What's in your toolbox?

Government demands put more value on certifications, standards and process improvement

Tools of the Trade

Capability Maturity Model Integration: Created by the Software Engineering Institute, this process improvement approach evaluates organizations on capabilities and maturity levels of 22 process areas. There are three constellations: CMMI Development, CMMI Acquisition and CMMI Services.

ISO 9001:2000: This standard sets requirements for quality management processes and systems associated with hardware, systems and software products.

ISO 20,000-1:2005: This standard defines the requirements for a service provider to deliver managed services.

ANSI 748: This standard, offered through the American National Standards Institute, defines 32 guidelines for an acceptable Earned Value Management system.

Earned Value Management: A project management discipline that measures performance against a plan that considers project scope, schedule and budget, letting organizations improve control and risk management, predict cost overruns and schedule delays, and make critical adjustments much earlier in the process.

Information Technology Infrastructure Library:?This relatively new standard is a framework of best-practice approaches and management procedures that facilitate the delivery of high-quality IT services.

Six Sigma: This system of practices is used to systematically improve processes by eliminating defects.

Lean: This process improvement methodology is intended to improve process flow, as well as speed and efficiency.

"The government is really looking for consistency, repeatability and predictability, they want some level of confidence that the contractor ... is going to be able to get the job done." ?CSC's Wendy Irion

Rick Steele

"Don't get involved unless the credential you pursue can be tied to a strategic goal." -William Vitaletti, CACI

Rick Steele

It's almost over, the era when government contractors could successfully respond to proposals with broad statements of competency. Today, acquisition officers increasingly want independent proof that companies have the processes, knowledge and skills to get the job done.

The trend in government procurements and policies is to mandate, or at least encourage, contractors to get Capability Maturity Model Integration ratings, certify that their software, systems and hardware products meet ISO standards or show that they have a certified Earned Value Management system.

These standards and certifications can cover a gamut of processes, from how software is developed to how projects are managed.

"It seems as though the government is recognizing these certifications and standards as tools to help them understand what kind of risk a supplier provides when they're going through a procurement," said Wendy Irion Talbot, vice president of business process management for Computer Sciences Corp.'s federal sector. The company recently earned a CMMI Level 3 rating for its software development capabilities.

The Government Accountability Office recommends use of CMMI on high-risk projects, and the Defense Department has been active in putting certification requirements in their contracts as well. DOD mandates that contractors have CMMI maturity Level 2 or 3 to bid on certain projects. It also require contractors to have an ANSI 748-certified Earned Value Management System (EVM) to tie management processes to project scope, schedule and budget.

DOD also encourages use of project management methodologies such as Six Sigma and Lean, which improve efficiency, accuracy and speed of contracting. Many civil agencies are beginning to follow its example.

Several factors are driving the trend, most significantly government's experience with project failures, and cost and schedule overruns, Talbot said. Other drivers include the move towards commercial integration solutions and a recognition that projects are getting larger and more complex.

"The government is really looking for consistency, repeatability and predictability," CSC's Talbot said. "They want some level of confidence that the contractor that's supplying an integration service or a particular product is going to be able to get the job done. And there's some data supporting that when there is that assurance, there's a lower risk factor, and the contractor delivers more successfully, on time and on budget, and with a better quality."

Among those less than delighted with the new environment are some contractors facing new rigorous EVM requirements, said Rich Wilkinson, vice president of government contracting for Deltek Systems Inc. of Herndon, Va., a provider of enterprise management software solutions.

Last summer, federal acquisition rules began mandating use of EVM systems for all cost-type contracts with a value greater than $20 million. Many of those contracts require the systems be certified under the new ANSI 748 standard, which defines criteria for an effective EVM system.

"We were amazed to see a brand-new standard and a new discipline move as far downstream as this one did and as fast as it did," Wilkinson said. "It's been imposed in such a way that contractors are not really prepared for it. The old threshold for EVM was $315 million; now it's $20 million. That's a lot of cost contracts, and it's really tripping up a lot of contractors."

Despite the difficulties the new requirements may present, EVM is an increasingly necessary methodology in the government space, said Larry Reagan, vice president of the government solutions division at Price Systems LLC of Mount Laurel, N.J., which specializes in program affordability management solutions.

