U.S. defense acquisition research program
Mark E. Nissen, Ph.D., Naval Postgraduate School
Keith F. Snider, Ph.D., Naval Postgraduate School
Acquisition may be viewed as a process that transforms user needs into products, services and information required to satisfy those needs. It pertains to the strategy, planning, procurement, contracting, program management, logistics and other activities required to develop, produce and support systems and other materiel required to accomplish the mission of an enterprise (Nissen, Snider, & Lamm, 1998). A more concise description is simply the process employed to satisfy enterprise materiel requirements.
Although in the U.S. acquisition is often described in the context of weapon system development (e.g., in support of the defense mission), the breadth of this term indicates it does not apply solely to the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). Rather, we consider it axiomatic that the acquisition process occurs in similar ways in the various domains of defense, the broader public sector and the private sector. Thus, though there may be some differences in the ways it is manifested in a particular domain, acquisition’s theories and practices are generally relevant for enterprises in the public and private sectors alike.
The field of project management has strong historical ties to acquisition, and many consider it to represent the most important acquisition area. Most writers locate project management’s roots in the large, highly complex weapons projects, such as the Manhattan project and aerospace projects, that were undertaken during and following World War II (Acker, 1993, p. 4–5; Przemieniecki, 1993, p. 13). Project management concepts, methods and organizations became the means by which DoD attempted to exploit and integrate scientific and technological advances in increasingly capable and complex weapon systems that often took many years to design, develop and produce. And project management soon became the focus of DoD training programs in acquisition. Today, the design, development and production of almost all major defense systems proceed under project or program management.
Because acquisition and project management are so closely connected, researchers in each area have many concerns in common. In this paper we describe the origins, purpose and operations of the DoD External Acquisition Research Program (EARP). Our purpose is to inform project management researchers of the details of this program in order to facilitate exchange of ideas among scholars of both communities on the pressing research needs of the new millennium.
Acquisition represents a process that is critical to the survival of commercial and defense enterprises alike. Despite this critical role, however, acquisition has long been subordinated to other processes with respect to executive attention, funding, innovation and other key enterprise attributes. In the DoD, funding and prioritization arguments have relied on the “tooth vs. tail” metaphor. That is, under financial constraints, organizations give priority to combatants and weapons (the “teeth”) over procurement, program management and even logistics. Corporate America has also relied on this same argument. In the past, few corporations would hesitate to shift discretionary spending from Quality Assurance to Manufacturing, from Customer Service to Marketing, or from Purchasing to Research and Development (R&D).
Now, progressive firms are shifting their emphasis and priorities as they recognize the criticality of traditional “tail” processes. For example, industry discovered in the Eighties that quality represents a critical performance factor, and that emphasizing quality can actually save cost and reduce cycle time. The need for change is particularly evident in R&D, the fundamental mechanism for new product and service development for the hierarchy (Williamson, 1985 for comparison of markets and hierarchies). Drucker (1998) claims product innovations may take as long as 50 years to reach and affect the market. Such a lengthy period of time clearly limits a firm’s agility, flexibility and responsiveness to unforeseen changes in the environment and competitive arena (Porter, 1985). Thus, we now observe strategic networks between organizations, decreased process cost and cycle time, increased flexibility and agility, and a host of other signals that radical change has indeed occurred.
Progressive firms have made radical changes in acquisition processes due to widespread supply-chain integration, justin-time inventory practices, virtual organizations (Davidow & Malone, 1992), electronic markets (Malone et al., 1987), mass customization (Pine et al., 1993) and other contemporary business practices. For example, the procurement focus has shifted away from short-term transactions and toward strategic relationships. Although price is still vitally important, it is no longer necessarily more so than capability, quality, reliability and trustworthiness. In today’s era of hypercompetition (D’Aveni, 1994), global operations and exploding information, progressive companies realize the environment has shifted abruptly and are effecting radical change where called for.
