. Establishing a seamless flow of data integration allows, for example, the capture of more data being able to be properly structured in a database, which lays the ground for the transition from 2D to 3D and 4D (that is, what is often called integrated) program management, as well as more effective analytics.

The term “standardization” also suffers from a weakness in data and computer science that requires that it be qualified. After all, data standardization in an enterprise or organization does not preclude the prescription of a propriety dataset. In government, this is contrary to both statutory and policy mandates. Furthermore, even given an effective, open standard, there will be a large pool of legacy and other non-conforming data that will still require capture and transformation.

The Section 809 Panel study dealt directly with this issue:

Use existing defense business system open-data requirements to improve strategic decision making on acquisition and workforce issues…. DoD has spent billions of dollars building the necessary software and institutional infrastructure to collect enterprise wide acquisition and financial data. In many cases, however, DoD lacks the expertise to effectively use that data for strategic planning and to improve decision making. Recommendation 88 would mitigate this problem by implementing congressional open-data mandates and using existing hiring authorities to bolster DoD’s pool of data science professionals.

Section 809 Volume 3, Section 9, p.477

As operating environment companies expose more and more capability into the market through middleware and other open systems methods of visualizing data, the key to a system no longer resides in its ability to produce charts and graphs. The use of Excel as an ad hoc data repository with its vulnerability to error, to manipulation, and for its resistance to the establishment of an optimized data management and corporate knowledge environment is a symptom of the larger issue.

Data and its proper structuring is at the core of organizational success and process improvement. Standardization alone will not address barriers to data optimization. According to RAND studies in 2015 and 2017* these are:

  • Data Quality and Discontinuities
  • Data Silos and Underutilized Repositories
  • Timeliness of Data for use by SMEs and Decision-makers
  • Lack of Access and Contextualization
  • Traceability and Auditability
  • Lack of the Ability to Apply Discovery in the Data
  • The issue of Contractual Technical Data and Proprietary Data

That these issues also exist in private industry demonstrates the universality of the issue. Thus, yes, standardize by all means. But also ensure that the standard is open and that transformation is traceable and auditable from the the source system to the standard schema, and then into the target database. Only then will the enterprise, the organization, and the government agency have full ownership of the data it requires to efficiently and effectively carry out its purpose.

*RAND Corporation studies are “Issues with Access to Acquisition Data and Information in the DoD: Doing Data Right in Weapons System Acquisition” (RR880, 2017), and “Issues with Access to Acquisition Data and Information in the DoD: Policy and Practice (RR1534, 2015). These can be found here.

Ring Out the Old, Ring in the New: Data Transformation Podcasting

Robin Williams at Innovate IPM interviewed me a few weeks ago and has a new podcast up to cap off the year. The main thrust of our discussion, as it turned out, which began as a wide-ranging one, settled on digital transformation and the changes and developments that I’ve seen in this area over the last three decades.

I met Rob at a recent Projects Controls conference. He is a professional, curious, and engaging individual who quickly puts one at ease. We both found a lot in common regarding our perspectives on project management and project controls and I agreed to the podcast interview. Our discussion was no different than many that I’ve had with other professionals in my areas of interest in my own living room, and the discussion comes off as a similarly engaging and informal conversation between like-minded individuals.

Before he posted the podcast, I managed to get a preview. Despite years of doing interviews, hosting symposiums, an occasional emcee or radio spot, home movies, and other recordings, I still cannot get over the strange feeling of hearing my own voice during a long conversation. I am constantly looking for faults, and cringed with the utterance of each “ah” or “um” while listening to myself–returning in my head to the admonitions of my supervisors when I was taught to be a Navy instructor–though, thankfully, they are few.

Still, thanks to the magic of editing, Rob managed to keep the focus on the main point of the conversation when I strayed into some side discussion. During the time of the interview Rob caught me at a time when I was working on a paper to present to DoD professionals regarding digital transformation, and so the interview caught me in real-time while I was developing in my mind two main concepts that I picked up by reading the literature in the areas of establishing a Master Data Management (MDM) strategy, and a knowledge management environment. While I do not mention these items in the interview, the discussion allowed me to subsequently sort out where these concepts apply.

