Whats Brewin: Theres Simple, Then Theres Complex

Love, via Video, from Alaska

In 2006, Celine Johnson, chief of the Local Network Operations and Security Center of the 507th Signal Company, which is part of the 59th Signal Battalion at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, wanted to find a way to electronically bridge the gap between families on the base and their husbands, wives, mothers and fathers in the 172nd Stryker Brigade deployed to Iraq.

Sure, the soldiers had phones and e-mail, but Johnson wanted to add a video system that would help families see, as well as talk, to each other. She knew she needed a secure system that would conserve bandwidth. While attending the Army LandWarNet conference in September 2006, Johnson discovered VIDITalk, a streaming video system. She obtained a license and had the system up and running just in time to deal with a crisis: a three-month tour of duty extension for the 172nd in late 2006.

This extension caused a lot of anxiety among family members, Johnson said. But it was somewhat relieved by VIDITalk, which allowed families to see and talk to each other halfway around the world.

Families could use VIDITalk on their own PCs, or if they did not have one, use computers equipped with $50 Webcams installed in the family service support center or in an on-base Internet café. During the three-month tour, soldiers and their families used the system about 2,000 times to create video messages. The system proved to be a "huge boost for morale," Johnson said, bringing tears to the eyes of families joined electronically by a simple system.

VIDITalk is now used Armywide through the Army Knowledge Online portal, and this month John Grimes, assistant secretary of Defense for networks and information integration and the Defense Department's chief information officer, recognized Johnson's pioneering efforts in his annual CIO awards for innovation.

I think she should get a second award from the Defense comptroller for developing a system based on a key component that cost only $50.

The Video Eye in the Sky

A video system developed by the Air Force to help Army Green Berets "see over the next hill" in Afghanistan was deployed last week in a joint Air Force-Navy effort to help fire crews in California eyeball in real time the blazes burning in Southern California.

Col. David Stickley, director of communications for the 1st Air Force at Tyndall Air Force Base, the Florida unit directed to provide support for the California fire-fighting effort, said his command deployed three teams equipped with Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver equipment, which was based on a laptop computer package, to provide firefighter commanders with real-time video images of the fires.

The Navy provided a P3 Orion four-engine aircraft from Patrol Squadron 46, based at the Naval Air Station at Whidbey Island, Wash., to provide the video imagery from its onboard systems and then downlinked the video to laptop computers carried by the three Air Force teams.

When ROVER was developed in 2005, Lt. Col. Gregory E. Harbin of the 609th Combat Operations Squadron at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, said, "You can't get any simpler than this: a laptop with a bunch of antennas and cables." But that simple system allowed the P3 to broadcast live fire images to ROVERs deployed to fire-scene commanders.

Fire commanders could view the images on site, and the ROVER also rebroadcast the images by a Ku-band satellite uplink dish to a video server at Tyndall accessible via the Web to authorized users throughout the state.

The key component of the ROVER system is an off-the-shelf Panasonic Toughbook laptop, which retails for about $1,500.

Simple is typically quick and cheap. But the complex is … (see next item)

How About $3.5 Billion Worth of ERPs?

The Defense Business Transformation Office plans to spend $3.5 billion on fielding Enterprise Resource Planning Systems from 2007 through 2009. That's just over $1.6 billion a year, according to the 414-page Enterprise Transition Plan released by the office in September.

ERPs account for just under half of the $6.8 billion that Defense plans to spend on enterprise transition in that time, and includes the Defense Integrated Military Human Resources System, which is based on Oracle ERP software and is the largest ERP system anyone has ever attempted to build.

The Navy had resisted signing on to DIMHRS, preferring to use instead the Marine Corps Total Force System, but was forced onboard, according to the Transition Plan report.

The Defense Business Systems Management Committee decided, according to the report, that it was in the best interests of Defense "for the Department of the Navy to join the other services in migrating to DIHMRS . . . ."

The plan does not say when Navy pay and personnel systems will be incorporated into DIMHRS, but it did say that the service should complete no later than next March "gap analyses, program office preparations and requirements definitions to support transition to a unified personnel and pay system."

I'm glad the Navy is going to do gap analyses on transition to DIMHRS. I don't even boot up my computer before doing the same thing.

The Transition Plan has an optimistic forecast of full operational capability for DIMHRS in 2009, but some of other major Defense ERP systems have a long gestation period. Full operational capability for the Navy's SAP-based logistics and financial system is 2013, and the Air Force won't get its Oracle-based logistics system until 2013, either.

Defense is one of the world's most complex enterprises, and I guess complex enterprises need complex systems. But I wonder if anyone in charge of this ERP-based transformation has ever bothered to check out Computerworld's list of the top 10 corporate information technology systems failures. ERP systems win the dubious honor of accounting for five of the top 10.

Computerworld reported that FoxMeyer, once the second-largest drug distributor in the country, was forced into bankruptcy in part by a meltdown of an ERP system provided by a vendor that Defense heavily relies on for its ERP work. The good news, I guess, is Defense cannot go bankrupt.

Defense Travel System Made Simple - Really

The Transition Plan report said another ERP arrangement, the much criticized Defense Travel System (DTS), has been improved to resolve dissatisfaction with 10 front-end and on-screen formats.

The report said the front end has been spiffed up with the same software used by online travel broker Orbitz, which smoothes out the booking process.

DTS users: This is your chance to let me and the world know if your experience meets the "user-friendliness" extolled in the report by posting a comment below or sending me an e-mail at bbrewin@govexec.com.

Call Anything Transformational, Even if It Isn't

According to the Transition Plan report, Defense and the Veterans Affairs Department have transformed business processes so they can transmit X-ray images from Defense hospitals, such as Walter Reed Army Medical Center, to four VA polytrauma clinics, thereby improving care for "our most seriously wounded warriors."

A joint VA/Defense working group developed new ways to share medical imagery and records between the two departments, according to the report. But a well-informed Hill staffer said this is spin on what really happened: Defense installed its own servers in the VA clinics and the records were exchanged by scanning paper records into PDF files.

The Hill staffer does not view this as transformational, and neither do I. But it does prove that anything can be transformational if you call it so.

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