The DoD is also now recognizing acquisition’s criticality, as evidenced by a new emphasis on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) equipment and software, simplified regulations and a preference for commercial specifications and standards (FASA, 1994; FARA 1996). And the DoD acquisition regulation is modeled on “sound business practices” (Department of Defense 1996). Increasing partnerships with industry (e.g., Cole, 1997), less reliance on a shrinking defense-unique industrial base (Gansler, 1998), process reengineering (Nissen, 1997), electronic commerce and other advanced initiatives are now occurring in the DoD (Bryan, 1998) with much the same intensity as in industry a few years back. Indeed, realizing the importance of acquisition, the former Secretary of Defense challenged the acquisition workforce to effect a 50% reduction in cycle time required to develop and field major weapon systems (Perry, 1994). This represents a call for radical change of reengineering proportions (Hammer & Champy, 1993).
The “tooth vs. tail” argument from above is clearly outdated. Regardless of the number and size of one’s teeth, one can run only as fast and as long as one’s tail allows. Notwithstanding our success in the Gulf War, for example, armored units were restrained by the logistical chain. Even our theater information systems were critically dependent on relationships with commercial vendors for equipment, software and bandwidth in the region. The Secretary of Defense recently acknowledged that acquisition (especially procurement and logistics) now limit battlefield information, mobility and speed (Cohen, 1997). Thus, in much the same way that the scope and pace of change have elevated acquisition to a level of strategic importance in industry, the acquisition process has become strategic to the military. This represents a radical concept for the DoD, a concept that calls for revolution in defense acquisition as well as in military affairs. To manage such radical organizational change, it is clear to the authors that simplistic, “quick-fix” approaches or recirculating old ideas under new labels will not suffice. Rather, substantial new acquisition knowledge is required, and it is required now.
At present, we perceive a critical need to catalyze a quantum increase in the quality and quantity of new acquisition knowledge produced through scholarly research. Although research represents only one of several important knowledge sources—others include, for example, professional practice, trial and error, lessons learned—it is arguably the most neglected at present and the most critical for the future, particularly at this time when “out of the box” thinking and radical process redesign are called for.
Need for Acquisition Research
In his classic work, Kuhn (1970) describes the idea of “revolutionary science” as exemplified by the “paradigm shifts” from Newtonian to Einsteinian physics, or from Ptolemaic to Copernican astronomy. Such revolutions can occur, according to Kuhn, as evolving conditions lead to situations for which the extant paradigm simply cannot account. It seems likely to us that acquisition stands on the threshold of such a paradigm shift. Earlier we noted the heritage of U.S. defense acquisition in the post-World War II, Cold War environment. Recent acquisition reform initiatives notwithstanding, many of the laws, policies, regulations and practices that govern present-day acquisition are products of the Cold War mindset. Given the fundamental changes of the past decade, we question whether that particular paradigm can long endure.
As the U.S. enters the 21st century, it confronts a new military environment characterized by expanding mission requirements, declining defense funds and the absence of a monolithic superpower threat. This environment has drastically changed the face of acquisition. For example, policy initiatives associated with “reengineering” and “downsizing” are blurring the traditional distinctions between the public and private sectors’ acquisition roles in several ways.
First, new public-private partnerships may be radically reshaping our view of the proper relationship between government and industry. To illustrate, current plans call for a government weapons facility at Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois to produce items, in effect as a subcontractor, to United Defense Limited Partnership, which is the industry consortium under contract to develop the Army’s new Crusader howitzer system. Second, the nature of government contracting is changing in significant ways. The government now relies far less on detailed and restrictive specifications and standards, choosing instead to communicate only broad objectives with the details left to industry discretion. We even see evidence of a trend away from strict reliance on contracts in the increased use of simplified agreements—so-called “other transactions”—between government and industry. Perhaps most significantly, functions that previously were performed almost exclusively by DoD—logistics support for weapon systems, for example—are now increasingly being “contracted out” to private industry.
Such changes call for new acquisition processes. The nature, scope and pace of change required to effectively transform these acquisition processes imply that new knowledge will be required. Change of such magnitude and speed is unprecedented within the defense acquisition system; hence, leaders cannot simply reuse old ideas and techniques. Rather, these new processes require new knowledge—theoretical knowledge to guide high-level policy and decision-making; applied knowledge to support transition and execution in the new acquisition environment; reliable, generalizable, cumulative knowledge to leverage problem solutions across many defense programs and avoid redundancy or duplication. New acquisition knowledge such as this calls for research, as the researcher’s primary motivation is knowledge creation (discovery research).