Price Systems recently surveyed 104 government IT executives on the role of baselining in government IT project management and found that 46 percent of canceled or over-budget projects could be saved if IT project baselines were more realistic. With better baselining, not only could project failures be avoided, the survey found, but also the annual savings would be an estimated $5.5 billion.

EVM's value is in arming people with early warning tools to help them detect difficulties in a project before they become problematic, Reagan said. Programs are failing "because people don't take the time to do things right, and they aren't educated properly," he said. "EVM is not that difficult to do once you have the right tools and the right knowledge to work with. I think going through the rigor of a certification process will help companies focus on getting those tools and knowledge."

On a personal note

Agencies are even extending the certification trend to individual employees of contractors. The recent Defense Department Directive 8570.1 requires that all personnel working on an information security system, including contractors, get a professional certification accredited by ANSI under the global ISO/IEC standard 17024.

The mandate recognizes that "one of the essential ingredients required to protect DOD IT systems is a qualified information assurance workforce," said Lynn McNulty, director of government affairs for the International Information Systems Security Consortium, which offers information security certifications that have met the accreditation standards.

Because the mandate must be met over the next four years, contractors should send their employees through the certification process, McNulty said. The move "will remove a potential barrier to work with the DOD and provide an independent benchmark as to the professional status of its own IA employees," he said.

Many agencies, such as the Office of Personnel Management, are beginning to require that contracting personnel hold Project Management Professional (PMP) certification.

Such certifications provide "instant credibility" and are a competitive advantage for contractors, said Jennifer Stanford, director of workforce performance for project management specialist Robbins-Gioia LLC of Alexandria, Va.

However, because companies have PMP-credentialed personnel "doesn't necessarily mean that they are going to help organizations be successful," Stanford said. "Just having the certification or book knowledge isn't a guarantee of performance ? and this is true of all the IT certifications. Nothing beats plain old hard work. It's being able to implement and practice and prove your results that are more important."

Tips for success

Going through an appraisal for a CMMI, ANSI 748, ISO 9001:2000 or other organizational credentials is time-consuming, expensive, personnel-intensive and stressful. Therefore, making the decision to get a certification should not be made without considered thought nor should it be done only to win more contracts.

"Don't get involved unless the credential you pursue can be tied to a strategic goal," said William Vitaletti, vice president for the Project Resource Group at CACI International Inc., which holds a CMMI Level 3 rating in multiple operating groups and several ISO 9001:2000 certifications.

Absolutely, CSC's Talbot agreed, while noting that the greatest benefits of CMMI, EVM or other certifications come when the improved processes and methodologies are incorporated into the way companies conduct daily business. "It's not something extra," she said. "It's something that should be embraced, because if you do that, what you'll see is an extraordinary transformation in the organizational culture."

As with any major project, senior management commitment is critical, CACI's Vitaletti said, but so is buy-in from the project team. "They need to fully understand how the pursuit of these credentials will help them become more efficient and productive, and produce higher-quality products and services in the long run."

When appropriate, contractors should try to leverage similar tasks involved in different certifications. Both the CMMI and the ISO 9001:2000 certifications are designed to help organizations design and manage repeatable, well-organized, quality projects and programs, so "there's about a 95 percent overlap between the two models," said Stephen Hawald, an executive consultant with Robbins-Gioia.

Exercise caution when choosing a practitioner to assist with the rating assessment, especially CMMI, Hawald said. "If someone comes in and says, 'Oh, I've got a COTS application that will whip you right through this,' that's a bad sign."

Contractors should insist that appraisers hold credentials from the certifying body and boast a track record of performing the gap analysis and baselines, as well as the execution.

Many contractors will seek certification just to meet government requirements, but the process itself provides enough benefits to justify voluntary participation, CSC's Talbot said. Through certification, you're adopting a compendium of best practices that have been developed by a broad range of industry, government and academic experts, she said.

"Certification really helps create an ego-less environment, a more collaborative environment," Talbot said. "People can see that they're solving very, very tough problems and driving toward a goal of overall improvement in a very collaborative way. It can have an extremely positive effect on an organization, both immediately and for the long-haul."

Heather B. Hayes is a freelance writer in Clifford, Va.

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