In any event, the podcast can be found here: https://www.innovateipm.com/podcast/episode/206e7fbd/13-history-of-digital-transformation-with-nick-pisano. I hope you find it interesting and informative.

Open: Strategic Planning, Open Data Systems, and the Section 809 Panel

Sundays are usually days reserved for music and the group Rhye was playing in the background when this topic came to mind.

I have been preparing for my presentation in collaboration with my Navy colleague John Collins for the upcoming Integrated Program Management Workshop in Baltimore. This presentation will be a non-proprietary/non-commercial talk about understanding the issue of unlocking data to support national defense systems, but the topic has broader interest.

Thus, in advance of that formal presentation in Baltimore, there are issues and principles that are useful to cover, given that data capture and its processing, delivery, and use is at the heart of all systems in government, and private industry and organizations.

Top Data Trends in Industry and Their Relationship to Open Data Systems

According to Shohreh Gorbhani, Director, Project Control Academy, the top five data trends being pursued by private industry and technology companies. My own comments follow as they relate to open data systems.

  1. Open Technologies that transition from 2D Program Management to 3D and 4D PM. This point is consistent with the College of Performance Management’s emphasis on IPM, but note that the stipulation is the use of open technologies. This is an important distinction technologically, and one that I will explore further in this post.
  2. Real-time Data Capture. This means capturing data in the moment so that the status of our systems is up-to-date without the present delays associated with manual data management and conditioning. This does not preclude the collection of structured, periodic data, but also does include the capture of transactions from real-time integrated systems where appropriate.
  3. Seamless Data Flow Integration. From the perspective of companies in manufacturing and consumer products, technologies such as IoT and Cloud are just now coming into play. But, given the underlying premises of items 1 and 2, this also means the proper automated contextualization of data using an open technology approach that flows in such a way as to be traceable.
  4. The use of Big Data. The term has lost a good deal of its meaning because of its transformation into a buzz-phrase and marketing term. But Big Data refers to the expansion in the depth and breadth of available data driven by the economic forces that drive Moore’s Law. What this means is that we are entering a new frontier of data processing and analysis that will, no doubt, break down assumptions regarding the validity and strength of certain predictive analytics. The old assumptions that restrict access to data due to limitations of technology and higher cost no longer apply. We are now in the age of Knowledge Discovery in Data (KDD). The old approach of reporting assumed that we already know what we need to know. The use of data challenges old assumptions and allows us to follow the data where it will lead us.
  5. AI Forecasting and Analysis. No doubt predictive AI will be important as we move forward with machine learning and other similar technologies. But this infant is not yet a rug rat. The initial experiences with AI are that they tend to reflect the biases of the creators. The danger here is that this defeats KDD, which results in stagnation and fugue. But there are other areas where AI can be taught to automate mundane, value-neutral tasks relating to raw data interpretation.

The 809 Panel Recommendation

The fact that industry is the driving force behind these trends that will transform the way that we view information in our day-to-day work, it is not surprising that the 809 Panel had this to say about existing defense business systems:

“Use existing defense business system open-data requirements to improve strategic decision making on acquisition and workforce issues…. DoD has spent billions of dollars building the necessary software and institutional infrastructure to collect enterprise wide acquisition and financial data. In many cases, however, DoD lacks the expertise to effectively use that data for strategic planning and to improve decision making. Recommendation 88 would mitigate this problem by implementing congressional open-data mandates and using existing hiring authorities to bolster DoD’s pool of data science professionals.”

Section 809 Volume 3, Section 9, p. 477

At one point in my military career, I was assigned as the Materiel, Fuels, and Transportation Officer of Naval Air Station, Norfolk. As a major naval air base, transportation hub, and home to a Naval Aviation Depot, we shipped and received materiel and supplies across the world. In doing so, our transportation personnel would use what at the time was new digital technology to complete an electronic bill of lading that specified what and when items were being shipped, the common or military carrier, the intended recipient, and the estimated date of arrival, among other essential information.