Without research of a relatively fundamental, loosely applied nature, it is next to impossible to achieve paradigm shift, and it would be inconceivable that such a shift could occur through incremental changes in acquisition practice alone (i.e., without research). Researchers provide a unique ability to generalize from experiences. They build cumulatively upon the work of others (what Kuhn calls “normal science”) and employ rigorous methods to ensure high validity and reliability of their results. Indeed, only research that stretches the boundaries of current knowledge can be used to leverage solutions across entire classes of problems (e.g., through new theory) and to adapt effective solutions induced from one process or program to many others. And academics are trained to design experiments and employ rigorous research methods that isolate effects and minimize the cost of knowledge creation. Such research requires careful planning and preparation and is time-consuming. But it minimizes exposure to failure from trial and error (e.g., as with professional practice, on-the-job training, lessons learned) and maximizes the impact and dependability of results per unit cost. Thus, academic research is efficient as well as effective at knowledge creation. By building on the cumulative work of others, researchers are able to avoid the redundancy, duplication and waste that plagues many current acquisition reform efforts in practice. Of course, research also feeds education, training, consulting and ultimately professional practice itself, as new knowledge creation (i.e., research) sits at the top of the knowledge “food chain.”
State of Acquisition Research—Quantity
Despite acquisition’s critical role and its changing nature in the defense domain, research in acquisition has been sorely neglected. Scholars outside of the DoD community have for the most part simply ignored acquisition as an area of inquiry. To illustrate, a review of titles for the 100-plus panels conducted at the year 2000 annual conference of the American Society for Public Administration revealed no presentations or papers dealing with acquisition. Such inattention may be attributed in part to society’s, and hence academe’s, historical tendency to draw distinctions between military and civilian matters, and to the separate identity of the military created by its unique role and ethic. These can lead to an ignorance—perhaps even a distrust or fear—of military matters among non-Government scholars (Jefferies, 1977). At the very least, such perceptions indicate to scholars that “defense is different,” and thus they inhibit consideration of similarities between the defense and non-defense domains of acquisition.
As for the few civilian scholars who have attended to acquisition, some are highly critical and some take a more balanced perspective. The critics usually focus on the highly politically charged atmosphere of major weapon system acquisition. Their characterizations of acquisition as an often irrational process is evident in their works’ titles, such as The Pentagon Paradox (Stevenson, 1993), Foregone Conclusions (Lebovic 1996) and Weapons Without a Cause (Farrell, 1997). Scholars taking the more balanced approach are represented by Thompson and Jones (1994),Fox (1974, 1988) and Mayer (1991). Other researchers write on topics that, while not “acquisition-specific,” are central to acquisition. Aaron Wildavsky’s work in budgeting and policy analysis (e.g., 1969) is but one example.
Within DoD, the potential benefits of acquisition research have long been recognized (Strayer & Lockwood, 1975), yet little substantive research has emerged from DoD sources. Past attempts to enhance acquisition research include establishment of the Army Procurement Research Office in 1969, the Procurement Research Coordinating Committee in 1971, the Federal Acquisition Research Symposia in 1972, the Air Force Business Research Management Center in 1973, the Federal Acquisition Institute and the Naval Center for Acquisition Research in 1977 (Office of Management and Budget 1980). We speculate that the general ineffectiveness of these efforts is attributable to the dominant Cold War acquisition paradigm under which they were all undertaken. That is, because the underlying assumptions regarding threats, missions, budgets and so on remained stable, new knowledge (as derived by research) received little value and priority.
Exhibit 1. Acquisition Research Space
DoD’s institutions for education and training have also contributed little to acquisition research. Dedicated acquisition curricula are relatively new additions to the respective graduate schools of the Navy and the Air Force. In the past, the faculties have focused on the task of preparing students for acquisition jobs, rather than on research. At acquisition training institutions like the Defense Systems Management College, a few programs of research in acquisition are ongoing, such as the biennial Acquisition Research Symposia, the Military Research Fellowship Program and a program of Research on Acquisition Research (Abellera, 1993).
A need for acquisition research in DoD was reflected in the legislation that established the Defense Acquisition University (DAU). The Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act, enacted in 1990, gave DAU the charter to lead the training and education of acquisition professionals, and it also provided for a research function in DAU. Understandably, DAU’s focus during its first several years was on training and education, with little attention being given to research. In 1994, DAU began publishing a refereed journal, Acquisition Review Quarterly.
