Gens. Lawrence, Sorenson share insights on transformation

Whether it is everything as a service, cloud computing, big data or mobile, the government technology landscape is evolving quickly. Retired Lt. Gens. Susan Lawrence and Jeff Sorenson talk about the challenges and opportunities that come with change.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Susan Lawrence started her Army career as a stenographer in 1972, and she likes to joke that the greatest technological breakthrough she saw was the White Out tape that made it easier for her to correct mistakes.

When she retired last year, she was the Army’s CIO/G6 and was ultimately responsible for the service’s IT operations in theater and at bases around the world.

She saw a lot of changes over that career and over her current one as senior vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton’s defense business.

It was a message of change and transition that she and the man she replaced as the Army CIO, retired Lt. Gen. Jeff Sorenson, brought to a media lunch put together by Cisco Systems.

The pace of technological change is torrid, so the question for IT leaders inside and outside of government is, “Are we going to be predictive or responsive?” she said. “Who is working in their garage right now on the next breakthrough and how do we react to that?”

The Defense Department is going through a significant transition as it pulls out of Afghanistan and brings the troops home. “We’re moving from an operational environment to an institutional environment,” she said.

That means the emphasis has to be on training and modeling and simulation so that soldiers, sailors and marines stay engaged and sharp and are ready for the next crisis.

The defense budget also is contracting, so “how can technology be the gap filler?” Lawrence said.

The changes also mean that industry has to look at the market differently.

“At Booz Allen, we are looking at new approaches to contracts and relationships with small businesses differently,” she said. “We’re looking at building strategic relationships that we wouldn’t have done before.”

The question is: Do you “sell to or sell with or sell through,” she said.

Sorenson’s take on the market was similar; he retired in 2010 and now leads A.T. Kearney’s government practice.

“Everything is an ‘as’,” he said, referring to the push of selling and buying software, infrastructure and platforms as a service. “The next thing is going to be security as a service.”

Another disruptive technology is the concept of the Internet of Things, which is particularly important to the military. It’s a powerful tool for battle space awareness, logistics and supply chain management.

He used the example of how important it is to understand and have visibility into all of the pieces of equipment and supplies coming back from Afghanistan. Where are they? Where are they going? What has happened to them? All are critical questions that the Internet of Things can help answer, he said.

Mobile technologies, the cloud and big data also are transformative.

“We have to figure out how to leverage all the technologies that are out there,” he said.

Industry needs to play a critical role in helping the government learn to create contracts for these new kinds of technology and new approaches to buying and implementing technology.

“They just don’t know how,” Sorenson said.

He pointed back to the Navy-Marine Corps Intranet as the first example of when the government tried to buy IT as a service. The troubles that program ran into in its early years are legendary.

“We didn’t have the right SLAs (service-level agreements). We didn’t have the right oversight,” he said.

Beyond education, industry also has to demonstrate that these new approaches can work, Lawrence said.

“People are server huggers,” she said. They want to know where the data is. They want to touch it.

“We have to change that mindset and build a culture of trust that the data will be there when they need it,” she said.

In the private sector, the “as a service” approach is commonplace. “Cisco does these things with its commercial clients like it’s falling out of bed in the morning,” Sorenson said.

The government has made a lot of strides, particularly with the use of enterprise licenses for software, he said.

Sorenson shared how the enterprise licenses with companies such as Microsoft, McAfee and Cisco paid major dividends when soldiers in the field began to connect with company engineers.

“When you put a soldier together with a corporate engineer magic happens,” he said.

The potential for “magic” was one of the big takeaways for me from the lunch because both Lawrence and Sorenson emphasized the importance of collaboration between industry and government.

It might be a challenge in today’s climate, but the payoff can be great.