The customer and receiving end of this workflow received an open systems data file that contained these particulars. The file was an early version of open data known as an X12 file, for which the commercial transportation industry was an early adopter. Shipping and receiving activities and businesses used their own type of local software: and there were a number of customized and commercial choices out there, as well as those used by common carriers such various trucking and shipping firms, the USPS, FEDEX, DHS, UPS, and others. The X12 file was the DMZ that made the information open. Software manufacturers, if they wanted to stay relevant in the market, could not impose a proprietary data solution.

Furthermore, standardization of terminology and concepts ensured that the information was readable and comprehensible wherever the items landed–whether across receiving offices in the United States, Japan, Europe, or even Istanbul. Understanding that DoD needs the skillsets to be able to optimize data, it didn’t require an army of data scientists to achieve this end-state. It required the right data science expertise in the right places, and the dictates of transportation consumers to move the technology market to provide the solution.

Over the years both industry and government have developed a number of schema standards focused on specific types of data, progressing from X12 to XML and now projected to use JSON-based schemas. Each of them in their initial iterations automated the submission of physical reports that had been required by either by contract or operations. These focused on a small subset of the full dataset relating to program management and project controls.

This progression made sense.

When digitized technology is first introduced into an intensive direct-labor environment, the initial focus is to automate the production of artifacts and their underlying processes in order to phase in the technology’s acceptance. This also allows the organization to realize immediate returns on investment and improvements in productivity. But this is the first step, not the final one.

Currently for project controls the current state is the UN/CEFACT XML for program performance management data, and the contract cost and labor data collection file known as the FlexFile. Clearly the latter file, given that the recipient is the Office of the Secretary of Defense Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (OSD CAPE), establish it as one of many feedback loops that support that office’s role in coordinating the planning, programming, budgeting, and evaluation (PPBE) system related to military strategic investments and budgeting, but only one. The program performance information is also a vital part of the PPBE process in evaluation and in future planning.

For most of the U.S. economy, market forces and consumer requirements are the driving force in digital innovation. The trends noted by Ms. Gorbhani can be confirmed through a Google search of any one of the many technology magazines and websites that can be found. The 809 Panel, drawn as it was from specialists and industry and government, were tasked “to provide recommendations that would allow DoD to adapt and deliver capability at market speeds, while ensuring that DoD remains true to its commitment to promote competition, provide transparency in its actions, and maintain the integrity of the defense acquisition system.”

Given that the work of the DoD is unique, creating a type of monopsony, it is up to leadership within the Department to create the conditions and mandates necessary to recreate in microcosm the positive effects of market forces. The DoD also has a very special, vital mission in defending the nation.

When an individual business cobbles together its mission statement it is that mission that defines the necessary elements in data collection that are then essential in making decisions. In today’s world, best commercial sector practice is to establish a Master Data Management (MDM) approach in defining data requirements and practices. In the case of DoD, a similar approach would be beneficial. Concurrent with the period of the 809 Panel’s efforts, RAND Corporation delivered a paper in 2017 (link in the previous sentence) that made recommendations related to data governance that are consistent with the 809 Panel’s recommendations. We will be discussing these specific recommendations in our presentation.

Meeting the mission and readiness are the key components to data governance in DoD. Absent such guidance, specialized software solution providers, in particular, will engage in what is called “rent-seeking” behavior. This is an economic term that means that an “entity (that) seeks to gain added wealth without any reciprocal contribution of productivity.”

No doubt, given the marketing of software solution providers, it is hard for decision-makers to tell what constitutes an open data system. The motivation of a software solution is to make itself as “sticky” as possible and it does that by enticing a customer to commit to proprietary definitions, structures, and database schemas. Usually there are “black-boxed” portions of the software that makes traceability impossible and that complicates the issue of who exactly owns the data and the ability of the customer to optimize it and utilize it as the mission dictates.

Furthermore, data visualization components like dashboards are ubiquitous in the market. A cursory stroll through a tradeshow looks like a dashboard smorgasbord combined with different practical concepts of what constitutes “open” and “integration”.

As one DoD professional recently told me, it is hard to tell the software systems apart. To do this it is necessary to understand what underlies the software. Thus, a proposed honest-broker definition of an open data system is useful and the place to start, given that this is not a notional concept since such systems have been successfully been established.

