The Role of the CIO in Foresight-Driven Agencies

Brandon T. Jones, Deputy Command Information Officer, Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC)
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Brandon T. Jones, Deputy Command Information Officer, Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC)

Within federal organizations, effective Chief Information Officers (CIOs) not only have to manage well but also enable business performance through leveraging technology. The CIO plays a growing role in helping every part of the organization run more effectively.

“Finding the right visualizations, ones that allow the report reader to make decisions and take action, is critically important to the solution design.”

The traditional notion that government agencies can unleash a phalanx of business analysts on a problem, to conduct studies that could take months or years to complete, is not fiscally realistic. As CIOs, we need to get smarter about collecting the data that we have, make this data accessible to a wider range of our customers, and provide the appropriate business intelligence tools for them to conduct their analysis in a timely and cost-effective way.

Analytical maturity is not a nice-to-have, but a critical component of an overall IT strategy. As a CIO, we have the responsibility not only to provide back-office technology services to our customers, but also to be a C-suite player who has impact on the strategic direction of the organization. If we don’t follow a methodical approach grounded in the numbers, we play an endless game of “guess-and-check.” And while multi-year studies may not be feasible, we need to look frequently at the numbers to inform day-to-day operations.

While some analysis is possible with siloed systems, we have found that the tenor of the conversation changes when the parties in the boardroom rely upon enterprise reporting. Without a single, agreed-upon term of reference, each person comes prepared with a slightly different definition. For example, running a slightly different query for a “vacant billet” can have a completely different understanding of the issue at hand.

In the past, the Navy Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) spent a lot of time debating definitions. With an enterprise report, standardized across geographically dispersed component commands, we found that by digging deeper and focusing on how to resolve the problem, the conversations became more about the strategic direction we should take rather than about minutiae related to reports.

To meet this challenge, we needed to build out a data warehouse and integrated collaboration platform, which included four primary components. First, we required an Enterprise Data Warehouse (EDW) that contained cross-functional data and maintained standard schemas and dimensions. We also needed Extract, Transform & Load (ETL) capabilities to integrate data from multiple authoritative data sources into the EDW. Next, we needed solution capabilities to visualize integrated data and support decision-making across the command. And finally, we needed a collaboration space to manage role-based permissions, target visualizations to specific user groups, and collect additional data from users.

While we chose to build this capability in our traditional data center, we recognized the benefits of deploying capabilities such as this in the cloud, namely the flexibility to scale up or down depending on usage. Both our warehouse and our user base are expected to grow, as new data sources are integrated and customers find value in the solutions. At NAVFAC, our team built this system with this need in mind; however, CIOs beginning their implementations today should seriously consider commercial cloud providers certified by the Department of Defense.

Regardless of the technologies used, we were determined to succeed in establishing a governance process to manage the development and delivery of individual solutions within the platform. As CIOs, we need to ensure that each solution meets a demonstrated business need and receives proper stakeholder sign-off.

For example, when NAVFAC’s Business Directorate-Total Force (BD-TF) came to our CIO team with aggressive goals to hire more than 3,000 civilians during the last fiscal year, we recognized they needed a tool to assist them in meeting that target. As a result of our collaborative effort, the tool we designed consisted of a series of reports that enabled all levels of the enterprise to visualize progress towards their discrete goals.

Finding the right visualizations, ones that allow the report reader to make decisions and take action, is critically important to the solution design. Our product management team partners with users in our business lines to engage them in a collaborative and iterative design process. Allowing users to take action by making reports actionable, is a crucial component of ensuring the reports themselves foster innovation.

BD-TF will use these reports, which we branded as the NAVFAC Hiring Dashboard, to focus attention on locations and business lines (departments) with high vacancy rates, as well as identify leading practices from those areas that are meeting their targets. BD-TF aims to adopt and standardize leading business practices across the enterprise.

The new tool, which is under development, will automate a working prototype and introduce several enhancements. The automation will reduce the burden on analysts to manually transform and load data. The reports themselves will be available via our internal portal and refreshed with new data as it becomes available. The dashboard will further provide visibility into the data quality of those sources, and help us work with system owners to improve the quality of that data.

Most important, these reports will standardize terminology and definitions behind the metrics and focus attention on identifying ways to improve the way NAVFAC runs its business. It’s not enough to have the best reports; they must also be “operationalized,” meaning the reports must encourage users to decision making and action based on the reported data.

On the near horizon, I see enormous opportunities for data-driven decision making. The Internet of Things, where physical devices will be interconnected via the Internet, will create new sources of data that will assist commands like NAVFAC in monitoring and optimizing business processes in unprecedented ways. As we collect more data, particularly sensory data measured by smart sensors, we are going to have huge amounts of raw data that require interpretation.

The software we need will synthesize disparate data sets and find correlations. Some of these relationships may not be relevant, but others will upend our business. Imagine if we could determine the link between the rate at which personnel billets are filled and the heating costs for a given building in the subsequent winter? Our energy planning could become pinpoint-accurate.

As we break down silos of information, we allow our business lines to observe trends across the organization. We are moving closer to becoming a foresight-driven organization, one where we can use data to even predict future energy needs, as illustrated in this example.

NAVFAC has a rich history of data modeling; in fact, NAVFAC is leveraging this process and technology to extend the life cycle of facilities and reducing their total ownership cost. We’ve come a long way in 30 years, but our commitment to providing exceptional engineering services to our customers that’s grounded in best practices and data hasn’t wavered. In fact, our responsibility has expanded to make that data more accessible and actionable, which will enable our business to operate at tomorrow’s pace.

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