State of Acquisition Research—Quality
Exacerbating this situation of the general lack of acquisition research is the fact that much of what is currently performed within DoD tends to be very applied in nature and lacks research rigor. This is not to imply that applied research is less valuable than basic or exploratory work, but research is governed by a well-understood maxim: the more applied the work, the more narrow the benefits of its results. By contrast the more fundamental the work, the wider the coverage of benefits. Further, unless research is conducted with the kind of rigor demanded by top academic journals, the results risk duplication with previous efforts (e.g., if not guided by a thorough literature review), confounding of causal effects (e.g., not being able to assess a particular result to decisions made or actions taken), non-generalizability (e.g., results that apply only to the specific case, process, program or system studied) and other threats to validity (e.g., rival hypotheses, concept invalidity, unreliability; see Campbell & Stanley, 1973; Yin, 1994).
Research that tends to be very applied in nature and which is conducted with little rigor is classified as “1-1” and “2-2” work using the research framework depicted in Exhibit 1 (Nissen, Snider, & Lamm, 1998). Briefly, on the horizontal axis we have the fundamentalism or “basic-ness” of the research, which corresponds roughly to the standard research categories used in the DoD—management and support, engineering development, advanced development, exploratory research and basic research (see Fox, 1974, p. 22). As depicted by the five-point scale for this axis, work toward the extreme end of the scale characterizes research of a more fundamental and general nature that seeks to solve broad classes of problems in a domain of investigation.
As research moves toward the origin along this dimension (i.e., becomes increasingly applied), the associated research takes on a narrower, more-specific, shorter-term character. This helps to depict the natural migration of research from the basic and exploratory development of new knowledge toward management and applied work as research in an area matures. This dynamic pattern also highlights the need for systematic introduction of new knowledge and ideas—that derive from more-fundamental investigations—through applied research. Indeed, without such fundamental (e.g., basic, exploratory, developmental) research, a program based solely on applied work will eventually stagnate and regress into a pattern characterized by recirculation of old ideas. In fact, a number of scholars perceive this pathological pattern exists in the acquisition domain today (Williams & Arvis, 1985).
Returning to the research space diagrammed in Exhibit 1, the ordinate is used to depict the methodological rigor associated with research (in any category, basic or applied). This five-point scale is used to classify the increasing use of high-confidence research methods that leave decreasing margin for refutation of the results. For example, work at level 1 (i.e., lowest level of rigor) may involve an “investigator” who is not even objectively detached from the work being studied (e.g., a knowledge worker simply reporting the results of his or her acquisition work). At level 2, an independent investigator is at least in a position to objectively observe and describe some acquisition phenomenon of interest. At level 3, this independent investigator conducts a thorough literature review in a particular area, in order to avoid duplicating previous results and to focus on the kinds of high-payoff research targets and topics that can only be identified through an understanding of, and appreciation for, previous work in a research area. At level 4, this investigator ensures reliability and generalizability of the results by employing a well-founded research design (e.g., multiple case study, factorial, stratified survey). At level 5, the researcher may even employ experimental (or quasi-experimental) methods—like those stressed in the physical sciences—in order to promote the highest levels of confidence in the results.
Exhibit 2. Acquisition Research Plot Points
Two main points emerge from this diagram. First, the majority of extant research in the acquisition domain would be classified near the origin of this research space, as depicted by the “extant research envelope” in Exhibit 1. This tends to represent just POK (plain old knowledge) work and specialized consulting more than what most academics would even consider to constitute “research,” and it suffers from high refutability and lack of generalization. Although the contribution of such work is positive, it is minimal in that it tends to address only one specific problem at a time, is often redundant with previous or parallel work and offers results confounded by poor methodology. This arguably represents a suboptimal allocation of scarce research resources. Second, any acquisition research—whether basic or applied—needs to be scholarly to overcome the refutability and generalization problems from above. These points are used to establish the acquisition target research area depicted above the horizontal, “scholarly research” line in the exhibit.