The Definition of Open Data Systems

Practical experience in implementing open data systems toward the goal of optimizing essential information from our planning, acquisition, financial, and systems engineering systems informs the following proposed definition, which is based on commercial best practice. This proposal is also based on the principle that the customer owns the data.

  1. An open data system is one based on non-proprietary neutral schemas that allow for the effective capture of all essential elements from third-party proprietary and customized software for reporting and integration necessary to support both internal and external stakeholders.
  2. An open data system allows for complete traceability and transparency from the underlying database structure of the third-party software data, through the process of data capture, transformation, and delivery of data in the neutral schema.
  3. An open data system targets the loading of the underlying source data for analysis and use into a neutral database structure that replicates the structure of the neutral schema. This allows for 100% traceability and audit of data elements received through the neutral schema, and ensures that the receiving organization owns the data.

Under this definition, data from its origination to its destination is more easily validated and traced, ensuring quality and fidelity, and establishing confidence in its value. Given these characteristics, integration of data from disparate domains becomes possible. The tracking of conflicting indicators is mitigated, since open system data allows for its effective integration without the bias of proprietary coding or restrictions on data use. Finally, both government and industry will not only establish ownership of their data–a routine principle in commercial business–but also be free to utilize new technologies that optimize the use of that data.

In closing, Gahan Wilson, a cartoonist whose work appeared in National Lampoon, The New Yorker, Playboy, and other magazines recently passed.

When thinking of the barriers to the effective use of data, I came across this cartoon in The New Yorker:

Open Data is the key to effective integration and reporting–to the optimal use of information. Once mandated and achieved, our defense and business systems will be better informed and be able to test and verify assumed knowledge, address risk, and eliminate dogmatic and erroneous conclusions. Open Data is the driver of organizational transformation keyed to the effective understanding and use of information, and all that entails. Finally, Open Data is necessary to the mission and planning systems of both industry and the U.S. Department of Defense.

Sledgehammer: Pisano Talks!

My blogging hiatus is coming to an end as I take a sledgehammer to the writer’s block wall.

I’ve traveled far and wide over the last six months to various venues across the country and have collected a number of new and interesting perspectives on the issues of data transformation, integrated project management, and business analytics and visualization. As a result, I have developed some very strong opinions regarding the trends that work and those that don’t regarding these topics and will be sharing these perspectives (with the appropriate supporting documentation per usual) in following posts.

To get things started this post will be relatively brief.

First, I will be speaking along with co-presenter John Collins, who is a Senior Acquisition Specialist at the Navy Engineering & Logistics Office, at the Integrated Program Management Workshop at the Hyatt Regency in beautiful downtown Baltimore’s Inner Harbor 10-12 December. So come on down! (or over) and give us a listen.

The topic is “Unlocking Data to Improve National Defense Systems”. Today anyone can put together pretty visualizations of data from Excel spreadsheets and other sources–and some have made quite a bit of money doing so. But accessing the right data at the right level of detail, transforming it so that its information content can be exploited, and contextualizing it properly through integration will provide the most value to organizations.

Furthermore, our presentation will make a linkage to what data is necessary to national defense systems in constructing the necessary artifacts to support the Department of Defense’s Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Execution (PPBE) process and what eventually becomes the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP).

Traditionally information capture and reporting has been framed as a question of oversight, reporting, and regulation related to contract management, capital investment cost control, and DoD R&D and acquisition program management. But organizations that fail to leverage the new powerful technologies that double processing and data storage capability every 18 months, allowing for both the depth and breadth of data to expand exponentially, are setting themselves up to fail. In national defense, this is a condition that cannot be allowed to occur.

If DoD doesn’t collect this information, which we know from the reports of cybersecurity agencies that other state actors are collecting, we will be at a serious strategic disadvantage. We are in a new frontier of knowledge discovery in data. Our analysts and program managers think they know what they need to be viewing, but adding new perspectives through integration provide new perspectives and, as a result, will result in new indicators and predictive analytics that will, no doubt, overtake current practice. Furthermore, that information can now be processed and contribute more, timely, and better intelligence to the process of strategic and operational planning.

