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.

Back to School Daze Blogging–DCMA Investigation on POGO, DDSTOP, $600 Ashtrays,and Epistemic Sunk Costs

Family summer visits and trips are in the rear view–as well as the simultaneous demands of balancing the responsibilities of a, you know, day job–and so it is time to take up blogging once again.

I will return to my running topic of Integrated Program and Project Management in short order, but a topic of more immediate interest concerns the article that appeared on the website for pogo.org last week entitled “Pentagon’s Contracting Gurus Mismanaged Their Own Contracts.” Such provocative headlines are part and parcel of organizations like POGO, which have an agenda that seems to cross the line between reasonable concern and unhinged outrage with a tinge conspiracy mongering. But the content of the article itself is accurate and well written, if also somewhat ripe with overstatement, so I think it useful to unpack what it says and what it means.

POGO and Its Sources

The source of the article comes from three sources regarding an internal Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA) IT project known as the Integrated Workflow Management System (IWMS). These consist of a September 2017 preliminary investigative report, an April 2018 internal memo, and a draft of the final report.

POGO begins the article by stating that DCMA administers over $5 trillion in contracts for the Department of Defense. The article erroneously asserts that it also negotiates these contracts, apparently not understanding the process of contract oversight and administration. The cost of IWMS was apparently $46.6M and the investigation into the management and administration of the program was initiated by the then-Commander of DCMA, Lieutenant General Wendy Masiello, shortly before she retired from the government in May 2017.

The implication here, given the headline, seems to be that if there is a problem in internal management within the agency, then that would translate into questioning its administration of the $5 trillion in contract value. I view it differently, given that I understand that there are separate lines of responsibility in the agency that do not overlap, particularly in IT. Of the $46.6M there is a question of whether $17M in value was properly funded. More on this below, but note that, to put things in perspective, $46.6M is .000932% of DCMA’s oversight responsibility. This is aside from the fact that the comparison is not quite correct, given that the CIO had his own budget, which was somewhat smaller and unrelated to the $5 trillion figure. But I think it important to note that POGO’s headline and the introduction of figures, while sounding authoritative, are irrelevant to the findings of the internal investigation and draft report. This is a scare story using scare numbers, particularly given the lack of context. I had some direct experience in my military career with issues inspired by the POGO’s founders’ agenda that I will cover below.

In addition to the internal investigation on IWMS, there was also an inspector general (IG) investigation of thirteen IT services contracts that resulted in what can only be described as pedestrian procedural discrepancies that are easily correctable, despite the typically overblown language found in most IG reports. Thus, I will concentrate on this post on the more serious findings of the internal investigation.

My Own Experience with DCMA

A note at this point on full disclosure: I have done business with and continue to do business with DCMA, both as a paid supplier of software solutions, and have interacted with DCMA personnel at publicly attended professional forums and workshops. I have no direct connection, as far as I am aware, to the IWMS program, though given that the assessment is to the IT organization, it is possible that there was an indirect relationship. I have met Lieutenant General Masiello and dealt with some of her subordinates not only during her time at DCMA, but also in some of her previous assignments in Air Force. I always found her to be an honest and diligent officer and respect her judgment. Her distinguished career speaks for itself. I have talked on the telephone to some of the individuals mentioned in the article on unrelated matters, and was aware of their oversight of some of my own efforts. My familiarity with all of them was both businesslike and brief.

As a supplier to DCMA my own contracts and the personnel that administer them were, from time-to-time, affected by the fallout from what I now know to have occurred. Rumors have swirled in our industry regarding the alleged mismanagement of an IT program in DCMA, but until the POGO article, the reasons for things such as a temporary freeze and review of existing IT programs and other actions were viewed as part and parcel of managing a large organization. I guess the explanation is now clear.

The Findings of the Investigation

The issue at hand is largely surrounding the method of source selection, which may have constituted a conflict of interest, and the type of money that was used to fund the program. In reading the report I was reminded of what Glen Alleman recently wrote in his blog entitled “DDSTOP: The Saga Continues.” The acronym DDSTOP means: Don’t Do Stupid Things On Purpose.

There is actually an economic behavioral principle for DDSTOP that explains why people make and double down on bad decisions and irrational beliefs. It is called epistemic sunk cost. It is what causes people to double down in gambling (to the great benefit of the house), to persist in mistaken beliefs, and, as stated in the link above, to “persist with the option which they have already invested in and resist changing to another option that might be more suitable regarding the future requirements of the situation.” The findings seem to document a situation that fits this last description.

In going over the findings of the report, it appears that IWMS’s program violated the following:

a. Contractual efforts in the program that were appropriate for the use of Research, Development, Test and Evaluation (R,D,T & E) funds as opposed to those appropriate for O&M (Operations and Maintenance) funds. What the U.S. Department of Defense calls “color of money.”

b. Amounts that were expended on contract that exceeded the authorized funding documents, which is largely based on the findings regarding the appropriate color of money. This would constitute a serious violation known as an Anti-Deficiency Act violation which, in layman’s terms, is directed to punish public employees for the misappropriation of government funds.

c. Expended amounts of O&M that exceeded the authorized levels.

d. Poor or non-existent program management and cost performance management.

e. Inappropriate contracting vehicles that, taken together, sidestepped more stringent oversight, aside from the award of a software solutions contract to the same company that defined the agency’s requirements.

Some of these are procedural and some are serious, particularly the Anti-deficiency Act (ADA) violations, are serious. In the Contracting Officer’s rulebook, you can withstand pedestrian procedural and administrative findings that are part and parcel of running an intensive contracting organization that acquires a multitude of supplies and services under deadline. But an ADA violation is the deadly one, since it is a violation of statute.

As a result of these findings, the recommendation is for DCMA to lose acquisition authority over the DoD micro-contracting level ($10,000). Organizationally and procedurally, this is a significant and mission-disruptive recommendation.

The Role and Importance of DCMA

DCMA performs an important role in contract compliance and oversight to ensure that public monies are spent properly and for the intended purpose. They perform this role mostly on contracts that are negotiated and entered into by other agencies and the military services within the Department of Defense, where they are assigned contract administration duties. Thus, the fact that DCMA’s internal IT acquisition systems and procedures were problematic is embarrassing.