As empirical evidence of these claims, we examined some seventy articles published from the Acquisition Research Symposium (Brown, 1997), which represents a principal outlet for acquisition research in the U.S. Using the same two-dimensional research space described above, we present the results from categorizing these papers in Exhibit 2. Notice the mean (denoted by a small circle icon) falls within the “2-2” quadrant, and the 90% confidence ellipsoid (delineated in two dimensions by lines extending outward from the mean) indicates the average acquisition research paper falls within the (“3-3”) extant research envelope delineated above. Indeed, only three papers fall outside this envelope, and no paper crosses the “scholarly” threshold at level 4 along the rigor axis. Another point pertains to the modal value (denoted by the largest diamond icon in the chart): it lies squarely at the “1-1” point. In other words, this empirical evidence suggests the characteristic (i.e., modal) acquisition research paper reflects “1-1” research.
How to Attract Quality Researchers in Quantity
The preceding discussion indicates the pressing need surrounding the current state of acquisition research: to engage scholars who can perform high quality (i.e., at “4” or “5” levels) research in quantities sufficient to generate knowledge and understanding of acquisition appropriate for its contemporary problems. Satisfying this need means that researchers in leading civilian institutions must be actively sought out and attracted by some means to this work. It also implies that these researchers must be convinced that the defense domain of acquisition is not in fact “different,” but rather that it represents a fruitful area for study and for extending their research into exciting and important new directions. To these ends, the DAU has established the External Acquisition Research Program.
External Acquisition Research Program
The External Acquisition Research Program (EARP) is sponsored by the Defense Acquisition University (DAU) and managed by the Naval Postgraduate School. The mission of the External Acquisition Research Program is to dramatically increase the quality and quantity of acquisition research, in addition to expanding the base of researchers interested in topics germane to defense acquisition and producing new, relevant knowledge, solutions and technologies from a variety of disciplines. The program targets the top researchers at leading universities outside the DoD and its customary sphere of influence and support, but is open to all institutions capable of top-quality acquisition research. To summarize, the EARP has been designed to focus on seven principal objectives.
1. Raise the quality and quantity of relevant acquisition research.
2. Catalyze a broad and robust, external acquisition research program.
3. Involve top researchers and institutions in research germane to defense acquisition.
4. Augment and complement current acquisition research activities.
5. Disseminate relevant, impactful results to researchers, policy makers and practitioners.
6. Integrate research with education, training and practice in acquisition.
7. Establish and maintain a community of academic and professional acquisition scholars.
One obvious approach to the problems noted above is to get trained academics from leading universities involved in acquisition research. Although few universities aside from the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) have specific groups or departments that are devoted to acquisition research today, relevant work can be obtained from a number of potential reference disciplines, including (alphabetically) Economics, Finance, Information Systems, Law, Operations Research, Organizational Behavior, Public Policy and others; and unlike acquisition per se, these reference disciplines are represented by established groups and departments at most universities.
The key is that university academics must be interested in their topics of research and they must be able to publish the results in leading academic journals. Thus, the problem is not so much one of funding acquisition research—although some funding is certainly required to catalyze a robust acquisition research program. Rather, the key is motivating the participation of top academics at leading universities and guiding them to adapt their current research streams to also address the needs of our acquisition community. This represents a problem for which the Naval Postgraduate School possesses a unique capability to address.
As a leading research institution itself, NPS experience suggests this kind of motivation and guidance (i.e., leadership) can best be accomplished at the peer level, and NPS represents the only DoD institution possessing the research capability, reputation and personnel necessary to lead the top universities as a peer research organization. This leadership takes on two principal modes: (1) bridging, brokering and guidance, and (2) leadership by example. Bridging, brokering and guidance pertains to peer-level assistance with the problem of adapting current research streams at external universities to focus on acquisition research problems, future as well as current; helping to provide relevant context, background, knowledge and information about the acquisition domain; matching research capabilities with DoD professional needs, and vice versa; and facilitating access to DoD personnel, systems, processes and tools for purposes of research.
Leading by example requires NPS to remain active in producing scholarly acquisition research and publications. For example, such leadership can be affected by producing some of the key, seminal articles that add to the body of knowledge in acquisition. Through refereed publication, such articles can become widely available to researchers and practitioners, and they may be used to set a standard in terms of high research quality, along with helping to establish prudent topical directions and methods for external research in the university community.
