A look at a federal model of IT innovation for SMBs

When a contractor is working on one or more of these protected programs and attempts to transition to mid-size status, can technology innovation be a tool for greater competitiveness?

Array is a traditional systems integrator with 15 years in the business. In the federal market, there has been increasing emphasis on small businesses and set-aside programs which now make up almost a quarter of the US government's $80 billion IT contracting spend outside the intelligence community. When a contractor like Array is working on one or more of these protected programs and attempts to transition to mid-size status, can technology innovation be a tool for greater competitiveness?

I sat down with Sumeet Shrivastava of Array and asked some questions.

1.) Jeff: What kinds of problems can a company in the small to medium-size business category like Array address with technology innovation?

Sumeet: Federal CIO Steven Van Roekel testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee earlier this year on the wasteful and dysfunctional fashion in which the government acquires IT systems and services. Following that statement, he has formally mandated that agencies fundamentally rethink their IT acquisition costs.

Making small "i" innovation the name of the game; smaller projects, quicker turns, more rapid ROI, these all tend to cater to the strengths of smaller companies. All of those are focused on helping our clients become more innovative and fostering a culture of innovation, not only for them but also within our own company.

2.) Jeff: Is this more important with government entities than in the commercial market?

Sumeet: The larger federal players are much more at risk as this inevitably means that business will come in smaller chunks, require greater flexibility, and an ability to tap into innovation more quickly. Larger programs are being broken down into smaller procurements where a small business can often excel over a larger player.

In addition, when you throw in the significant budget cuts that are expected, the only way the federal government is going to meet the challenge is by rethinking some of the large programs which currently sit in the portfolios of larger, publicly-traded companies.

3.) Jeff: To put this in terms of best practices, what do you recommend IT leaders do differently?

Sumeet: To be more innovative with technology, it's critical for technology leaders to look beyond the technology itself. To do that means taking a fresh look at the challenges you are trying to meet and where the hurdles and roadblocks may be. Frankly, what better time is there to step back and assess what you have, what's working and what isn't, than when there is this budget indecision?

In terms of specific advice, I would recommend the first step is finding the best IT acquisition professionals in your agency and negotiating their dedication to your mission. Everything starts with optimally leveraging the procurement model.

4.) Jeff: One of Array's emphases and an area it describes as a particular strength is enabling collaboration, which many companies would like to claim, but there must be some related hurdles to face as well, particularly in dealing with the government. What does resistance to increased collaboration look like?

Sumeet: With collaboration, one common hurdle in any industry is the whole enterprise change management focus, especially in a Fortune 500 environment like the ones I worked with at Keane. These clients are global organizations with a significant success history over 20 or 30 years of doing things one way, and a why-should-we-change-now mentality. Often in the commercial sector we see a move to increase collaboration driven by the profit motive, combined with the ability of executive leadership to truly back it up and own it for the three to five years a global transformation may take.

In the federal market by comparison, the biggest hurdle we face is the structural hurdle. When you think about the budget Congress authorizes and eventually appropriates down to the agencies, those thousands of pages and multiple volumes you see in the news when they get delivered from the White House, what's inside those are all the line items of authorizations that really tie your hands about what you can spend money on.

5.) Jeff: What does that look like in terms of the financial component?

Sumeet: The aggregate budget across Homeland Security and the Department of Justice is about nine to ten billion dollars of IT spend, and when you bring that down to the levels of fifty million here and ten million there and try to stitch them all together and execute an enterprise-wide collaboration, it's almost impossible.

What you do find is lots of micropockets; small transformational efforts between two agencies that are collaborating and sharing data, possibly through some of the typical technologies of integration like Sharepoint and unified communication solutions, even down to public broadband. We've seen that recently with the events in Boston and New Orleans, where you had to have multiple layers of local, state and federal law enforcement collaborating very quickly.

So there are hurdles in taking advantage of the way fiscal budgeting, management and authorization occurs, and then also in the technology like broadband, especially in the national security space.

6.) Jeff: Where did the term "collaborative mandate" come from and what has been its effect?

Sumeet: The collaborative mandate emanated from the 9-11 commission. There has always been some homage paid to the fact that we need to interoperate, whether in the growth of joint operations on the defense side, or in the law enforcement and intelligence integration, or in healthcare. There is a different tipping point in each vertical for where the mandate came from and what has transpired from it.