But some perspective is necessary because there is a drive by some more extreme elements in Congress and elsewhere that would like to see the elimination of the agency. I believe that this would be a grave mistake. As John F. Kennedy is quoted as having said: “You don’t tear your fences down unless you know why they were put up.”

For those of you who were not around prior to the formation of DCMA or its predecessor organization, the Defense Contract Management Command (DCMC), it is important to note that the formation of the agency is a result of acquisition reform. Prior to 1989 the contract administration services (CAS) capabilities of the military services and various DoD offices varied greatly in capability, experience, and oversight effectiveness.Some of these duties had been assigned to what is now the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), but major acquisition contracts remained with the Services.

For example, when I was on active duty as a young Navy Supply Corps Officer as part of the first class that was to be the Navy Acquisition Corps, I was taught cradle-to-grave contracting. That is, I learned to perform customer requirements development, economic analysis, contract planning, development of a negotiating position, contract negotiation, and contract administration–soup to nuts. The expense involved in developing and maintaining the skill set required of personnel to maintain such a broad-based expertise is unsustainable. For analogy, it is as if every member of a baseball club must be able to play all nine positions at the same level of expertise; it is impossible.

Furthermore, for contract administration a defense contractor would have contractual obligations for oversight in San Diego, where I was stationed, that were different from contracts awarded in Long Beach or Norfolk or any of the other locations where a contracting office was located. Furthermore, the military services, having their own organizational cultures, provided additional variations that created a plethora of unique requirements that added cost, duplication, inconsistency, and inter-organizational conflict.

This assertion is more than anecdotal. A series of studies were commissioned in the 1980s (the findings of which were subsequently affirmed) to eliminate duplication and inconsistency in the administration of contracts, particularly major acquisition programs. Thus, DCMC was first established under DLA and subsequently became its own agency. Having inherited many of the contracting field office, the agency has struggled to consolidate operations so that CAS is administered in a consistent manner across contracts. Because contract negotiation and program management still resides in the military services, there is a natural point of conflict between the services and the agency.

In my view, this conflict is a healthy one, as all power in the hands of a single individual, such as a program manager, would lead to more fraud, waste, and abuse, not less. Internal checks and balances are necessary in proper public administration, where some efficiency is sacrificed to accountability. It is not just the goal of government to “make the trains run on time”, but to perform oversight of the public’s money so that there is accountability in its expenditure, and integrity in systems and procedures. In the case of CAS, it is to ensure that what is being procured actually gets delivered in conformance to the contract terms and conditions designed to reduce the inherent risk in complex acquisition programs.

In order to do its job effectively, DCMA requires innovative digital systems to allow it to perform its CAS function. As a result, the agency must also possess an acquisition capability. Given the size of the task at hand in performing CAS on over $5 trillion of contract effort, the data involved is quite large, and the number of personnel geographically distributed. The inevitable comparisons to private industry will arise, but few companies in the world have to perform this level of oversight on such a large economic scale, which includes contracts comprising every major supplier to the U.S. Department of Defense, involving detailed knowledge of the management control systems of those companies that receive the taxpayer’s money. Thus, this is a uniquely difficult job. When one understands that in private industry the standard failure rate of IT projects is more than 70% percent, then one cannot help but be unimpressed by these findings, given the challenge.

Assessing the Findings and Recommendations

There is a reason why internal oversight documents of this sort stay confidential–it is because these are preliminary/draft findings and there are two sides to every story which may lead to revisions. In addition, reading these findings without the appropriate supporting documentation can lead one to the wrong impression and conclusions. But it is important to note that this was an internally generated investigation. The checks and balances of management oversight that should occur, did occur. But let’s take a close look at what the reports indicate so that we can draw some lessons. I also need to mention here that POGO’s conflation of the specific issues in this program as a “poster child” for cost overruns and schedule slippage displays a vast ignorance of DoD procurement systems on the part of the article’s author.

Money, Money, Money

The core issue in the findings revolves around the proper color of money, which seems to hinge on the definition of Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) software and the effort that was expended using the two main types of money that apply to the core contract: RDT&E and O&M.

Let’s take the last point first. It appears that the IWMS effort consisted of a combination of COTS and custom software. This would require acquisition, software familiarization, and development work. It appears that the CIO was essentially running a proof-of-concept to see what would work, and then incrementally transitioned to developing the solution.

What is interesting is that there is currently an initiative in the Department of Defense to do exactly what the DCMA CIO did as part of his own initiative in introducing a new technological approach to create IWMS. It is called Other Transactional Authority (OTA). The concept didn’t exist and was not authorized until the 2016 NDAA and is given specific statutory authority under 10 U.S.C. 2371b. This doesn’t excuse the actions that led to the findings, but it is interesting that the CIO, in taking an incremental approach to finding a solution, also did exactly what was recommended in the 2016 GAO report that POGO references in their article.

Furthermore, as a career Navy Supply Corps Officer, I have often gotten into esoteric discussions in contracts regarding the proper color of money. Despite the assertion of the investigation, there is a lot of room for interpretation in the DoD guidance, not to mention a stark contrast in interpreting the proper role of RDT&E and O&M in the procurement of business software solutions.

When I was on the NAVAIR staff and at OSD I ran into the difference in military service culture where what Air Force financial managers often specified for RDT&E would never be approved by Navy financial managers where, in the latter case, they specified that only O&M dollars applied, despite whether development took place. Given that there was an Air Force flavor to the internal investigation, I would be interested to know whether the opinion of the investigators in making an ADA determination would withstand objective scrutiny among a panel of government comptrollers.

I am certain that, given the differing mix of military and civil service cultures at DCMA–and the mixed colors of money that applied to the effort–that the legal review that was sought to resolve the issue. One of the principles of law is that when you rely upon legal advice to take an action that you have a defense, unless your state of mind and the corollary actions that you took indicates that you manipulated the system to obtain a result that shows that you intended to violate the law. I just do not see that here, based on what has been presented in the materials.

It is very well possible that an inadvertent ADA violation occurred by default because of an improper interpretation of the use of the monies involved. This does not rise to the level of a scandal. But going back to the confusion that I have faced from my own experiences on active duty, I certainly hope that this investigation is not used as a precedent to review all contracts under the approach of accepting a post-hoc alternative interpretation by another individual who just happens to be an inspector long after a reasonable legal determination was made, regardless of how erroneous the new expert finds the opinion. This is not an argument against accountability, but absent corruption or criminal intent, a legal finding is a valid defense and should stand as the final determination for that case.

