I had the opportunity to sit down with Francis Rose of Fed Gov Today TV at AFCEA West 2024 in San Diego recently, where he asked for my perspective on how to promote innovation within the sea services domain to boost connectivity and support an overall data strategy.

This is a big question, with ramifications that extend well beyond a technology-oriented answer. Think about the recruiting challenges all the branches of the U.S. military face – part of which is because the generation coming now has grown up “digitally native.” A young sailor, for instance, comes in and gets assigned to a particular system, but it has bandwidth challenges, it can’t connect, it can’t receive the data it needs, and/or it can’t deliver the right data to the right place at the right time. That sailor’s frustration may add to their rethinking a military career.

The Department of Defense currently is not very well structured to function in our digital era. The way the DoD makes purchases, for instance – there are program offices responsible for communications, program offices for analytics, program offices for platforms, etc., and all those program offices are not necessarily coordinating their decisions. So the service – in this example, the Navy – ends up buying something that doesn’t work with something else. Or it can’t run on or fit a particular platform.

And the challenge gets bigger and bigger as the services move to incorporate the mission part of their environment.

The reality is that both the DoD and the contractor community have to go much further, much faster to meet the challenge of ensuring everything is integrated, plugged in and working together.

One part of meeting that challenge is rethinking the DoD acquisition community’s dependence on large contractors and systems integrators. Small companies are innovative – that’s where innovation comes from – while big companies are already at scale and not very nimble. It’s the classic analogy of a speedboat being able to outmaneuver an aircraft carrier. There’s no question which of the two is more powerful, but that alone isn’t the sole criterion for which one to use in a given situation.

Big companies have a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders; small businesses have a hard time scaling up their ideas. And currently there’s a dearth of mid-sized companies in the DoD contracting space. Can we incent mid-sized firms to be the business ambassadors and embrace a small company’s technology, then work with the government to scale it? I think so.