The presentation will be somewhat wonky and directed at policymakers and decisionmakers in both government and industry. But anyone can play, and that is the cool aspect of our community. The presentation will be non-commercial, despite my day job–a line I haven’t crossed up to this point in this blog, but in this latter case will be changing to some extent.

Back in early 2018 I became the sole proprietor of SNA Software LLC–an industry technology leader in data transformation–particularly in capturing datasets that traditionally have been referred to as “Big Data”–and a hybrid point solution that is built on an open business intelligence framework. Our approach leverages the advantages of COTS (delivering the 80% solution out of the box) with open business intelligence that allows for rapid configuration to adapt the solution to an organization’s needs and culture. Combined with COTS data capture and transformation software–the key to transforming data into information and then combining it to provide intelligence at the right time and to the right place–the latency in access to trusted intelligence is reduced significantly.

Along these lines, I have developed some very specific opinions about how to achieve this transformation–and have put those concepts into practice through SNA and delivered those solutions to our customers. Thus, the result has been to reduce both the effort and time to capture large datasets from data that originates in pre-processed data, and to eliminate direct labor and the duration to information delivery by more than 99%. The path to get there is not to apply an army of data scientists and data analysts that deals with all data as if it is flat and to reinvent the wheel–only to deliver a suboptimized solution sometime in the future after unnecessarily expending time and resources. This is a devolution to the same labor-intensive business intelligence approaches that we used back in the 1980s and 1990s. The answer is not to throw labor at data that already has its meaning embedded into its information content. The answer is to apply smarts through technology, and that’s what we do.

Further along these lines, if you are using hard-coded point solutions (also called purpose-built software) and knitted best-of-breed, chances are that you will find that you are poorly positioned to exploit new technology and will be obsolete within the next five years, if not sooner. The model of selling COTS solutions and walking away except for traditional maintenance and support is dying. The new paradigm will be to be part of the solution and that requires domain knowledge that translates into technology delivery.

More on these points in future posts, but I’ve placed the stake in the ground and we’ll see how they hold up to critique and comment.

Finally, I recently became aware of an extremely informative and cutting-edge website that includes podcasts from thought leaders in the area of integrated program management. It is entitled InnovateIPM and is operated and moderated by a gentleman named Rob Williams. He is a domain expert in project cost development, with over 20 years of experience in the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries. Robin has served in a variety of roles throughout his career and is now focuses on cost estimating and Front-End Loading quality assurance. His current role is advanced project cost estimator at Marathon Petroleum’s Galveston Bay Refinery in Texas City.

Rob was also nice enough to continue a discussion we started at a project controls symposium and interviewed me for a podcast. I’ll post additional information once it is posted.

Both Sides Now — The Value of Data Exploration

Over the last several months I have authored a number of stillborn articles that just did not live up to the standards that I set for this blog site. After all, sometimes we just have nothing important to add to the conversation. In a world dominated by narcissism, it is not necessary to constantly have something to say. Some reflection and consideration are necessary, especially if one is to be as succinct as possible.

A quote ascribed to Woodrow Wilson, which may be apocryphal, though it does appear in two of his biographies, was in response to being lauded by someone for making a number of short, succinct, and informative speeches. When asked how he was able to do this, President Wilson is supposed to have replied:

“It depends. If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”

An undisciplined mind has a lot to say about nothing in particular with varying degrees of fidelity to fact or truth. When in normal conversation we most often free ourselves from the discipline expected for more rigorous thinking. This is not necessarily a bad thing if we are saying nothing of consequence and there are gradations, of course. Even the most disciplined mind gets things wrong. We all need editors and fact checkers.

While I am pulling forth possibly apocryphal quotes, the one most applicable that comes to mind is the comment by Hemingway as told by his deckhand in Key West and Cuba, Arnold Samuelson. Hemingway was supposed to have given this advice to the aspiring writer:

“Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it. I rewrote the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times. You’ve got to work it over. The first draft of anything is shit. When you first start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none, but after you learn to work it’s your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he had read but something that happened to himself.”

Though it deals with fiction, Hemingway’s advice applies to any sort of writing and rhetoric. Dr. Roger Spiller, who more than anyone mentored me as a writer and historian, once told me, “Writing is one of those skills that, with greater knowledge, becomes harder rather than easier.”