In addition, this interpretation of RDT&E vs. O&M relies upon an interpretation of COTS. I daresay that even those who throw that term around and who are familiar with the FAR fully understand what constitutes COTS when the line between adaptability and point solutions is being blurred by new technology.

Where the criticism is very much warranted are those areas where the budget authority would have been exceeded in any event–and it is here that the ADA determination is most damning. It is one thing to disagree on the color of money that applies to different contract line items, but it is another to completely lack financial control.

Part of the reason for lack of financial control was the absence of good contracting practices and the imposition of program management.

Contracts 101

While I note that the CIO took an incremental approach to IWMS–what a prudent manager would seem to do–what was lacking was a cohesive vision and a well-informed culture of compliance to acquisition policy that would avoid even the appearance of impropriety and favoritism. Under the OTA authority that I reference above as a new aspect of acquisition reform, the successful implementation of a proof-of-concept does not guarantee the incumbent provider continued business–salient characteristics for the solution are publicized and the opportunity advertised under free and open competition.

After all, everyone has their favorite applications and, even inadvertently, an individual can act improperly because of selection bias. The procurement procedures are established to prevent abuse and favoritism. As a solution provider I have fumed quite often where a selection was made without competition based on market surveys or use of a non-mandatory GSA contract, which usually turn out to be a smokescreen for pre-selection.

There are two areas of fault on IMWS from the perspective of acquisition practice, and another in relation to program management.

These are the initial selection of Apprio, which had laid out the initial requirements and subsequently failed to have the required integration functionality, and then, the selection of Discover Technologies under a non-mandatory GSA Blanket Purchase Agreement (BPA) contract under a sole source action. Furthermore, the contract type was not appropriate to the task at hand, and the arbitrary selection of Discover precluded the agency finding a better solution more fit to its needs.

The use of the GSA BPA allowed managers, however, to essentially spit the requirements to stay below more stringent management guidelines–an obvious violation of acquisition regulation that will get you removed from your position. This leads us to what I think is the root cause of all of these clearly avoidable errors in judgment.

Program Management 101

Personnel in the agency familiar with the requirements to replace the aging procurement management system understood from the outset that the total cost would probably fall somewhere between $20M and $40M. Yet all effort was made to reduce the risk by splitting requirements and failing to apply a programmatic approach to a clearly complex undertaking.

This would have required the agency to take the steps to establish an acquisition strategy, open the requirement based on a clear performance work statement to free and open competition, and then to establish a program management office to manage the effort and to allow oversight of progress and assessment of risks in a formalized environment.

The establishment of a program management organization would have prevented the lack of financial control, and would have put in place sufficient oversight by senior management to ensure progress and achievement of organizational goals. In a word, a good deal of the decision-making was based on doing stupid things on purpose.

The Recommendations

In reviewing the recommendations of the internal investigation, I think my own personal involvement in a very similar issue from 1985 will establish a baseline for comparison.

As I indicated earlier, in the early 1980s, as a young Navy commissioned officer, I was part of the first class of what was to be the Navy Acquisition Corps, stationed at the Supply Center in San Diego, California. I had served as a contracting intern and, after extensive education through the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, the extended Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) courses that were given at the time at Fort Lee, Virginia, and coursework provided by other federal acquisition organizations and colleges, I attained my warrant as a contracting officer. I also worked on acquisition reform issues, some of which were eventually adopted by the Navy and DoD.

During this time NAS Miramar was the home of Top Gun. In 1984 Congressman Duncan Hunter (the elder not the currently indicted junior of the same name, though from the same San Diego district), inspired by news of $7,600 coffee maker and a $435 hammer publicized by the founders of POGO, was given documents by a disgruntled employee at the base regarding the acquisition of replacement E-2C ashtrays that had a cost of $300. He presented them to the Base Commander, which launched an investigation.

I served on the JAG investigation under the authority of the Wing Commander regarding the acquisitions and then, upon the firing of virtually the entire chain of command at NAS Miramar, which included the Wing Commander himself, became the Officer-in-Charge of Supply Center San Diego Detachment NAS Miramar. Under Navy Secretary Lehman’s direction I was charged with determining the root cause of the acquisition abuses and given 60-90 days to take immediate corrective action and clear all possible discrepancies.

I am not certain who initiated the firings of the chain of command. From talking with contemporaneous senior personnel at the time it appeared to have been instigated in a fit of pique by the sometimes volcanic Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. While I am sure that Secretary Weinberger experienced some emotional release through that action, placed in perspective, his blanket firing of the chain of command, in my opinion, was poorly advised and counterproductive. It was also grossly unfair, given what my team and I found as the root cause.

First of all, the ashtray was misrepresented in the press as a $600 ashtray because during the JAG I had sent a sample ashtray to the Navy industrial activity at North Island with a request to tell me what the fabrication of one ashtray would cost and to provide the industrial production curve that would reduce the unit price to a reasonable level. The figure of $600 was to fabricate one. A “whistleblower” at North Island took this slice of information out of context and leaked it to the press. So the $300 ashtray, which was bad enough, became the $600 ashtray.

Second, the disgruntled employee who gave the files to Congressman Hunter had been laterally assigned out of her position as a contracting officer by the Supply Officer because of the very reason that the pricing of the ashtray was not reasonable, among other unsatisfactory performance measures that indicated that she was not fit to perform those duties.

Third, there was a systemic issue in the acquisition of odd parts. For some reason there was an ashtray in the cockpit of the E-2C. These aircraft were able to stay in the air an extended period of time. A pilot had actually decided to light up during a local mission and, his attention diverted, lost control of the aircraft and crashed. Secretary Lehman ordered corrective action. The corrective action taken by the squadron at NAS Miramar was to remove the ashtray from the cockpit and store them in a hangar locker.

Four, there was an issue of fraud. During inspection the spare ashtrays were removed and deposited in the scrap metal dumpster on base. The tech rep for the DoD supplier on base retrieved the ashtrays and sold them back to the government for the price to fabricate one, given that the supply system had not experienced enough demand to keep them in stock.

