Beyond the Lab
Defense Acquisition University has made research into evolving practices a core part of its educational mission.
Traditionally, research is the domain of major academic universities, not corporate universities. We conjure images of people dressed in lab coats at places like Johns Hopkins University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The time has come for corporate universities to take a fresh look at research in order to meet the needs of their students and address the increasing challenges of new technology and rapidly changing business models. At Defense Acquisition University, the Virginia-based education arm of the United States Department of Defense, we’ve begun to take on the challenge and are making research into new practices a fundamental part of our mission.
The traditional role of corporate universities has been to develop workforce training in order to give the parent organization a competitive advantage in the marketplace. The role of academic universities has been the advancement of knowledge, which they accomplish by educating students and pursuing research.
With the growth of technology, research is being conducted by more companies and practitioners are expanding their role. The proliferation of technology has also quickened the rate of progress bringing about rapid obsolescence of new technology and research. These factors create additional challenges for practitioners in finding and using relevant research to improve their products and services.
The Corporate University Challenge
Training institutions of all kinds, and corporate universities in particular, must find new ways to ensure their programs are current and relevant to the workplace challenges students will face. This requires corporate universities to keep learning assets such as course materials up to date and faculty current with new developments in their professional areas.
At DAU, one part of our curriculum is designed to teach Department of Defense engineers and managers how to manage software development programs and contracts. In order to keep this program relevant, the curriculum must include changes to national and local policy as well as changes to the software the DoD purchases and it must keep up with new, constantly emerging software development methods.
That last point is particularly challenging. Collecting all of the information about today’s software development methods such as agile development and then validating the collected information and incorporating it into the curriculum is a large task.
If a corporate university is, as defined by Mark Allen in his 2002 “The Corporate University Handbook,” a strategic tool designed to help its parent organization achieve its goals by fostering individual and organizational learning and knowledge, then to fulfill these goals a corporate university must provide training and consulting that is current and relevant and enables the workforce to be more innovative and productive.
DAU carries out that mission in three ways: providing relevant workforce training; developing tools and best practices to support the workforce in delivering quality products; and supporting continued development of the workforce and organizational components (in DAU’s case the DoD’s acquisition program offices) through consulting and other services.
In order to improve DAU’s ability to meet the needs of the defense acquisition community, we must also create a system that will incorporate additional sources of new information as they are developed or discovered. With that goal in mind, DAU reconsidered the university’s traditional view of research to determine whether a different approach would be better.
The traditional view of university research focused on the development of new knowledge through funded research programs. In the case of a corporate university, the challenge is to create useful knowledge but also knowledge that will specifically enable the workforce to be more creative and productive in meeting the organization’s mission. In short, to promote innovation.
To create that value result, DAU developed a new model for how the university’s research enterprise can deliver products and services (Figure 1).
The DAU Research Model
The model comprises five major sections, each representing a major effort to develop and deliver information and knowledge needed by DAU faculty and customers. They include:
- In-house research: This research, devoted to development of new knowledge, is akin to traditional university research, including faculty research in graduate programs and independent research in acquisition and acquisition-related topics.
- Collaboration: This involves developing and maintaining ongoing research partnerships with key research universities, government research centers and other organizations to create joint research opportunities for faculty and keep DAU engaged with the global acquisition research community. Collaborative research is also being conducted for and with customers within the DoD.
- Harvesting: Harvesting refers to searching the range of research being produced worldwide for findings that might improve acquisition practice. Activities include identifying, analyzing and organizing relevant research and training conducted across the entire research community. The harvesting process gives faculty and customers direct access to the newest and best information available to accomplish their mission.
- Transition/integration: “Harvested” findings are integrated with existing knowledge and delivered to DAU customers, including faculty for development of courses and other learning assets, DoD communities of interest and the defense acquisition workforce.
- Acquisition research infrastructure: DAU will provide the DoD and the acquisition community the framework to facilitate meaningful research on a continuing basis, including the university’s knowledge repository, the library and its staff, databases, researchers, the university’s publishing arm and the IT resources needed to support the infrastructure.
The implementation of the new research model started in the fall of 2016 and continues through 2018. It started with development of the requirements and the concept, then the development of the critical parts of the model itself.
After research staff and DAU leadership approved the model, the research staff implemented a communication plan to inform the faculty by making in-person presentations at DAU’s major regional campuses. Presentations informed faculty about the new research model to increase their capability to deliver current and relevant products and services to their customers.
After the communication plan was under way, the university’s policy directive was updated and additional research-harvesting resources were put in place. The research and knowledge repository teams continue to deploy research resources to the faculty and customers in the form of searchable databases, direct support for research projects and opportunities for collaborative research within the university and with other stakeholders in the acquisition field. The research team is also developing an internal training class to give faculty additional skills in support of the enhanced research model.
The model was released in conjunction with an expansion of the university’s knowledge repository and redesign of DAU’s website. These new resources provide customers and faculty with direct access to data for day-to-day research. There have been hundreds of hits per month on the knowledge repository databases in addition to specific research-support requests.
The new capabilities are also facilitating bigger projects, including research to support a major update to an advanced science and technology management class and ongoing support to the congressionally established Advisory Panel on Streamlining and Codifying Acquisition Regulations.
Consistent with DAU’s goals to provide research support to customers and increased collaboration in acquisition, the research group also collaborated with the Defense Procurement and Acquisition Policy group within the office of the Secretary of Defense to develop their new research agenda. The DAU research group has also started an acquisition research collaboration with the chief of staff of the Air Force Fellows program.
DAU research staff continue to develop programs and systems to make collecting and using research easier for faculty. The current research resource program started prototyping in summer 2017 and is designed to push the most recent and relevant research in a wide range of topic areas directly to inboxes and social media accounts of faculty who have a need or interest in the topics as they develop curriculum.
The university has also expanded its internal corporate awards to recognize research contributions to the university’s mission.
DAU is making research a core part of the corporate university mission to enable faculty to provide the best information and methods in support of customers.
Craig M. Arndt is a senior fellow for research and professor of systems engineering at Defense Acquisition University. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.