As a result of some reflection, over the last few months, I had to revisit the reason for the blog. Thus, this is still its purpose: it is a way to validate ideas and hypotheses with other professionals and interested amateurs in my areas of interest. I try to keep uninformed opinion in check, as all too many blogs turn out to be rants. Thus, a great deal of research goes into each of these posts, most from primary sources and from interactions with practitioners in the field. Opinions and conclusions are my own, and my reasoning for good or bad are exposed for all the world to see and I take responsibility for them.

This being said, part of my recent silence has also been due to my workload in–well–the effort involved in my day job of running a technology company, and in my recent role, since late last summer, as the Managing Editor of the College of Performance Management’s publication known as the Measurable News. Our emphasis in the latter case has been to find new contributions to the literature regarding business analytics and to define the concept of integrated project, program, and portfolio management. Stepping slightly over the line to make a pitch, I recommend anyone interested in contributing to the publication to submit an article. The submission guidelines can be found here.

Both Sides Now: New Perspectives

That out of the way, I recently saw, again on the small screen, the largely underrated movie about Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 moon landing, “First Man”, and was struck by this scene:

Unfortunately, the first part of the interview has been edited out of this clip and I cannot find a full scene. When asked “why space” he prefaces his comments by stating that the atmosphere of the earth seems to be so large from the perspective of looking at it from the ground but that, having touched the edge of space previously in his experience as a test pilot of the X15, he learned that it is actually very thin. He then goes on to posit that looking at the earth from space will give us a new perspective. His conclusion to this observation is then provided in the clip.

Armstrong’s words were prophetic in that the space program provided a new perspective and a new way of looking at things that were in front of us the whole time. Our spaceship Earth is a blue dot in a sea of space and, at least for a time, the people of our planet came to understand both our loneliness in space and our interdependence.

Earth from Apollo 8. Photo courtesy of NASA.

 

The impact of the Apollo program resulted in great strides being made in environmental and planetary sciences, geology, cosmology, biology, meteorology, and in day-to-day technology. The immediate effect was to inspire the environmental and human rights movements, among others. All of these advances taken together represent a new revolution in thought equal to that during the initial Enlightenment, one that is not yet finished despite the headwinds of reaction and recidivism.

It’s Life’s Illusions I Recall: Epistemology–Looking at and Engaging with the World

In his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett posited that what was “dangerous” about Darwinism is that it acts as a “universal acid” that, when touching other concepts and traditions, transforms them in ways that change our world-view. I have accepted this position by Dennett through the convincing argument he makes and the evidence in front of us, and it is true that Darwinism–the insight in the evolution of species over time through natural selection–has transformed our perspective of the world and left the old ways of looking at things both reconstructed and unrecognizable.

In his work, Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle, Stephen Jay Gould noted that Darwinism is part of one of the three great reconstructions of human thought that, in quoting Sigmund Freud, where “Humanity…has had to endure from the hand of science…outrages upon its naive self-love.” These outrages include the Copernican revolution that removed the Earth from the center of the universe, Darwinism and the origin of species, including the descent of humanity, and what John McPhee, coined as the concept of “deep time.”

But–and there is a “but”–I would propose that Darwinism and the other great reconstructions noted are but different ingredients of a larger and more broader, though compatible, type of innovation in the way the world is viewed and how it is approached–a more powerful universal acid. That innovation in thought is empiricism.

It is this approach to understanding that eats through the many ills of human existence that lead to self-delusion and folly. Though you may not know it, if you are in the field of information technology or any of the sciences, you are part of this way of viewing and interacting with the world. Married with rational thinking, this epistemology–coming from the perspectives of the astronomical observations of planets and other heavenly bodies by Charles Sanders Peirce, with further refinements by William James and John Dewey, and others have come down to us in what is known as Pragmatism. (Note that the word pragmatism in this context is not the same as the more generally used colloquial form of the word. For this type of reason Peirce preferred the term “pragmaticism”). For an interesting and popular reading of the development of modern thought and the development of Pragmatism written for the general reader I highly recommend the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand.