Fifth, back to the systemic issue. When an aircraft is to be readied for deployment there can be no holes representing missing items in the cockpit. A deploying aircraft with this condition is then grounded and a high priority “casuality report” or CASREP is generated. The CASREP was referred to purchasing which then paid $300 for each ashtray. The contracting officer, however, feeling under pressure by the high priority requisition, did not do due diligence in questioning the supplier on the cost of the ashtray. In addition, given that several aircraft deploy, there were a number of these requisitions that should have led the contracting officer to look into the matter more closely to determine price reasonableness.

Furthermore, I found that buying personnel were not properly trained, that systems and procedures were not established or enforced, that the knowledge of the FAR was spotty, and that procurements did not go through multiple stages of review to ensure compliance with acquisition law, proper documentation, and administrative procedure.

Note that in the end this “scandal” was born by a combination of systemic issues, poor decision-making, lack of training, employee discontent, and incompetence.

I successfully corrected the issues at NAS Miramar during the prescribed time set by the Secretary of the Navy, worked with the media to instill public confidence in the system, built up morale, established better customer service, reduced procurement acquisition lead times (PALT), recommended necessary disciplinary action where it seemed appropriate, particularly in relation to the problematic employee, recovered monies from the supplier, referred the fraud issues to Navy legal, and turned over duties to a new chain of command.

NAS Miramar procurement continued to do its necessary job and is still there.

What the higher chain of command did not do was to take away the procurement authority of NAS Miramar. It did not eliminate or reduce the organization. It did not close NAS Miramar.

It requires leadership and focus to take effective corrective action to not only fix a broken system, but to make it better while the corrective actions are being taken. As I outlined above, DCMA performs an essential mission. As it transitions to a data-driven approach and works to reduce redundancy and inefficiency in its systems, it will require more powerful technologies to support its CAS function, and the ability to acquire those technologies to support that function.

(Data) Transformation–Fear and Loathing over ETL in Project Management

ETL stands for data extract, transform, and load. This essential step is the basis for all of the new capabilities that we wish to acquire during the next wave of information technology: business analytics, big(ger) data, interdisciplinary insight into processes that provide insights into improving productivity and efficiency.

I’ve been dealing with a good deal of fear and loading regarding the introduction of this concept, even though in my day job my organization is a leading practitioner in the field in its vertical. Some of this is due to disinformation by competitors in playing upon the fears of the non-technically minded–the expected reaction of those who can’t do in the last throws of avoiding irrelevance. Better to baffle them with bullshit than with brilliance, I guess.

But, more importantly, part of this is due to the state of ETL and how it is communicated to the project management and business community at large. There is a great deal to be gained here by muddying the waters even by those who know better and have the technology. So let’s begin by clearing things up and making this entire field a bit more coherent.

Let’s start with the basics. Any organization that contains the interaction of people is a system. For purposes of a project management team, a business enterprise, or a governmental body we deal with a special class of systems known as Complex Adaptive Systems: CAS for short. A CAS is a non-linear learning system that reacts and evolves to its environment. It is complex because of the inter-relationships and interactions of more than two agents in any particular portion of the system.

I was first introduced to the concept of CAS through readings published out of the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. Most noteworthy is the work The Quark and the Jaguar by the physicist Murray Gell-Mann. Gell-Mann is received the Nobel in physics in 1969 for his work on elementary particles, such as the quark, and is co-founder of the Institute. He also was part of the team that first developed simulated Monte Carlo analysis during a period he spent at RAND Corporation. Anyone interested in the basic science of quanta and how the universe works that then leads to insights into subjects such as day-to-day probability and risk should read this book. It is a good popular scientific publication written by a brilliant mind, but very relevant to the subjects we deal with in project management and information science.

Understanding that our organizations are CAS allows us to apply all sorts of tools to better understand them and their relationship to the world at large. From a more practical perspective, what are the risks involved in the enterprise in which we are engaged and what are the probabilities associated with any of the range of outcomes that we can label as success. For my purposes, the science of information theory is at the forefront of these tools. In this world an engineer by the name of Claude Shannon working at Bell Labs essentially invented the mathematical basis for everything that followed in the world of telecommunications, generating, interpreting, receiving, and understanding intelligence in communication, and the methods of processing information. Needless to say, computing is the main recipient of this theory.

Thus, all CAS process and react to information. The challenge for any entity that needs to survive and adapt in a continually changing universe is to ensure that the information that is being received is of high and relevant quality so that the appropriate adaptation can occur. There will be noise in the signals that we receive. What we are looking for from a practical perspective in information science are the regularities in the data so that we can make the transformation of receiving the message in a mathematical manner (where the message transmitted is received) into the definition of information quality that we find in the humanities. I believe that we will find that mathematical link eventually, but there is still a void there. A good discussion of this difference can be found here in the on-line publication Double Dialogues.

Regardless of this gap, the challenge of those of us who engage in the business of ETL must bring to the table the ability not only to ensure that the regularities in the information are identified and transmitted to the intended (or necessary) users, but also to distinguish the quality of the message in the terms of the purpose of the organization. Shannon’s equation is where we start, not where we end. Given this background, there are really two basic types of data that we begin with when we look at a set of data: structured and unstructured data.

Structured data are those where the qualitative information content is either predefined by its nature or by a tag of some sort. For example, schedule planning and performance data, regardless of the idiosyncratic/proprietary syntax used by a software publisher, describes the same phenomena regardless of the software application. There are only so many ways to identify snow–and, no, the Inuit people do not have 100 words to describe it. Qualifiers apply in the humanities, but usually our business processes more closely align with statistical and arithmetic measures. As a result, structured data is oftentimes defined by its position in a hierarchical, time-phased, or interrelated system that contains a series of markers, indexes, and tables that allow it to be interpreted easily through the identification of a Rosetta stone, even when the system, at first blush, appears to be opaque. When you go to a book, its title describes what it is. If its content has a table of contents and/or an index it is easy to find the information needed to perform the task at hand.

Unstructured data consists of the content of things like letters, e-mails, presentations, and other forms of data disconnected from its source systems and collected together in a flat repository. In this case the data must be mined to recreate what is not there: the title that describes the type of data, a table of contents, and an index.

All data requires initial scrubbing and pre-processing. The difference here is the means used to perform this operation. Let’s take the easy path first.

