Team of multiethnic software engineers having a meeting

Improving delivery and mission execution via data modernization

Insights on how US Department of Defense (DoD) organizations can master data science and analytics to sustain an advantage over adversaries.

Three questions to ask

  • How does an agency employ a data strategy to drive a cultural transformation and shift toward becoming a data-driven organization?
  • Are the technology investments maximizing the value derived from, and minimizing the cost of, data?
  • What foundational data skills and technical training will optimize the workforce to be more productive and efficient?

The US federal government is one of the world’s largest producers, curators, and consumers of data. Every day, thousands of civilian federal employees assemble and collate data to support decision-making, in the form of economic indicators; US Census reports and household and business surveys; and labor, education, health, tax, transportation and spending statistics, to name a few. In addition, DoD platforms, sensors, and people are collecting and generating enormous amounts of data every second in support of national security initiatives and research and development programs, international relations initiatives, facilitation of trade and supply chains, etc. Modern artificial intelligence and analytics technologies have rapidly advanced how the federal government translates data into strategic insights and assets that improve the speed and quality of delivery across all mission areas. How do agencies manage this data to realize its full potential? For the DoD, this question is critical to optimize investment in a resource-constrained environment with emphasis on fiduciary responsibility, and to dominate in the battlespace of the future.

In a virtual roundtable, EY panellists explored some of the issues that the DoD and other government agencies are facing and industry best practices that are driving innovation in the private sector that can be harvested by federal agencies. The discussion focused on a broad framework designed to balance data trust, accessibility and democratization with security and appropriate access controls – with a focus on data literacy throughout the workforce. How agency leaders approach the opportunities and address the cognitive aspect of the data will shape the future of their organizations.

Data democratization: building a foundation for a data-driven culture

The proliferation of sensors and systems, faster bandwidth and cheaper storage has resulted in an explosion of data. Modern organizations have a never-ending task of categorizing, cataloging and securing data to make it usable and accessible. In the absence of a flexible, scalable strategy and investment in tools to support execution of the organization’s framework, it can be impossible to even fully understand the value of the data available and enable the workforce to innovate at speed.

There was a time when the secretive nature of collecting information, particularly intelligence data, created silos. Today, the amount of open-source analysis, open data and data feeds has led to an infinite amount of public data that the DoD would never have imagined a decade ago.

Every day,
2.5 exabytes
of data are created each day; one exabyte equals 3,000 times the content of the Library of Congress, the largest library in the world.¹

Limited data is no longer the issue; instead, there’s so much data – much of which is misinformation, untrustworthy disinformation or simply distraction – it’s often hard to parse through the noise. The proliferation of data has created huge opportunities for intelligent automation and enterprise advancements when building on a foundation of data governance and within the bounds of a modern data strategy.


As one panellist said, “Unrealized gains from an immature data strategy can be costly. There's a significant transactional cost to collecting and storing data, a sunk cost associated with the tools and skills to use it. But these costs are fractional compared to the potential value of insights that can be generated from this incredible aggregation of data.”


Once the strategy and tools are in place, organizations must focus on effectively communicating what assets are available and where, gaining consensus that data-driven efficiencies are an organizational priority, and identifying and retaining the right individuals to champion and sponsor a data culture. Data-first organizations create a cohesive taxonomy of metrics-driven decisions and performance tracking, with a consistent organizational nomenclature that puts the business in the center.


Data modernization: maximizing value derived through strategic technology investments


As more data becomes available, more sophisticated software tools give people direct access to query, analyse, visualize and share data.


Building an agile portfolio of data-centric technologies enables agencies to translate data into information that will generate actionable insights. Software licenses are expensive, and the tools they provide are complex, so it is crucial to factor in training and the ability of the workforce to maximize their use and understand how each tool builds upon others. The reality is that many people have technology skills but get bogged down with tools they do not know how to use or syntax they do not understand.


In the defense space, innovation is often constrained by the long process to qualify new tools and technologies. However, a critical mass of modern, powerful software is available to DoD programs and, when architected to emphasize flexibility and scale, can be complemented as new tools are cleared for use. Mission performance should not be constrained by the limitations of the data or the technologies needed to exploit that data, and a critical accelerator is a translator who is conversationally fluent in both business needs and technology capabilities and can articulate the requirements to both stakeholder groups.


As one panelist said, “The most powerful skill set in today's job market is the ability to translate between business and technology. A proficient technologist who can explain complex tools and processes to a decision-maker, or a business analyst savvy enough to ask for the right tool at the right time, is instrumental in articulating requirements and creating data insights.”


Workforce optimization: trust employees to do what’s best


Data analytics has permeated all aspects of our society. It has become a foundational skill and a way of thinking for all professionals. No-code and low-code tools have made data more accessible to “citizen data scientists” and self-taught data analysts, when data is organized and curated to ensure trust and standardization, but they do not replace the need for broad data literacy in an organization.


The DoD has hired many talented professionals from commercial organizations where they are used to having a high level of autonomy to leverage data to drive business outcomes. They come to the DoD, a highly matrixed organization, and are limited by data governance structures with more friction, limiting what data is accessible in applications and how it can be used. Data literacy must be driven at the individual and organizational level – a coordinated effort between technology (inclusive of security) and business – to harness the knowledge that the workforce is gaining with cohesivity.


People are the most important part of a data-driven organization. Employee education and engagement are critical to ensure that everyone is focused on the organization’s top line objectives in quantifiable ways, with clear lineage to decisions and the necessary data.


Data governance for mission execution


At all levels and all functional areas within the DoD, operational and policy decisions and technology applications require data that is usable, of sufficient quality, trustworthy, accessible (via different formats) and secure. Thus, the exploding volume of data requires better infrastructure and cultural shifts to support curation and accessibility of data at scale, and a workforce capable of translating this data into actionable insights. Data governance plays a critical role, not only to ensure accessibility, but also to limit risk.


To turn its vast data holdings into actionable insights, the DoD should continue to democratize its data by making it accessible and useful to a larger portion of its workforce, modernize its data technologies to realize the full potential of its data assets and optimize its workforce by building data literacy and a culture of a “growth mindset.”

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