Now Hear This - People Development is Key to Acquisition

By James E. Colvard

The most important conclusion reached by seminar participants was the need for technical competence at all levels. Unfortunately, we have substituted process competence for product knowledge. For example, the Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act (DAWIA) requirements are all about levels of process understanding, not about technical experience. The Defense Acquisition University teaches future acquisition leaders how to legally do technically unsound things; their curriculum includes no technical competence subjects.

The way the Navy develops its acquisition leaders is the key to solving its acquisition problems, not the inherent nature of the contracts or review processes. In the era of successful acquisition, military officers who became program managers (PMs) had at least one significant tour in a technical-execution organization such as a Navy laboratory or center. With the passage of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act, which requires joint military tours to qualify for flag rank, tours in technical-execution organizations were displaced.

Naval officers currently coming into program-management positions have had operational experience and satisfied their DAWIA requirements, but are unfamiliar with the technical institutions available to support them in their program-management roles.

Civilian staffs of program offices, in the days of successful acquisition, were selected from those who had extensive experience in technical-execution organizations. Today, with the shift of Senior Executive Service positions from Navy labs and centers and other technical-execution organizations from the field into headquarters, the most promising engineers and scientists quickly gravitate to program-management staffs in headquarters before they have completed their technical development.

The Navy should modify its development process for both civilian and military PMs and program executive officers (PEOs) to ensure that they serve at least a two-year tour (at the rank of commander for military officers) in a technical-execution organization such as a Navy lab or university-affiliated research center. Civilians who become PMs or PEOs should have at least five to seven years experience performing technical-execution functions in such organizations before assuming these positions.

The decision of what to buy is more critical than the process by which it is bought, because a technically unsound up-front decision will ultimately result in performance, schedule, and cost problems. If implemented, the changes suggested above in the way acquisition personnel are developed will result in PMs/PEOs and staffs that are much better qualified to make sound up-front technical decisions with reduced program technical risk. That will result in programs that more nearly meet planned performance, schedule, and budget.

Dr. Colvard is the former technical director of the Naval Surface Warfare Center and deputy chief of the Naval Material Command. He began his military career as an enlisted man during the Korean War and was a presidential appointee in the Reagan administration.


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