For project management–and most business systems–we most often encounter structured data. What this means is that by understanding and interpreting standard industry terminology, schemas, and APIs that the simple process of aligning data to be transformed and stored in a database for consumption can be reduced to a systemic and repeatable process without the redundancy of rediscovery applied in every instance. Our business intelligence and business analytics systems can be further developed to anticipate a probable question from a user so that the query is pre-structured to allow for near immediate response. Further, structuring the user interface in such as way as to make the response to the query meaningful, especially integrated with and juxtaposed other types of data requires subject matter expertise to be incorporated into the solution.

Structured ETL is the place that I most often inhabit as a provider of software solutions. These processes are both economical and relatively fast, particularly in those cases where they are applied to an otherwise inefficient system of best-of-breed applications that require data transfers and cross-validation prior to official reporting. Time, money, and effort are all saved by automating this process, improving not only processing time but also data accuracy and transparency.

In the case of unstructured data, however, the process can be a bit more complicated and there are many ways to skin this cat. The key here is that oftentimes what seems to be unstructured data is only so because of the lack of domain knowledge by the software publisher in its target vertical.

For example, I recently read a white paper published by a large BI/BA publisher regarding their approach to financial and accounting systems. My own experience as a business manager and Navy Supply Corps Officer provide me with the understanding that these systems are highly structured and regulated. Yet, business intelligence publishers treated this data–and blatantly advertised and apparently sold as state of the art–an unstructured approach to mining this data.

This approach, which was first developed back in the 1980s when we first encountered the challenge of data that exceeded our expertise at the time, requires a team of data scientists and coders to go through the labor- and time-consuming process of pre-processing and building specialized processes. The most basic form of this approach involves techniques such as frequency analysis, summarization, correlation, and data scrubbing. This last portion also involves labor-intensive techniques at the microeconomic level such as binning and other forms of manipulation.

This is where the fear and loathing comes into play. It is not as if all information systems do not perform these functions in some manner, it is that in structured data all of this work has been done and, oftentimes, is handled by the database system. But even here there is a better way.

My colleague, Dave Gordon, who has his own blog, will emphasize that the identification of probable questions and configuration of queries in advance combined with the application of standard APIs will garner good results in most cases. Yet, one must be prepared to receive a certain amount of irrelevant information. For example, the query on Google of “Fun Things To Do” that you may use if you are planning for a weekend will yield all sorts of results, such as “50 Fun Things to Do in an Elevator.”  This result includes making farting sounds. The link provides some others, some of which are pretty funny. In writing this blog post, a simple search on Google for “Google query fails” yields what can only be described as a large number of query fails. Furthermore, this approach relies on the data originator to have marked the data with pointers and tags.

Given these different approaches to unstructured data and the complexity involved, there is a decision process to apply:

1. Determine if the data is truly unstructured. If the data is derived from a structured database from an existing application or set of applications, then it is structured and will require domain expertise to inherit the values and information content without expending unnecessary resources and time. A structured, systemic, and repeatable process can then be applied. Oftentimes an industry schema or standard can be leveraged to ensure consistency and fidelity.

2. Determine whether only a portion of the unstructured data is relative to your business processes and use it to append and enrich the existing structured data that has been used to integrate and expand your capabilities. In most cases the identification of a Rosetta Stone and standard APIs can be used to achieve this result.

3. For the remainder, determine the value of mining the targeted category of unstructured data and perform a business case analysis.

Given the rapidly expanding size of data that we can access using the advancing power of new technology, we must be able to distinguish between doing what is necessary from doing what is impressive. The definition of Big Data has evolved over time because our hardware, storage, and database systems allow us to access increasingly larger datasets that ten years ago would have been unimaginable. What this means is that–initially–as we work through this process of discovery, we will be bombarded with a plethora of irrelevant statistical measures and so-called predictive analytics that will eventually prove out to not pass the “so-what” test. This process places the users in a state of information overload, and we often see this condition today. It also means that what took an army of data scientists and developers to do ten years ago takes a technologist with a laptop and some domain knowledge to perform today. This last can be taught.

The next necessary step, aside from applying the decision process above, is to force our information systems to advance their processing to provide more relevant intelligence that is visualized and configured to the domain expertise required. In this way we will eventually discover the paradox that effectively accessing larger sets of data will yield fewer, more relevant intelligence that can be translated into action.

At the end of the day the manager and user must understand the data. There is no magic in data transformation or data processing. Even with AI and machine learning it is still incumbent upon the people within the organization to be able to apply expertise, perspective, knowledge, and wisdom in the use of information and intelligence.

Friday Hot Washup: Daddy Stovepipe sings the Blues, and Net Neutrality brought to you by Burger King

Daddy Stovepipe sings the Blues — Line and Staff Organizations (and how they undermine organizational effectiveness)

In my daily readings across the web I came upon this very well written blog post by Glen Alleman at his Herding Cat’s blog. The eternal debate in project management surrounds when done is actually done–and what is the best measurement of progress toward the completion of the end item application?

Glen rightly points to the specialization among SMEs in the PM discipline, and the differences between their methods of assessment. These centers of expertise are still aligned along traditional line and staff organizations that separate scheduling, earned value, system engineering, financial management, product engineering, and other specializations.

I’ve written about this issue where information also follows these stove-piped pathways–multiple data streams with overlapping information, but which resists effective optimization and synergy because of the barriers between them. These barriers may be social or perceptual, which then impose themselves upon the information systems that are constructed to support them.

The manner in which we face and interpret the world is the core basis of epistemology. When we develop information systems and analytical methodologies, whether we are consciously aware of it or not, we delve into the difference between justified belief and knowledge. I see the confusion of these positions in daily life and in almost all professions and disciplines. In fact, most of us find ourselves jumping from belief to knowledge effortlessly without being aware of this internal contradiction–and the corresponding reduction in our ability to accurately perceive reality.

The ability to overcome our self-imposed constraints is the key but, I think, our PM organizational structures must be adjusted to allow for the establishment of a learning environment in relation to data. The first step in this evolution must be the mentoring and education of a discipline that combines these domains. What this proposes is that no one individual need know everything about EVM, scheduling, systems engineering, and financial management. But the business environment today is such, if the business or organization wishes to be prepared for the world ahead, to train transition personnel toward a multi-disciplinary project management competency.

I would posit, contrary to Glen’s recommendation, that no one discipline claim to be the basis for cross-functional integration, only because it may be a self-defeating one. In the book Networks, Crowds, and Markets: Reasoning about a Highly Connected World by David Easley and Jon Kleinberg of Cornell, our social systems are composed of complex networks, but where negative perceptions develop when the network is no longer considered in balance. This subtle and complex interplay of perceptions drive our ability to work together.