Process and Organization
The process supporting the EARP has a heavy seasonal component coupled with a smaller perennial counterpart. Five seasonal activities are performed each year: (1) establishing and refining a target list of research topics for the year; (2) advertising and soliciting proposals from leading universities and other research institutions; (3) forming an independent, interdisciplinary team to review the research proposals; (4) selecting the subset of research proposals for award and provide feedback on all submittals; (5) evaluating the research results and helping disseminate through the acquisition and academic communities. The perennial activities include: (1) ongoing program management and program marketing, which is perhaps the most important role; (2) grant/contract and office administration; and (3) providing DoD access to researchers along with the kinds of bridging, brokering and acquisition guidance mentioned above.
The organization designed to manage the EARP can be described at two levels: (1) Overarching Integrated Product Team (OIPT) and (2) Working-level IPT (WIPT), as depicted in Exhibit 3. The center point of the OIPT, which is responsible for policy and high-level direction of the research program, is represented by the DAU President and the Deputy Under Secretary for Acquisition Reform (AR), both of whom report to the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (USD (AT&L)). This OIPT also includes acquisition executives from research, military and commercial organizations, with members drawn principally from the DAU Board of Visitors (BoV). The OIPT provides guidance to the WIPT, which centers on the Executive Agent.
The WIPT reports to the DAU President and also includes members from research, commercial and military acquisition organizations. OIPT members often nominate people from their own organizations to serve on this WIPT, and the BoV has representation through liaison with the WIPT. This OIPT-WIPT structure bears considerable resemblance to the kinds of organizations that now represent the state of the practice in defense acquisition. The Executive Agent is comprised mainly of a few, part-time, research-oriented officials, augmented by a host of qualified people from universities, commercial industry and the DoD. The Executive Agent organization accomplishes the seasonal and perennial activities mentioned above.
Exhibit 3. EARP Organization
The research topics for the program were generated by an integrated group of acquisition researchers, professionals and executives from leading universities, industry and government. Topics were categorized as either management, applied, developmental, exploratory, or basic. Following are brief descriptions of each category and selected research topics for each.
This category addresses organizational, policy and people issues with research topics such as:
1. What processes should an acquisition organization measure in order to reflect efficiency, and how unique are various acquisition activities with respect to the processes measured and tracked?
2. What should be the authority and responsibilities of a Life Cycle Program Manager, and how should horizontal management be maintained in a product-managed organization?
3. How to calculate the impact of cycle time reductions with respect to other project aspects (e.g., cost, performance) in development efforts?
The first question addresses process measurement, a key element of quality. We need to understand which processes in acquisition organizations are crucial to providing quality service and products. Further, since activities of acquisition organizations vary widely (e.g., testing, contracting), each type of organization may likely have a different set of critical processes. The second question addresses the concept of a single individual managing an acquisition program from start to finish. This provides leadership and management continuity through the various acquisition phases, in contrast to the usual two- to three-year tenure of DoD program managers. The corresponding issue of horizontal (e.g., cross-functional) management would likely become more acute if other program participants (e.g., engineers, planners, testers) also remained on a single program for extended periods of time. The third topic relates to the common saying, “time is money.” We seek to understand and quantify monetary savings for each increment of cycle-time reduction. And we need to understand the implications in terms of performance, particularly if reducing cycle time requires a corresponding performance compromise.
The applied category addresses operational application and study of feasible concepts, processes and technologies. Topics include:
1. How to adopt price-based acquisition, for example, eliminating cost type contracting and its attendant bureaucracy (Cost Accounting Standards, cost principles, cost-based valuation), and value acquisitions through market and price analysis?
2. How can a customer rely on the market to determine prices when there are only a few large suppliers (e.g., oligopoly) and only one buyer (e.g., monopsony)?
3. How can life cycle costs be effectively measured and evaluated?
The first question addresses application of a market-based commercial pricing practice to DoD acquisitions, in contrast to the cost-based manner in which defense acquisitions are typically valued. The second complements the first, in that the defense industry does not reflect true markets throughout. For instance, many large and advanced weapon systems (e.g., aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, tanks) have only one or two suppliers capable of their design and manufacture, and the Government represents the only buyer of most such weapons. This begs the economic question of how market-based pricing can be effected in such an environment. The third research question seeks to apply cost measurement across all phases of the acquisition life cycle and understand how best to evaluate the resulting measures.
