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FCW : March 30, 2016
technology achieves mass-market acceptance — adopted by about 30 percent of consumers — the price falls quickly. And that encourages new innovations that can command a premium. Continued development of microprocessors has made cell phones and other mobile devices tiny, while lithium- ion batteries allow them to run longer. Soon, computers will be in 16 trillion devices with Internet access. Despite these remarkable advances, however, some technologies advance gradually — especially the technology that governments and corporations need in their major operational systems. It is one thing to use technology to query the Internet, download music, play games and send text messages. It is quite another to try to use technology to integrate systems composed of thousands of subsystems and millions of lines of computer code designed to service the many and dissimilar needs of millions and millions of people. The technologies needed by organizations advance slowly, though steadily, over time. In addition, many technologies suitable for small pilot projects are not ready for the scale of major government systems. The Federal Aviation Administration and the IRS have spent 25 years and vast sums of money with high-quality firms adopting the latest technologies to modernize their systems and have seen only marginal improvements in actual performance (although the IRS did have an important breakthrough in 2012). Claims about fast-moving technologies are often myths Even the Internet, which many people think is an example of rapidly advancing technology, is not as it seems. The Internet did not suddenly burst on the scene in the early 1990s; it really began in 1969. For 22 years, the federal government supplied money for research through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, nurturing the development of the program before releasing it to the public in 1991. Then, it took two years for the Internet to reach 2 percent of the population and seven more years until half of all Americans had access. Emphasizing that technology does not move fast, Bob Seidensticker, in his book “Future Hype,” argues that new technology products do not arrive any faster now than they ever did. It takes an average of 23 years from the earliest laboratory stage until a product reaches mainstream usage in the population. Sometimes technology seems to be moving fast because the new things are unfamiliar, while the technological advances of earlier ages seem commonplace. As Seidensticker says, “Live in the woods for a week and see if you miss your laptop the most.” The technologies that matter the most to us, he says, are the older ones such as the automobile, agriculture, antibiotics, concrete, electricity, jet engines, telephones and textiles. Generally, emerging technologies are not ready for prime time David Walker, the former comptroller general, reported that developmental programs with immature technology experience cost overruns of 35 percent, while programs with mature technology average only 5 percent in cost overruns. The Army’s Future Combat Systems is one example where emerging technology proved to be an expensive disappointment. FCS was the Army’s main modernization program from 2003 to 2009, when the Defense Department cancelled it after numerous problems. The goal had been to create field brigades with new manned and unmanned vehicles, all linked to the individual soldier in combat by a fast, flexible battlefield network. Cancelling the failed system proved difficult because the lead contractors, Boeing and SAIC, coordinated more than 550 contractors and subcontractors in 41 states, and Congress rarely allows the government to cancel programs that produce jobs in their districts. In this case, the Department of the Army and its contractors pushed ahead with a number of FCS programs when the needed technology, design and production knowledge were lacking, causing delivery milestones and cost predictions to be significantly underestimated. In Walker’s definition, this $128 billion program, the Army’s principal modernization program in the first decade of the new millennium, had only one mature technology among its 49 crucial technologies eight years after the Pentagon began the program. In April and May 2009, with criticism coming from all points, including the new Obama White House, and after fighting the good fight for years to retain the failing system, Pentagon and Army officials announced they would cancel the FCS vehicle- development program. Some parts of the failing FCS effort had promise, so they planned to sweep those remains into a new, pan- Army program called Army Brigade Combat Team Modernization. Of the thousands of government March 30, 2016 FCW.COM 31 0330fcw_030-032.indd 31 3/8/16 9:44 AM
March 15, 2016
April 15, 2016