The reluctance to cooperate, and I believe this is universal, is less about the people and more about the structural elements. If you're a program manager running a $40 million command-and-control center in Texas, you realize you have to integrate with something going on in Arizona. But there are all sorts of hurdles, and what you end up with is individuals who may have the right intent, but the structure around them doesn't lend itself to making their work easy.

One place that has been very successful is the Information Sharing Environment, the ISE program office. It operates within the office of the Director of National Intelligence, so it's placed at the right levels and has all the right ears.

7.) Jeff: Security has to be a top concern for your customers. Is that an area where you see innovation happening?

Sumeet: In the past, the central issue has been discrete overall levels of security. You really didn't have to worry about the individual data and how you tagged it. A report in its totality may have had a certain level of security. Now big data and the analytics push are driving things. The new technologies need to be able to tag individual pieces of data for security, so you can disaggregate a certain piece of data and pass it on to what we call a fusion center where any law enforcement official can look at it.

But this other piece is highly sensitive national security data and it gets segmented out. A lot of times it's the horsepower, so that's where cloud initiatives have been a big push, to get the data anywhere. But it's also the horsepower when you need it for volume and speed, in Boston for example. Everything is normal, data is being transmitted every day and then all of a sudden the level of data and integration required goes through the roof.

8.) Jeff: What kind of progress have you seen?

Sumeet: Right now with the growth of integration technology, we're still trying to hit the limits of our ability to integrate and share at the discrete data level. But there is one area where we've created the infrastructure to apply new technology, and that is in video surveillance technology.

For example, how do you take many, even hundreds of video feeds from two or three days and quickly analyze it to identify one particular person? In the past there were farms of agents literally pulled off the street to review them in a manually intensive looping process. Those are analysts and law enforcement being pulled off the street into a warehouse to do that. The new technologies we have require much less manpower for something like that.

9.) Jeff: Do you put more emphasis on the value of technology to create efficiency or increase capability?

Sumeet: We've been approaching the federal government with both vectors, both to build on the core capability-based solutions we have around collaboration, video teleconferencing and Sharepoint, and the integration of all of those has been a major element. But frankly, the background of our leadership has been around how we can drive greater process efficiencies. How do you take 70% or 80% of a typical CIO's budget that goes toward production systems and get more efficiency, often to unlock the capital for greater capability with new technologies like big data and cloud or social media?

The current budget environment has become a driver for an increased efficiency focus, and capability is unfortunately taking a back seat. In reality, if you can transform on the capability side, you may have a greater ability to reduce costs in more than just a process or efficiency play. But the client is thinking in terms of headcount, so we often end up talking in terms of naming that tune in x notes, with a focus on unit prices and process efficiency versus transformational capability.

10.) Jeff: What other insights have you gained in working across the commercial and federal spaces as technologies have advanced over the last decade?

Sumeet: One thing about the federal market that is often misunderstood is what the opportunity for technology really is. More than at any other time in the 20 plus years I've been in federal and public sector contracting, now is an incredibly good time for technology companies to consider the federal landscape. The budget scenarios can scare people away, but when you think about commercial industry over the last few years when the markets were bad, there were some areas like financial services in 2008 that stopped spending.

If you need to reengineer the way you deliver because your vertical is getting hammered, often technology is the way to do that. There is a higher degree of receptivity to a non-federal player stepping in and offering solutions. There are still some onerous regulatory requirements and the sales cycles are lengthy. You have a very strong contracting vehicle model you have to pay attention to beyond the regulatory and accounting hurdles, but right now is still a fantastic time.

Sumeet Shrivastava has been President of Array Information Technology since 2008. Array was founded in 1997, and has over 300 employees located in Greenbelt, MD. It is one of the fastest growing US businesses, has ISO and CMMI certifications, and specializes in services to national security, defense and scientific sectors.

At Keane, now NTT Data, Sumeet was working as a global commercial technology outsourcer, but one with almost 20% of its billion-dollar revenue in public sector business. Particularly with the current administration's emphasis on commercial contracting, Sumeet's experience in innovating with commercial companies in the federal space was what gave him his distinct ability to navigate Array's transition.

You can find more information at www.arrayinfotech.com.

Jeff Cerny is a technology consultant and author, and works with Aspen Marketing Services in West Chicago, IL. He has been writing 10 Question Interviews with Technology Leaders since 2008.