At the core of this form of empiricism is that the collection of data, that is, recording, observing, and documenting the universe and nature as it is will lead us to an understanding of things that we otherwise would not see. In our more mundane systems, such as business systems and organized efforts applying disciplined project and program management techniques and methods, we also can learn more about these complex adaptive systems through the enhanced collection and translation of data.

I Really Don’t Know Clouds At All: Data, Information, Intelligence, and Knowledge

The term “knowledge discovery in data”, or KDD for short, is an aspirational goal and so, in terms of understanding that goal, is a point of departure from the practice information management and science. I’m taking this stance because the technology industry uses terminology that, as with most language, was originally designed to accurately describe a specific phenomenon or set of methods in order to advance knowledge, only to find that that terminology has been watered down to the point where it obfuscates the issues at hand.

As I traveled to locations across the U.S. over the last three months, I found general agreement among IT professionals who are dealing with the issues of “Big Data”, data integration, and the aforementioned KDD of this state of affairs. In almost every case there is hesitation to use this terminology because it has been absconded and abused by mainstream literature, much as physicists rail against the misuse of the concept of relativity by non-scientific domains.

The impact of this confusion in terminology has caused organizations to make decisions where this terminology is employed to describe a nebulous end-state, without the initiators having an idea of the effort or scope. The danger here, of course, is that for every small innovative company out there, there is also a potential Theranos (probably several). For an in-depth understanding of the psychology and double-speak that has infiltrated our industry I highly recommend the HBO documentary, “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley.”

The reason why semantics are important (as they always have been despite the fact that you may have had an associate complain about “only semantics”) is that they describe the world in front of us. If we cloud the meanings of words and the use of language, it undermines the basis of common understanding and reveals the (poor) quality of our thinking. As Dr. Spiller noted, the paradox of writing and in gathering knowledge is that the more you know, the more you realize you do not know, and the harder writing and communicating knowledge becomes, though we must make the effort nonetheless.

Thus KDD is oftentimes not quite the discovery of knowledge in the sense that the term was intended to mean. It is, instead, a discovery of associations that may lead us to knowledge. Knowing this distinction is important because the corollary processes of data mining, machine learning, and the early application of AI in which we find ourselves is really the process of finding associations, correlations, trends, patterns, and probabilities in data that is approached in a manner as if all information is flat, thereby obliterating its context. This is not knowledge.

We can measure the information content of any set of data, but the real unlocked potential in that information content will come with the processing of it that leads to knowledge. To do that requires an underlying model of domain knowledge, an understanding of the different lexicons in any given set of domains, and a Rosetta Stone that provides a roadmap that identifies those elements of the lexicon that are describing the same things across them. It also requires capturing and preserving context.

For example, when I use the chat on my iPhone it attempts to anticipate what I want to write. I am given three choices of words to choose if I want to use this shortcut. In most cases, the iPhone guesses wrong, despite presenting three choices and having at its disposal (at least presumptively) a larger vocabulary than the writer. Oftentimes it seems to take control, assuming that I have misspelled or misidentified a word and chooses the wrong one for me, where my message becomes a nonsense message.

If one were to believe the hype surrounding AI, one would think that there is magic there but, as Arthur C. Clarke noted (known as Clarke’s Third Law): “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Familiar with the new technologies as we are, we know that there is no magic there, and also that it is consistently wrong a good deal of the time. But many individuals come to rely upon the technology nonetheless.

Despite the gloss of something new, the long-established methods of epistemology, code-breaking, statistics, and Calculus apply–as do standards of establishing fact and truth. Despite a large set of data, the iPhone is wrong because the iPhone does not understand–does not possess knowledge–to know why it is wrong. As an aside, its dictionary is also missing a good many words.

A Segue and a Conclusion–I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For: Why Data Integration?…and a Proposed Definition of the Bigness of Data

As with the question to Neil Armstrong, so the question on data. And so the answer is the same. When we look at any set of data under a particular structure of a domain, the information we derive provides us with a manner of looking at the world. In economic systems, businesses, and projects that data provides us with a basis for interpretation, but oftentimes falls short of allowing us to effectively describe and understand what is happening.