It also affects whether we will stay safe the comfort zone of having our information systems tell us what we need to analyze, or whether we apply a more expansive view of leveraging new information systems that are able to integrate ever expanding sets of relevant data to give us a more complete picture of what constitutes “done.”

Hold the Pickle, Hold the Lettuce, Special Orders Don’t Upset Us: Burger King explains Net Neutrality

The original purpose of the internet has been the free exchange of ideas and knowledge. Initially, under ARPANET, Lawrence Roberts and later Bob Kahn, the focus was on linking academic and research institutions so that knowledge could be shared resulting in collaboration that would overcome geographical barriers. Later the Department of Defense, NASA, and other government organizations highly dependent on R&D were brought into the new internet community.

To some extent there still are pathways within what is now broadly called the Web, to find and share such relevant information with these organizations. With the introduction of commercialization in the early 1990s, however, it has been increasingly hard to perform serious research.

For with the expansion of the internet to the larger world, the larger world’s dysfunctions and destructive influences also entered. Thus, the internet has transitioned from a robust First Amendment free speech machine to a place that also harbors state-sponsored psy-ops and propaganda. It has gone form a safe space for academic freedom and research to a place of organized sabotage, intrusion, theft, and espionage. It has transitioned from a highly organized professional community that hewed to ethical and civil discourse, to one that harbors trolls, prejudice, hostility, bullying, and other forms of human dysfunction. Finally and most significantly, it has become dominated by commercial activity, dominated by high tech giants that stifle innovation, and social networking sites that also allow, applying an extreme Laissez-faire attitude, magnify and spread the more dysfunctional activities found in the web as a whole.

At least for those who still looked to the very positive effects of the internet there was net neutrality. The realization that blogs like this one and the many others that I read on a regular basis, including mainstream news, and scientific journals still were available without being “dollarized” in the words of the naturalist John Muir.

Unfortunately this is no longer the case, or will no longer be the case, perhaps, when the legal dust settles. Burger King has placed it marker down and it is a relevant and funny one. Please enjoy and have a great weekend.

 

Post-Workshop Talking Blues — No Bucks, No Buck Rogers: Cashflow Analysis in Projects (Somewhat Wonkish)

When I used this analogy the week before last during the last Integrated Project Management Workshop in the D.C. area I was accused of dating myself–and perhaps it is true. For those wondering the quote was popularized by the 1983 movie The Right Stuff, which was based on the 1979 book written by Tom Wolfe of the same title. The book and movie was about the beginnings of the U.S. space program culminating in the creation of NASA and the Project Mercury program.

A clip from the movie follows:

It goes without saying that while I was familiar as a boy with Project Mercury and followed the seven astronauts as did the rest of the country, transfixed on the prospect of space exploration during the days of the New Frontier, Buck Rogers was from the childhood of my father’s generation through, at first, its radio program, and then through the serials that were released to the movie theaters during the 1930s.

The point of the quote, of course, is that Project Mercury’s success was based on its ability to obtain funding and, no doubt, the Mercury 7 astronauts so inspired the imagination of the nation that even the most parsimonious Member of Congress could not help but provide it with sufficient funding for success. That this was also the era of the “space race” with the Soviet Union, which also helped to spur funding.

The lesson of “No Bucks, No Buck Rogers” also applies to project management, but not just in the use of imagery and marketing to gain funding. Instead, the principle applies through a more mundane part of the discipline: financial management and the relationship between cash flow and project performance.

What I am referring to as cash flow is not the burn rate of expenditures against an end point, but the intersection of sufficient money at the right time programmed in accordance with the project plan (in alignment with both the IMS and PMB), and informed by project performance.

To those unfamiliar with this method it sounds similar to earned value management, but it is not. EVM informs our decision, but the analysis is not the same.

First, in using this analysis the cumulative actual cost of work performed (ACWP in earned value) should be compared to accrued expenditures for the project. These figures will not be exact, but will provide an indication whether accruals to date have been in line with what was forecasted. In government contracting and project management, these figures will also be somewhat off because earned value figures do not include fee or profit, while financial management figures will include fee or profit. Understanding the profit center from which the financial expenditures are being accrued will allow for a reconciliation of these differences.

Secondly, if projected accruals against the project plan begin to deviate, it is an early indication of programmatic risk being manifested in the physical expenditures of the project. For example, if management anticipates that there will be a delay in project execution in some area, they may decide to defer acquisition of spare parts used in the construction of a component, or they may delay the award of a subcontract that was meant to augment staff in an area requiring specialized expertise.

Third, and conversely, deviations of expenditures for needed materials or manpower may adversely affect project execution, and provide an early warning that such shortages or misalignments will move project accomplishment to the right. For example, a company may have underestimated the combined Procurement Action Lead Time (PALT) and delivery of critical materials, which will now arrive much later than anticipated. This misalignment will cascade through the schedule and future planned work.

For both of these previous conditions, the proper determination of cause-and-effect is essential, since either may appear to suggest the opposite cause.

Fourth, variances in performance either in earned value achievement or schedule performance may require an adjustment to the type of money being provided. For example, when a project fails to execute and risk is manifested in terms of cost and/or schedule, financial management and budgeting personnel, always under pressure to apply excess funds to more immediate needs, may mistakenly believe that a budget mark (a decrease) is appropriate since the allocated money will not be executed in the current time-frame.

But this is not necessarily the case. Performance management data tracks the performance measurement baseline (PMB) for the life of the project, but funding has a finite period in which it can be executed. In government contracting it is not uncommon for there to be different “colors” of money: Research, Development, Test & Evaluation (RDT&E), Procurement, Operations and Maintenance (O&M), and others. Furthermore, these types of appropriations have different expiration dates: two years in terms of RDT&E, three years for procurement, and one year for O&M. The financial management plan takes into account the life of money allocated to the project, as well as the costs of activities necessary to project execution. The time frame for financial execution is shorter and, therefore, more sensitive to risks or variances than project plans that are projected across a longer period of time.

For an R&D program experiencing risk during a particular portion of its PMB, for example, a variance this year may require not only a steady funding profile, but a larger expenditure to handle risk. Marking two-year RDT&E money in its first year in this case would be a mistake, of course, but *not* properly anticipating the proper level of risk adjusted expenditures to handle risk may exacerbate the ability of the project to recover and execute, causing it to fall into a spiral of compounding misalignments and variances from which it may never recover.

