Editor’s note: We asked Max Schindler to help us better comprehend challenges and make actionable recommendations for improving the ability of enterprises to adopt new technologies. This is the first of a series he is producing on this topic-bg
The rapid change in creation, integration, and adoption of new technology has fundamentally shifted the way society and governments act in terms of economics, politics, defense, and intelligence. All governments are beginning to recognize these shifts, at different paces. The Chinese government continues to take full advantage of this new environment, and will, if we do not act now, produce a catastrophic result.
“Emerging technologies must be central to our strategic development. We need to tackle our culture of risk aversion. We need to smarten up our sluggish pace of acquisition.”
The need to bring emerging technology inside the fence is well understood by agency/department leadership, and political leadership on both sides of the aisle. Much of what needs to be done requires action by the US Congress/White House, and to that point a number of outside organizations, current and former government officials have published some excellent recommendations. Some examples include SECDEF Austin’s remarks to the Global Emerging Technology Summit of The National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, quoted above, as well as a July 13 2022 letter from leading technology start-ups to the Senate Armed Services Committee (below). These statements need to be acted upon, and likely ultimately will, but with insufficient speed to address the coming threat.
“There are, however, some key challenges in the defense acquisition process that slow the cycle time and impede innovative software companies’ ability to quickly deliver.”
More can be done now. There are enough people at the working level inside and outside the USG who understand this issue, and are capable of improving introduction and adoption of emerging technology with greater speed and impact. Solving this problem within the current regulatory guidance and cultural environment requires improved communication and clever approaches to adapt and overcome current limitations for both USG and Commercial entities.
These articles will define the critical issues preventing adoption of emerging technology and
explore specific strategies that can be implemented now by those within Commercial and USG organizations to overcome those issues. Speed of adoption, and risk management create roadblocks that prevent our ability to adopt new technology with sufficient speed and impact. This article will focus on speed of adoption and risk management strategies from a commercial perspective. Subsequent articles will consider these same issues from a USG perspective, and study the divergent cultural perspectives impacting emerging technology adoption.
Commercial Speed of Adoption Perspective
Adoption of emerging technology outside of the government is driven by the market. If a product provides a solution to a problem, or makes life easier, cheaper, better (perhaps just more fun), and creates value for its owner/creator, its adoption is assured. Within most USG organizations, those doing the mission rarely have enough time or motivation to assess new technology, they are focused on mission. USG organizations create elements whose role is to assess and provide new technology. These organizations typically have a predisposition, (for valid and less valid reasons) that discourages looking for or accepting outside input. Companies attempting initial or primary adoption within the USG will be hindered by a lack of demonstrated success in the market. The USG has a lot of trouble being first, and this will slow adoption from a couple of perspectives. First the USG will require changes to the product which could make it better (or worse), but will also take more time to implement and adopt. Second, the slow process of government acquisition will impact the ability of a startup with limited funding to survive the time required for the process.
Commercial Speed of Adoption Strategies
Do not make the USG your first or only customer. Find and establish a market for your product, even if it is just an initial, small market. Be able to show impact and success. Get to the mission owners and operators. Find a way to engage current or former mission operators who can advise, and understand the mission. If you are working with technology evaluators within the USG, ask and encourage they bring mission operators into the discussion. Demonstrate the capability of your product, side by side with what is currently being used. Be able to demonstrate the impact in time, cost, effectiveness. Have an understanding of how your product will change the way the mission is currently performed. Develop an understanding of government acquisition. Any USG organization’s ability to adopt your technology, even if you have convinced the mission owners of its value, requires both budget authority and more significantly, a means to make the acquisition. The Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) is a vast document, and navigation is as much a form of art as science. Consider the best means for your product or service to be acquired, and the time and resources required by the USG to make that acquisition possible. If your product is available in the market and can be used “as is” by the USG, a purchase order may be the fastest means to achieve adoption. On the other end of the spectrum, any developmental acquisition will go down a longer road and cause the government to consider the resources required to manage that acquisition, as well as triggering competition requirements to ensure market fairness and value assessments. Another unique adoption method to overcome time and resource impacts of a direct purchase is to leverage companies with established contractual relationships with the USG. Becoming a sub or partner to a prime, and offering your product as part of the services provided may be a viable alternative to a direct approach. A final consideration, which does not get as much attention as those already presented, is the impact of new technology on the people currently performing the mission. Will the new technology cause the mission element to have to alter its infrastructure, training, number of people working the mission? Do not underestimate the negative impact of the personnel infrastructure changes caused by new technology. Even if it means less people required, the USG does not lay off due to improved technology, all of those people have to be transferred to new work, and the cultural impact of this issue needs to be considered.
