How agencies can bolster their market research chops

Gettyimages.com / Andriy Onufriyenko

Any and all adoption of commercially-built and -oriented technologies by federal agencies including the Defense Department must be preceded by some market research, an element of procurement widely identified in a new acquisition playbook as a core area of need.

In a near-unanimous opinion, leaders and observers across the public sector ecosystem say that the federal government and particularly the Defense Department need to incorporate more commercially-oriented technologies and business practices.

That requires a constant effort to keep up with what is happening in every tech sector and the technologies that are, or are about to be, the “latest and greatest.”

Within the context of government acquisition, the market research phase is typically how that happens but it usually takes place after a contract’s requirements are fixed.

As a result, agencies find themselves not able to insert new technologies and trying to do so over-complicates contracts in their eyes.

How to remedy that? This new 32-page playbook out of George Mason University’s Center for Government Contracting called “Acquisition Next” lays out how agencies can make market intelligence a core and continuous organizational capability.

Acquisition Next’s guiding thesis is that DOD’s procurement is made for the industrial age replete with assembly lines and other hardware-centric approaches, while the broader global economy is in the digital age of faster product development cycle times.

But to single out one area, consider what Eric Lofgren, one of the GovCon Center’s lead research fellows, told me in a briefing ahead of that document’s release: “Of our nine hypotheses that we started with, moving to continuous market research was rated the highest out of everybody.”

On a scale of 1-to-5, Lofgren said market research was scored at 4.7 by respondents and “nothing else was even close to that.”

The playbook identifies the central problem DOD faces in market research as stemming from how a contract’s requirements typically are not informed by the state-of-the-art, but are rather somewhat behind the tech curve and biased toward legacy solutions.

Market research can therefore feel like a “check-the-box exercise because so much of a problem is pre-determined.”

Which brings up perhaps an existential situation the playbook highlights for acquisition shops across DOD and government: planning for the unplanned by building in the capacity to quickly recognize and respond to opportunity.

Jerry McGinn, the GovCon Center’s director and a former head of DOD’s office of manufacturing and industrial base policy, pointed out that some programs have one assigned person or team focused solely on the market research function.

“But there’s a recognition across a lot of the programs that the department needs to do better,” McGinn said, adding that recognition highlights market research as “not something that is a one-off process.”

Getting away from that one-off approach or appearance of such requires more than just continuous communication, the playbook argues.

Some of the recommendations outlined include having a single point-of-entry inside the program office that can broker the right interactions, having on-ramp opportunities for programs and having more iterative requirements to begin with.

Lofgren said there can be a disconnect inside many agencies including DOD between market research functions and program needs, in part because offices do not have opportunities or funding to onboard new entrants or technologies based on what is found in that research.

The ideal end result as Lofgren put it is getting an “understanding within the program office that they can see what’s relevant and onboard those to their programs, get the money quicker and create a whole new program out of that.”

Also considering is that this problem of keeping up with everything is not limited to just the agencies themselves or even DOD itself.

Even many systems integrators and commercial enterprises that buy and use technology struggle to keep up with the pace of innovation, which is now much faster than the original Moore's Law of computer chip development.

Which means that it is likely past time to create an environment that works in a world where no one can predict the technology future.

Former Pentagon Chief Information Officer Terry Halvorsen indicated as such last year to my FCW colleague Lauren Williams for this article on why DOD struggles to buy software well.

The “Acquisition Next” playbook dives into several other ideas and concepts for helping DOD and hence other federal agencies get away from an Industrial Age-like mindset and move toward today’s software-centric world.

But I just wanted to zero in on a basic building block and evidently the one respondents cited as the area of biggest need in improvement: ability and resources to keep up with it all.

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