Fighting complexity with collaboration
How NATO and IBM built a framework for better engagement and sharing of expertise
Allied Command Transformation (ACT)
Colorful yet complex: NATO’s ACT organization coordinates transformation initiatives for its 28-member alliance.
Government organizations, by their very nature, are complex systems. Combine them in a coalition and the complexity rises. Pressure from a rapidly changing economic, social and technology environment strains their effectiveness. Success hinges on adapting to these changes.
NATO is one such complex system: an alliance of 28 member nations working together with a shared agenda and broad range of activities. As an organization born in the aftermath of World War II, NATO has adapted to decades of change, continually striving to deploy its mission of peace and security. Allied Command Transformation (ACT) is NATO's organization that leads change, facilitating and advocating the continuous capability improvements that maintain and enhance military relevance and effectiveness for member nations.
ACT faces a tough challenge: in the 21st century the pace of change is increasing and levels of complexity are rising rapidly. In our interconnected and intelligent world, new technologies can make once-powerful defenses obsolete overnight and unforeseen combinations create new threats that are difficult to anticipate.
"Progress has gone from being linear to exponential," said General Stéphane Abrial, NATO Supreme Allied Commander Transformation (SACT), speaking at ACT's 2010 Industry Day event. "And it is not only a question of pace, and therefore of obsolescence, but of a seemingly infinite flourishing of technological possibilities."
"ACT ensures future NATO capabilities take account of rapid technology change―in industry and in government," said Richard Simpson, Operations Research Analyst and head of the research and technical analysis section for ACT. "We're looking at technologies that can help the NATO alliance become more efficient and effective, as well as developments that change the threat environment, requiring NATO's forces to adapt."
Keeping pace with change
Realizing that any government organization will struggle to keep up with the pace and complexity of change, ACT introduced a new initiative, the Framework for Collaborative Interaction or FFCI, to engage industry partners in an exploratory and collaborative way prior to any procurement processes. ACT is now able to connect with a variety of businesses to share expertise, explore the possibilities and limitations of new technology, and make efficient and cost-effective decisions about future requirements.
Within this framework, ACT seeks to collaborate with specific industry partners on projects of shared interest, each relationship codified by a declaration of mutual collaboration. IBM signed such a declaration on December 17, 2010―the second company to do so. "We agree to work together at no cost to do pre-competitive work: to share information and ideas on a variety of topics," said Ernest J. (E.J.) Herold, a Global Business Services associate partner and the IBM account manager for NATO.
A mutually beneficial relationship
ACT's and IBM's relationship is founded on the promise of mutual benefit. ACT gains a better understanding of commercially available capabilities and IBM gains insight into the challenges NATO expects to face in the future.
By collaborating, IBM and ACT will define the scope and composition of potential projects, adapting them to market and industry capabilities. "We exchange publicly available information--what IBM sees in the marketplace, how we do things. They share their direction," said E.J. "So we have better context. They don't ask for something that doesn't exist or is too costly." And FFCI creates an environment where NATO and industry players can share this information without creating an unfair advantage.
Cloud computing is an excellent example of the benefits seen by both parties. "It's an area with a lot of hype and confusion about what is possible to implement at present, and what the impact will be on companies and government organizations," said Richard. "Trying to decipher relevant fact from fiction is not an easy task."
ACT engaged a number of companies, including IBM, to explore how cloud technologies will impact the alliance. "It is very valuable to us to obtain a good depth of knowledge and understand what cloud computing can do for NATO," Richard said. IBM gained the opportunity to see into the requirements of complex, diverse member nation environments. To that end, IBM held a series of information exchange workshops with ACT during 2010 and has planned additional projects in 2011 that will focus on on-premise cloud computing challenges.
Shared experience builds trust
IBM's own transformation story played a part in ACT's decision to pursue the partnership. "IBM looked at ACT's efforts to transform NATO and suggested their own story would be of interest to us," said Richard. Later, the teams explored the way IBM had achieved its own restructuring. "Those exchanges have been valuable. They educated staff by stimulating new ideas about similar challenges, and built trust between us."
NATO and IBM will work together on the six projects outlined under the areas of mutual interest over the next several quarters. They both hope to gain a better understanding of their respective organizations and how best to ensure industry produces cost-effective, capable solutions in a complex, ever-changing environment.