The developmental category addresses feasibility demonstrations of new concepts, processes and technologies, but without operational implementation, as with applied research. Research questions in this category include:
1. What are the implications of privatization of acquisition functions?
2. What are the various implications of consolidating defense acquisition processes into a single DoD (or non-DoD) system?
3. How can the life cycle process be modeled to determine the optimal level of program concurrency?
The first question considers the feasibility and implications of outsourcing acquisition functions (e.g., procurement, contracting, testing) that have traditionally been performed by military and governmental personnel. Such outsourcing is increasingly practiced by commercial firms. Similarly, process consolidation (e.g., eliminating service and geographical differences) seeks economies of scale and scope, but the feasibility of this concept is questionable, thus requiring investigation. The third research question seeks to develop analytical models for various acquisition programs and employ such models to optimize the level of concurrency (e.g., simultaneous development and test, test and production) for each specific acquisition.
Research questions in this category address promising new concepts, processes and technologies in order to assess their potential in terms of desirability, utility or payoff, but they do not assess their feasibility, as with developmental research. They include the following:
1. To what extent can (and should) private sector systems/processes be adapted for the public sector?
2. What enterprise activities, strategies, processes and organizational forms may facilitate more effective government/contractor relationships in today’s evolving acquisition environment?
3. What models and process innovations are available to improve the performance of acquisition processes?
One overarching theme of many of the topics above is a focus on commercial practices. Indeed, many of the developmental, applied and management research questions pertain to the feasibility, adaptation and employment of commercial practices to defense acquisition processes and systems. But this presumes that commercial practices are inherently better than their DoD counterparts, and they are suitable for defense application. We have yet to identify definitive research to support such putative superiority or suitability, and the first exploratory research question seeks to investigate these aspects of systems and processes from the private sector.
The second question addresses interorganizational relationships between the military/government and commercial suppliers. In industry, customers are consolidating their supplier bases and forming closer alliances with fewer vendors. In many such cases, performance gains in efficiency, efficacy, speed and agility have been noted. This question explores how the Government may establish and benefit from similar, closer relationships with suppliers.
The third question addresses process innovation and seeks to explore how acquisition processes can reap the benefits of quantum, order-of-magnitude performance gains. Many firms in the private sector have reported such quantum gains through business process reengineering, but it is unclear how to effect such reengineering in the domain of defense acquisition.
Research questions in the basic category pursue fundamental knowledge, but without promise in terms of potential utility or payoff, as with exploratory research. For example:
1. How can we better understand what “acquisition” is (e.g., its nature, scope and boundaries)? What are the different dimensions/contexts (e.g., technological, political, military, business), issues and questions that define “defense acquisition,” and how do these interrelate?
2. What are the central research questions to be answered through a program of inquiry in the acquisition domain?
3. Does the acquisition field merit scholarly inquiry?
Despite our simple operationalization of the term acquisition above, broad and informal use of the term is accompanied by a wide diversity of definitions and conceptualizations. In order to conduct a program of inquiry in an area such as acquisition, it is important to understand what that area involves and includes. The first basic research question addresses this issue and is somewhat introspective. The second and third basic research questions are even more introspective, as they seek to identify the central acquisition research questions and assess the extent to which scholarly inquiry should even be undertaken for acquisition as a field.
Curiously, most existing research activity is being undertaken on the more applied topics discussed above. But we have yet to develop a common definition of “acquisition,” to identify the central research questions associated with the phenomenon or to even determine whether it merits scholarly inquiry through research. Clearly, the answers to such basic questions will directly influence and permeate through the entire set of more applied questions above, exploratory through management.
Status and Plans
At the time of this writing, EARP is in its second year and growing. After more than a year of planning and preparation, the program was funded in 1999 to solicit and engage top researchers from leading universities in topics of interest to the acquisition community. A Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) was used to formally advertise the program, and an active marketing program was launched to identify and attract researchers with potential for rapid contribution to acquisition research. Over 50 serious inquiries were received, and the ensuing set of proposals was evaluated to support five research awards in 1999. The following institutions and corresponding research topics are provided for reference. Numbers in parentheses refer to each project’s relative position in the acquisition research space.
1. University of Maryland at Baltimore County, “Beyond CESA: An Intelligent Agent for Helping COTRs in U.S. Government Defense Research Contracting” (3-4).