Capturing interrelated data across domains allows us to look at the phenomena of these human systems from a different perspective, providing us with the opportunity to derive new knowledge. But in order to do this, we have to be open to this possibility. It also calls for us to, as I have hammered home in this blog, reset our definitions of what is being described.

For example, there are guides in project and program management that refer to statistical measures as “predictive analytics.” This further waters down the intent of the phrase. Measures of earned value are not predictive. They note trends and a single-point outcome. Absent further analysis and processing, the statistical fallacy of extrapolation can be baked into our analysis. The same applies to any index of performance.

Furthermore, these indices and indicators–for that is all they are–do not provide knowledge, which requires a means of not only distinguishing between correlation and causation but also applying contextualization. All systems operate in a vector space. When we measure an economic or social system we are really measuring its behavior in the vector space that it inhabits. This vector space includes the way it is manifested in space-time: the equivalent of length, width, depth (that is, its relative position, significance, and size within information space), and time.

This then provides us with a hint of a definition of what often goes by the definition of “big data.” Originally, as noted in previous blogs, big data was first used in NASA in 1997 by Cox and Ellsworth (not as credited to John Mashey on Wikipedia with the dishonest qualifier “popularized”) and was simply a statement meaning “datasets whose size is beyond the ability of typical database software tools to capture, store, manage, and analyze.”

This is a relative term given Moore’s Law. But we can begin to peel back a real definition of the “bigness” of data. It is important to do this because too many approaches to big data assume it is flat and then apply probabilities and pattern recognition to data that undermines both contextualization and knowledge. Thus…

The Bigness of Data (B) is a function (f ) of the entropy expended (S) to transform data into information, or to extract its information content.

Information evolves. It evolves toward greater complexity just as life evolves toward greater complexity. The universe is built on coded bits of information that, taken together and combined in almost unimaginable ways, provides different forms of life and matter. Our limited ability to decode and understand this information–and our interactions in it– are important to us both individually and collectively.

Much entropy is already expended in the creation of the data that describes the activity being performed. Its context is part of its information content. Obliterating the context inherent in that information content causes all previous entropy to be of no value. Thus, in approaching any set of data, the inherent information content must be taken into account in order to avoid the unnecessary (and erroneous) application of data interpretation.

More to follow in future posts.

Sunday Music Interlude — Alison Moyet Performing “Alive”

She was born Geneviève Alison Jane Moyet in 1961 in Essex in the town of Billericay outside of London. Her singing career began in 1982 as the lead singer of the synth pop duo Yazoo, which had to change its name in the U.S. to Yaz due to trademark concerns (Yazoo Records was already in operation). During that time they had three U.S. hits and a slew of hits in the U.K.

When the group broke up in 1983 she began her solo career. Since that time the husky instrument of her voice, which she can stretch to an amazing degree to capture virtually any genre, established her as a fixture in the U.K. musical world. Over the years she has been near the top of the U.K. and EU charts, with occasional crossovers to the States but, unfortunately, her following in the U.S. has not had the same type of following of her musical contemporaries as one would have thought.

This is a common phenomena among certain European and U.K. artists largely, I think, because the musical tastes overseas tend to be quite broad and experimental, and so the artists tend to stretch out to address such catholic tastes, which cuts against the U.S. tendency of marketing artists by musical genre. For example, today, though they are at the core of American music, such genres as jazz, blues, and folk still tend to appeal to a niche of the wider musical audience, the latter following a series of popular musical types that change with each passing youthful generation. Furthermore, in her early years Ms. Moyet had a weight issue which, unfortunately, presented a barrier to her solo marketability to a mass audience which, particularly in the U.S., tends to meld image with musical identity.

Despite these headwinds, she has attained a degree of financial success and musical respect that few artists have achieved. Her discography and other information can be found at her website.

While I prefer to show live performances of a song, unfortunately those that currently appear on YouTube are of questionable origination from a copyright and fair use perspective, and of poor quality. Thus, here is the recording “Alive” from her most recent album entitled Other, her voice calling like a loving siren across ethereal space and time. In my opinion, it is one of her most intelligent, mature, and mesmerizing songs, painting colors and emotions with a pallet of evocative lyrics that float over a timeless electronic musical soundscape.