Thus, what we can see is that, oftentimes, the availability of cash–and the right kind of cash at the right time–will have as much impact on project execution as the factors of technical and engineering risk. Furthermore, tracking and reconciling the financial plan against actual accomplishment will provide a very detailed early indicator into project performance since it is sensitive to deviations in the fiscal plan.

Postscript.

For those not savvy about the cultural reference to Buck Rogers what follows is a sampling of the first of what became a movie serial in the 1930s, which originated as a radio “space opera”. Later it became a TV series in 1950 as well. For the record, I was not around yet when these were popular, though I did watch the reruns on Saturday mornings in the 1960s and early 1970s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Money for Nothing — Project Performance Data and Efficiencies in Timeliness

I operate in a well regulated industry focused on project management. What this means practically is that there are data streams that flow from the R&D activities, recording planning and progress, via control and analytical systems to both management and customer. The contract type in most cases is Cost Plus, with cost and schedule risk often flowing to the customer in the form of cost overruns and schedule slippages.

Among the methodologies used to determine progress and project eventual outcomes is earned value management (EVM). Of course, this is not the only type of data that flows in performance management streams, but oftentimes EVM is used as shorthand to describe all of the data captured and submitted to customers in performance management. Other planning and performance management data includes time-phased scheduling of tasks and activities, cost and schedule risk assessments, and technical performance.

Previously in my critique regarding the differences between project monitoring and project management (before Hurricane Irma created some minor rearranging of my priorities), I pointed out that “looking in the rear view mirror” was often used as an excuse for by-passing unwelcome business intelligence. I followed this up with an intro to the synergistic economics of properly integrated data. In the first case I answered the critique demonstrating that it is based on an old concept that no longer applies. In the second case I surveyed the economics of data that drives efficiencies. In both cases, new technology is key to understanding the art of the possible.

As I have visited sites in both government and private industry, I find that old ways of doing things still persist. The reason for this is multivariate. First, technology is developing so quickly that there is fear that one’s job will be eliminated with the introduction of technology. Second, the methodology of change agents in introducing new technology often lacks proper socialization across the various centers of power that inevitably exist in any organization. Third, the proper foundation to clearly articulate the need for change is not made. This last is particularly important when stakeholders perform a non-rational assessment in their minds of cost-benefit. They see many downsides and cannot accept the benefits, even when they are obvious. For more on this and insight into other socioeconomic phenomena I strongly recommend Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. There are other reasons as well, but these are the ones that are most obvious when I speak with individuals in the field.

The Past is Prologue

For now I will restrict myself to the one benefit of new technology that addresses the “looking in the rear window” critique. It is important to do so because the critique is correct in application (for purposes that I will outline) if incorrect in its cause-and-effect. It is also important to focus on it because the critique is so ubiquitous.

As I indicated above, there are many sources of data in project management. They derive from the following systems (in brief):

a. The planning and scheduling applications, which measure performance through time in the form of discrete activities and events. In the most sophisticated implementations, these applications will include the assignment of resources, which requires the integration of these systems with resource management. Sometimes simple costs are also assigned and tracked through time as well.

b. The cost performance (earned value) applications, which ideally are aligned with the planning and scheduling applications, providing cross-integration with WBS and OBS structures, but focused on work accomplishment defined by the value of work completed against a baseline plan. These performance figures are tied to work accomplishment through expended effort collected by and, ideally, integrated with the financial management system. It involves the proper application of labor rates and resource expenditures in the accomplishment of the work to not only provide an statistical assessment of performance to date, but a projection of likely cost performance outcomes at completion of the effort.

c. Risk assessment applications which, depending of their sophistication and ease of use, provide analysis of possible cost and schedule outcomes, identify the sensitivity of particular activities and tasks, provide an assessment of alternative driving and critical paths, and apply different models of baseline performance to predict future outcomes.

d. Systems engineering applications that provide an assessment of technical performance to date and the likely achievement of technical parameters within the scope of the effort.

e. The financial management applications that provide an accounting of funds allocation, cash-flow, and expenditure, including planning information regarding expenditures under contract and planned expenditures in the future.

These are the core systems of record upon which performance information is derived. There are others as well, depending on the maturity of the project such as ERP systems and MRP systems. But for purposes of this post, we will bound the discussion to these standard sources of data.

In the near past, our ability to understand the significance of the data derived from these systems required manual processing. I am not referring to the sophistication of human computers of 1960s and before, dramatized to great effect in the uplifting movie Hidden Figures. Since we are dealing with business systems, these methodologies were based on simple business metrics and other statistical methods, including those that extended the concept of earned value management.

With the introduction of PCs in the workplace in the 1980s, desktop spreadsheet applications allowed this data to be entered, usually from printed reports. Each analyst not only used standard methods common in the discipline, but also developed their own methods to process and derive importance from the data, transforming it into information and useful intelligence.

Shortly after this development simple analytical applications were introduced to the market that allowed for pairing back the amount of data deriving from some of these systems and performing basic standard calculations, rendering redundant calculations unnecessary. Thus, for example, instead of a person having to calculate multiple estimates to complete, the application could perform those calculations as part of its functionality and deliver them to the analyst for use in, hopefully, their own more extensive assessments.

But even in this case, the data flow was limited to the EVM silo. The data streams relating to schedule, risk, SE, and FM were left to their own devices, oftentimes requiring manual methods or, in the best of cases, cut-and-paste, to incorporate data from reports derived from these systems. In the most extreme cases, for project oversight organizations, this caused analysts to acquire a multiplicity of individual applications (with the concomitant overhead and complexity of understanding differing lexicons and software application idiosyncrasies) in order to read proprietary data types from the various sources just to perform simple assessments of the data before even considering integrating it properly into the context of all of the other project performance data that was being collected.

The bottom line of outlining these processes is to note that, given a combination of manual and basic automated tools, that putting together and reporting on this data takes time, and time, as Mr. Benjamin Franklin noted, is money.

By itself the critique that “looking in the rear view mirror” has no value and attributing it to one particular type of information (EVM) is specious. After all, one must know where one has been and presently is before you can figure out where you need to go and how to get there and EVM is just one dimension of a multidimensional space.