Commercial Risk Management Perspective
Risk management is the far more difficult problem. There are obvious and significant differences in accepting risk, as well as risk management between the USG and commercial entities. There is little incentive to take risk in the USG, the bureaucracy actually encourages no risk taking. Commercial entities do not survive without both taking risks, and understanding how to manage risk. Risk to a corporate entity, especially to a start-up can directly impact its very existence, or at the very least to its ability to operate successfully in a market. Understanding how risk is viewed and managed by all parties involved in bringing emerging technology into the USG is essential to adoption. This requires an honest and open conversation around real risks and real potential outcomes, applied to the specific operation of the technology within an operation. It is important that this conversation not start with “this is the way we have always delt with this kind of system, or for every mission requirement of this type we operate the following way.” Commitment to emerging technology, requires thoughtful evaluation of mission objectives and new risk mitigation approaches. Risk for commercial entities can include mere association with the USG. It is essential that companies consider early if the fundamental nature of their product limits their ability to engage with the USG merely from a reputational perspective. Assurances of secrecy from the USG, while genuinely promised, and most strictly followed, all atrophy over time. Attempts to gain the USG market without public association will cause choices to be made about the design or use of a commercial product that will impact adoption.
Commercial Risk Management Strategies
Consider your market. What is the fundamental objective of the product or technology you have created? What is the value proposition? How will those be impacted or enhanced by USG adoption and use of the product? Think very hard about the USG being the first or only potential user of your product. This could make risk management harder, especially if your product forces a new risk model unfamiliar to mission operators. Consider the impact of use by other governments, while this may represent a risk to USG, it provides opportunity to share the risk management burden. Leverage current and former USG security and counterintelligence professionals to discover and understand basic risks that your product could raise in use or adoption. Develop, implement, and maintain a risk management plan specifically for USG adoption. Make the risk management plan part of any pitch to the USG, be ready to defend and adapt it as you go. Continuously assess changes to the product as a result of USG adoption as they relate to the fundamental objective of the product and your broader market. Changes required or agreed to as a result of security or CI can cause the product to drift so far from its fundamental objective or purpose that once inside and being used by the mission operators it will appear less-than or the same-as what is currently in use. Ask why, any change to a product is required based on security or CI or even risk to life. This is especially true of changes altering a fundamental function of the system. Do not accept comparisons that generalize approaches to current operational procedures. If the technology fundamentally changes current conditions, force the USG, via “why” questions to consider new risk models, and to perform their own risk management.
Commercial Recommendations to improve Emerging Technology Adoption
- Evaluate the impact of USG use/participation in the value proposition of your product.
- Avoid making the USG your first or only customer.
- Engage directly with mission operators whenever possible, demonstrate the impact.
- Understand and build a strategy for the best means for USG to acquire your technology.
- Understand and account for USG infrastructure impacts caused by adoption.
- Consider adoption by allied governments to reduce perceived risks by the USG
- Discover and understand risks generated by your technology from the USG perspective.
- Ask “why” questions to force conversations around real risks, do not accept old models.
- Develop, implement and update a risk management plan to address USG stated risks.
- Consider impact of risk mitigation changes on the primary objective of the product.
“We gotta find a way to fit this… Into the hole for this… using nothing but that…”
Change happens with leadership buy in, which in this case, we appear to have. Change also occurs by actions of those doing the mission every day. Structural changes are required to improve our adoption of emerging technology, but we can do more now. Apollo 13 engineers solved a problem with only what they had to prevent catastrophe. We must also work with the structure, laws, and culture we have available. This series is not written for the esteemed leadership of USG and corporate communities. It is for those of us who do the job every day. The operator, engineer, program manager trying to get the mission done; and those developing technology and products that make life better, faster, cheaper (more fun) who see the same existential threat. Next time, speed of adoption and risk management from the USG perspective. Would love to have your comments on this.
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