2. Wright State University, “Current Status of Procurement Strategy and Outsourcing in U.S. Industrial Firms” (2-4).
3. University of California at Irvine, “Design of an Infrastructure to Support Research in Software Systems Acquisition” (4-4).
4. Purdue University, “Synthetic Environments for Defense Acquisition Simulations” (3-4).
5. University of California at Berkeley, “Assessment of Electronic Catalog Strategies to Support Acquisition Processes” (4-4).
We are very pleased to have attracted top researchers from well-known universities such as these, and the range of research topics varies from exploratory to applied in terms of our categories described above. At this point in the program, each of these five research projects has been funded with catalytic “seed money” and is nearly complete. Indeed, the new acquisition knowledge generated through these projects is already being disseminated in the literatures read by academics and professionals alike. Because of their positive performance in 1999, each of these researchers has been asked to submit a proposal for follow-on research in 2000, and proposals were received from every one.
Additionally, the EARP marketing program stimulated many new researchers to also submit proposals this year, and we anticipate making awards to a number of other, top researchers from leading universities. A sample of these additional 2000 projects is provided for reference. It is interesting to note the current portfolio of projects reflects considerable bias toward information technology, perhaps because acquisition is entering a novel, paperless, electronic-business environment. However, the breadth of acquisition and need for multidisciplinary research suggests a number of academic disciplines and communities are underrepresented (e.g., Economics, Public Policy, Law, Finance and Accounting).
1. University of Arizona, “Web-enabled Automated Acquisition: Design and Experiments” (4-5).
2. Georgia State University, “Models and Tools for Acquisition Knowledge Management” (3-4).
3. Benedictine University, “Designing for Effective Horizontal Knowledge Transfer in Acquisition Related New Product Development Ventures: An Exploratory Study” (4-4).
4. University of Southern California, “Identifying Structural Dimensions of Organizational Form for Acquisition Portals” (4-4).
5. Temple University, “Developing a Methodology for Redesigning Acquisition Processes Based on Information Load Analysis” (4-4).
6. Willamette University, “Acquisition Reform in the Air Force Materiel Command” (1-4).
7. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “Collaboration Mechanisms for the Development and Use of Innovations Across Firm Boundaries for Shore-Based Infrastructure of the U.S. Navy” (2-4).
Future plans include continued growth for the program, as we would like to establish a community of roughly 500 scholars, both professional and academic, in acquisition. We have found it is important to distinguish between the acquisition professional and academic, for they generally have different timelines for results and do not share interests in the same regions of the acquisition research space. Specifically, at risk of stereotyping, most practitioners have relatively short windows of interest in terms of results, oftentimes a year or less from problem conceptualization to expected resolution. Alternatively, many academics establish comparatively long-term streams of research, generally spanning many years, through which new knowledge is generated systematically and incrementally. Further, most professionals are interested in non-fundamental research (e.g., in management and applied categories), whereas academics tend to pursue more-fundamental topics (e.g., exploratory, developmental). Interestingly, we have yet to attract researchers to the set of basic research questions discussed above.
Finally, many practitioners appear satisfied with research at relatively low levels of rigor in terms of our acquisition research space. The practitioner appears to care little, for instance, whether the research methods support generalization of results, reliable replication or refutation of rival hypotheses. In contrast, such issues are of paramount concern to the academic, as no leading journal will publish results otherwise. Thus, two different consumers of acquisition research exist: the practitioner and the academic. They tend to read from different literatures and operate in disjoint circles. But both groups are important. The academics are key to producing new acquisition knowledge, and the practitioners are central to its application. We strive to continue attending to both.
As a way of concluding this paper, we again refer to Kuhn, but this time to recall his ideas on incommensurability. He argued that, as scientific revolutions occur, communications between proponents of the displaced paradigm and those of the emergent paradigm become problematic. As those of us in acquisition and those of us in project management pursue distinct research programs in the hopes of gaining new knowledge, we should recognize the possibility that our groups may develop incommensurable paradigms. This points out the need for close relations and frequent contacts among the members of our respective communities. We must always remember to take full advantage of opportunities such as this conference to ensure we advance together, rather than separately, into the new millennium.
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Proceedings of PMI Research Conference 2000