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Putting Predictive Analytics to Work for the Army—An Executive Perspective

When you first meet COL Bobby Saxon, you’ll find an enthusiastic, passionate Georgia Bulldogs fan who has a keen sense for crunching numbers and thinking big.  As the Chief for the Army Force Management Enterprise Division, he leads the big data and predictive analytics system, the Enterprise Management Decision Support tool (EMDS).

This innovative system has been designed to create an environment where data can be collected, synthesized, and stored for the Army’s three major components (the Army active component, the Army National Guard, and U.S. Army Reserves). EMDS' success has been recognized for opening doors and enabling insights into Army enterprise operations, and has other agencies considering a similar approach to data management and analysis.

We were fortunate to speak with COL Saxon recently to better understand EMDS capabilities and how this technology will be leveraged to support the military workforce today and in the future.

Can you explain how EMDS brings together disparate data to enable analytics for meaningful decision-support information?

We did not begin as a system that would be a big data or analytics tool. Initially, our belief was we needed to bring information into one place to make it easier to get access to it and use the data. Today, either directly or indirectly, we have dozens of Army systems data represented within EMDS. Importantly, what this means for an individual analyst is that with one username, password, and URL, an analyst can access information from across the major Army components.  Information included covers people, equipment, training, installations, and force readiness.

Metaphorically, we have flipped the iceberg upside down for our users.  Instead of spending ninety percent of their time simply trying to find and collate information, now they are able to take our system and spend ninety percent of their time analyzing the data.  As EMDS evolves, we expect to enhance the system’s capabilities to support more sophisticated queries and more predictive analytics requirements. 

To date, what capabilities has this leadership decision-support tool delivered?

We have delivered more advanced analytics. As one General Officer told me years ago, we are focused on explaining the “so what” of the information. We’ve laid the foundation for leveraging more predictive analytics to improve Army decision-support to improve operations.  As an example, we believe it’s possible to look at current and historical data, Army regulations and policies, specific situational conditions and world events, current and projected budgets, recruiting trends, and incoming equipment, and combine these complex factors to begin to predict possible results. Keep in mind we are not talking about predicting outcomes of battles or wars, rather, we are trying to better understand how to best prepare specific units for eventualities that may demand their support in 12 or 24 months.

There is little doubt that the rate at which data is being created, collected, and stored exceeds agency capacity to absorb, analyze, and act on it.  Given this reality, what advice can you provide on where to focus funding and personnel resources to ensure big data analytics has the most impact on mission support and readiness?

A year or so ago, I gave a presentation that concluded with this thought, “Using big data is like mining for gold.  You’ve got to go through a whole lot of dirt to get to the nuggets.”

The concept is that there is so much information available, and our ability to create, store, and use it continues to grow exponentially. Given these facts, what data analysts and their management need to focus on is what is most important—what is the gold nugget of information needed to support agency mission or business objectives?  Then the data analysts seek the shortest path to the most valuable information at that moment.

How is the Army preparing its workforce for the future?

In the big picture, we are fortunate that the next-generation workforce is, for the most part, technology-savvy.  The average ten year old has a cellphone or some sort of device, so their understanding of data and methods to leverage and share technology is substantially better than previous generations.  Today’s incoming workforce assumes, “Well of course we are going to use technology.”

Many of these people already form the workforce, as they have been entering our ranks for more than a decade and this cohort that welcomes technology into their work environment is a predominant characteristic of not only the U.S. population, but many portions of the world as well.

Within our organization we have found that subject matter expertise is important, as well as certain technical specialties, and perhaps most importantly we continue to need people who are able to “think big.” Our best assets are those who realize there are better ways to address today’s challenges.  We also continually seek candidates who have strong skills in math, statistics, and quantitative analytics – many of the skills mastered by effective data scientists.

We need a combination of the folks who crunch the numbers and the big thinkers to solve many complex problems.   By marrying these experts, our team results have improved measurably.  By no means are we an advanced organization in doing that, but we see that as a way to continue to structure our organization to solve big problems in information for the Army.

Want to learn more about the EMDS program?

Register today and meet COL Bobby Saxon on May 5th at the IBM Government Analytics Forum.  This is your opportunity to hear how your agency can leverage the Army experience to understand your enterprise data and create actionable information for results.