But there is a utility value associated with the timing and locality of intelligence and that is the issue.

Contributors to time

Time when expended to produce something is a form of entropy. For purposes of this discussion at this level of existence, I am defining entropy as availability of the energy in a system to do work. The work in this case is the processing and transformation of data into information, and the further transformation of information into usable intelligence.

There are different levels and sub-levels when evaluating the data stream related to project management. These are:

a. Within the supplier/developer/manufacturer

(1) First tier personnel such as Control Account Managers, Schedulers (if separate), Systems Engineers, Financial Managers, and Procurement personnel among other actually recording and verifying the work accomplishment;

(2) Second tier personnel that includes various levels of management, either across teams or in typical line-and-staff organizations.

b. Within customer and oversight organizations

(1) Reporting and oversight personnel tasks with evaluating the fidelity of specific business systems;

(2) Counterpart project or program officer personnel tasked with evaluating progress, risk, and any factors related to scope execution;

(3) Staff organizations designed to supplement and organize the individual project teams, providing a portfolio perspective to project management issues that may be affected by other factors outside of the individual project ecosystem;

(4) Senior management at various levels of the organization.

Given the multiplicity of data streams it appears that the issue of economies is vast until it is understood that the data that underlies the consumers of the information is highly structured and specific to each of the domains and sub-domains. Thus there are several opportunities for economies.

For example, cost performance and scheduling data have a direct correlation and are closely tied. Thus, these separate streams in the A&D industry were combined under a common schema, first using the UN/CEFACT XML, and now transitioning to a more streamlined JSON schema. Financial management has gone through a similar transition. Risk and SE data are partially incorporated into project performance schemas, but the data is also highly structured and possesses commonalities to be directly accessed using technologies that effectively leverage APIs.

Back to the Future

The current state, despite advances in the data formats that allow for easy rationalization and normalization of data that breaks through propriety barriers, still largely is based a slightly modified model of using a combination of manual processing augmented by domain-specific analytical tools. (Actually sub-domain analytical tools that support sub-optimization of data that are a barrier to incorporation of cross-domain integration necessary to create credible project intelligence).

Thus, it is not unusual at the customer level to see project teams still accepting a combination of proprietary files, hard copy reports, and standard schema reports. Usually the data in these sources is manually entered into Excel spreadsheets or a combination of Excel and some domain-specific analytical tool (and oftentimes several sub-specialty analytical tools). After processing, the data is oftentimes exported or built in PowerPoint in the form of graphs or standard reporting formats. This is information management by Excel and PowerPoint.

In sum, in all too many cases the project management domain, in terms of data and business intelligence, continues to party like it is 1995. This condition also fosters and reinforces insular organizational domains, as if the project team is disconnected from and can possess goals antithetical and/or in opposition to the efficient operation of the larger organization.

A typical timeline goes like this:

a. Supplier provides project performance data 15-30 days after the close of a period. (Some contract clauses give more time). Let’s say the period closed at the end of July. We are now effectively in late August or early September.

b. Analysts incorporate stove-piped domain data into their Excel spreadsheets and other systems another week or so after submittal.

c. Analysts complete processing and analyzing data and submit in standard reporting formats (Excel and PowerPoint) for program review four to six weeks after incorporation of the data.

Items a through c now put a typical project office at project review for July information at the end of September or beginning of October. Furthermore, this information is focused on individual domains, and given the lack of cross-domain knowledge, can be contradictory.

This system is broken.

Even suppliers who have direct access to systems of record all too often rely on domain-specific solutions to be able to derive significance from the processing of project management data. The larger suppliers seem to have recognized this problem and have been moving to address it, requiring greater integration across solutions. But the existence of a 15-30 day reconciliation period after the end of a period, and formalized in contract clauses, is indicative of an opportunity for greater efficiency in that process as well.

The Way Forward

But there is another way.

The opportunities for economy in the form of improvements in time and effort are in the following areas, given the application of the right technology:

  1. In the submission of data, especially by finding data commonalities and combining previously separate domain data streams to satisfy multiple customers;
  2. In retrieving all data so that it is easily accessible to the organization at the level of detailed required by the task at hand;
  3. In processing this data so that it can converted by the analyst into usable intelligence;
  4. In properly accessing, displaying, and reporting properly integrated data across domains, as appropriate, to each level of the organization regardless of originating data stream.

Furthermore, there opportunities to realizing business value by improving these processes:

  1. By extending expertise beyond a limited number of people who tend to monopolize innovations;
  2. By improving organizational knowledge by incorporating innovation into the common system;
  3. By gaining greater insight into more reliable predictors of project performance across domains instead of the “traditional” domain-specific indices that have marginal utility;
  4. By developing a project focused organization that breaks down domain-centric thinking;
  5. By developing a culture that ties cross-domain project knowledge to larger picture metrics that will determine the health of the overarching organization.

It is interesting that when I visit the field how often it is asserted that “the technology doesn’t matter, it’s process that matters”.

Wrong. Technology defines the art of the possible. There is no doubt that in an ideal world we would optimize our systems prior to the introduction of new technology. But that assumes that the most effective organization (MEO) is achievable without technological improvements to drive the change. If one cannot efficiently integrate all submitted cross-domain information effectively and efficiently using Excel in any scenario (after all, it’s a lot of data), then the key is the introduction of new technology that can do that very thing.

So what technologies will achieve efficiency in the use of this data? Let’s go through the usual suspects:

a. Will more effective use of PowerPoint reduce these timelines? No.

b. Will a more robust set of Excel workbooks reduce these timelines? No.

c. Will an updated form of a domain-specific analytical tool reduce these timelines? No.

d. Will a NoSQL solution reduce these timelines? Yes, given that we can afford the customization.

e. Will a COTS BI application that accepts a combination of common schemas and APIs reduce these timelines? Yes.

The technological solution must be fitted to its purpose and time. Technology matters because we cannot avoid the expenditure of time or energy (entropy) in the processing of information. We can perform these operations using a large amount of energy in the form of time and effort, or we can conserve time and effort by substituting the power of computing and information processing. While we will never get to the point where we completely eliminate entropy, our application of appropriate technology makes it seem as if effort in the form of time is significantly reduced. It’s not quite money for nothing, but it’s as close as we can come and is an obvious area of improvement that can be made for a relatively small investment.