Defense University Revamps Acquisition Training Program

By Sandra I. Erwin

The Defense Department’s corporate university for acquisition professionals plans to revamp its training programs to make them more relevant to Pentagon priorities. Driving these changes is a desire to reshape the weapon-procurement process, so it can be more responsive to military needs and more attuned to modern business practices.

Frank J. Anderson Jr., president of the Defense Acquisition University, said he wants to bring “speed and agility” into acquisition training programs. DAU, with headquarters in Fort Belvoir, Va., trains about 135,000 acquisition professionals. Approximately 85 percent of the students are civilians. The university has a budget of about $100 million.

Anderson came to DAU last October, after a 34-year career in the U.S. Air Force. During his first few weeks on the job, he realized that DAU would need to adapt to the evolving needs of a Defense Department that was gearing up to fight an extended war and take on new missions in homeland security.

“The Defense Department leadership and the services decided that we really need to make some substantive changes in the way we train our people,” Anderson said in a recent interview. So far, he said, “the biggest thing we’ve done is change the philosophy of how we will train our acquisition workforce.” The new philosophy is based on “speed and agility in training,” he explained.

Undersecretary of Defense Edward C. ‘Pete’ Aldridge has been outspoken about the need to make defense acquisition programs more efficient. His predecessors during the Clinton administration, Paul Kaminski and Jacques Gansler, implemented a host of regulatory changes and “acquisition streamlining” initiatives that simplified the process. But there are still complaints within the Defense Department and the services that program managers are not doing enough to expedite the fielding of new technologies and that acquisition officials often don’t understand the needs of the war-fighting force.

Anderson is quick to point out that there are “great people in the acquisition business,” but in many cases, “the challenge they have is the process.” Under Aldridge, the Pentagon has placed more emphasis on “outcome and results” in acquisition programs. That means a program team is expected to make a commitment to meet cost, schedule and technology goals, said Anderson. “So when we budget for a program … we meet those objectives.”

The upshot for DAU, he added, is that “we must reengineer training so we provide our people with the knowledge and skills to do a better job.”

An awful lot of the slowness and the awkwardness of the acquisition system stemmed from “policies and procedures” that kept getting added to the process every time there was a mistake, Anderson noted. Defense leaders today are seeking to remove some of the bureaucratic obstacles that unnecessarily slow down programs, he said. “Let’s create streamlined processes that will allow people to be more responsive to customer needs.”

During a congressional hearing earlier this month, Aldridge said that the government “must retain the capability to be ‘smart buyers’ of defense equipment.” This relates directly to the quality of the acquisition workforce, he said. “The Defense Acquisition University is increasing its workload and coverage by moving from purely classroom training to more web-based learning modules, by emphasizing critical thinking skills and case-based reasoning.”

To help prepare acquisition professionals to manage programs using “critical thinking” and to solve complex problems, DAU recently introduced a 10-week executive development course built after the Harvard Executive Development Program. “We worked the program in conjunction with representatives from the Harvard Business School,” Anderson said.

The training focuses on practical problem solving and leadership skills, he added. The 10-week program will cover approximately 100 cases. At least 80 percent of those cases will be based on real-world acquisition programs and the students will be required to actually execute a program. The course will be offered on-line by 2003.

“A lot of training in the past was focused on regulations, processes and procedures,” instead of problem-solving, Anderson said. “We can’t prepare people for every specific issue they will face in a program, but we can prepare them so they’ll have the critical-thinking skills, so they’ll know how to shape smart business deals, do a better job of teaming and partnering.”

DAU students also will learn a whole lot about spiral development and evolutionary acquisition, the big buzzwords in the business today.

Spiral development and evolutionary acquisition are terms that have been used interchangeably, Anderson said. However, he noted that these are “relatively new concepts within the Department, and it takes time for everybody to adopt consistent terminology.”

He makes a distinction between evolutionary acquisition as a strategy, and spiral development as a methodology. “In practice, a program that adopts an evolutionary acquisition strategy can utilize a number of methodologies (such as spiral) to develop the components of a system,” he explained. An evolutionary acquisition “rapidly delivers an operationally effective, suitable and sustainable subset of the overall required capability,” he said. “Subsequent incremental deliveries add to this basic capability until the objective capability is achieved.”

Spiral uses “design-prototype-evaluate” cycles, which serve to refine requirements by letting users experience the product through the prototype, immediately feeding their judgments back into the design of the next cycle, he said. “Spiral development reduces technical risk by allowing implementers to drive the ‘bugs’ out of new technologies through iterative prototypes.” Key to the success of evolutionary acquisition, Anderson said, is “continuous user involvement in the articulation, validation and prioritization of system requirements over the life of the program.”

An evolutionary acquisition program is “driven by the user’s vision of operational capability, instead of being locked in to a specific weapon system based on static requirements that may no longer make sense.” It requires a commitment, Anderson said, “to make the tough trades to get the right capability to the war-fighter at the right time, within the constraints of a budget. … Evolutionary acquisition is perhaps the only way we can efficiently satisfy the war-fighters’ evolving needs with modern technology.”

Two examples of programs employing this approach are the Air Force Small Diameter Bomb and the joint-service Global Command and Control System.

Topics: Acquisition, Procurement, Training

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