Apps for Army Launches – The Hybrid Enterprise?

This week the U.S. Army announced the launch of Apps for Army. It is modeled on the Apps for Democracy contests in the District of Columbia and is being run by the same indefatigable Peter Corbett and his iStrategyLabs. It looks to uncork the Army’s cognitive surplus and let soldiers start solving their own problems in code without the personal risk of going off reservation to do it.

An overview of the program can be found here; or in video form here. Army Deputy CIO, Mike Krieger, discusses the Army’s goals for the program here and Lt. General Sorenson, Army CIO, will discuss the program at 1:30pm EST on March 3rd during a round table. You can listen in here.

Now that the obligatory fact dump is out of the way, I want to delve in a bit more. While Apps for Army looks a lot like Apps for Democracy, the similarity is only half the story. The differences are interesting too, as is the path the Army took to get here.

What Apps for Army and Apps for Democracy share is an explicit attempt to harvest latent intellectual capacity toward emergent rather than planned outcomes. They are intentionally establishing the conditions for emergence by making data and platforms available and essentially saying “if you have a good idea, and you can execute on it with this stuff, please do.” The big difference is who they are saying it to. D.C. said it to citizens effectively external to the “enterprise” while the Army is bringing intentional emergence inside.

The Army has always had innovation in the field, they just couldn’t bring themselves to completely sanction or acknowledge it. It’s the simple reality though. When the unmet needs of mission-oriented soldiers in the field build up enough, innovation starts shorting to ground with whatever tools are at hand. Terms like “county options” and “drive by fieldings” express the enterprise’s grudging ambivalence toward these difficult to integrate and support local developments. The Army and other services have long wrestled with the reality that these local options are critical to the mission, but that they are expensive and inefficient (pdf). Also, they just aren’t readily provided by a Big Army centrally planned acquisition system which is focused on shepherding the big stuff through the process and has little bandwidth left for big volumes of little things.

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Apps for Army is a first step in a long term effort to reconcile enterprise control with local initiative. Apps for Army might not claim such high goals for itself, but in effect it is the Army’s attempt to have its cake and eat it to. Open platforms, source, and data should greatly increase generativity and the potential for innovation inside the enterprise. However, by supplying and certifying the platforms and code that runs on them, the Army hopes it can do it without sacrificing enterprise controls or security the way it does with today’s unmanaged local point solutions. This makes it look a bit more like Apple’s app store processes embedded inside the enterprise than like the original Apps for Democracy. It also partially explains why it took six months to launch rather than the two months originally planned. Apps for Army simply couldn’t happen before the platform provisioning and application certification stuff was worked out. The processes behind Apps for Army are necessarily more complicated than those involved in the outside the firewall Apps for Democracy.

Some Background

In March of 2008 I wrote a piece here on Radar that talked about the need for generative systems inside the Army. I wrote it as sort of an orthogonal response to Noah Shachtman’s talk at ETech. I got a bunch of things wrong in that post but the best thing that happened was that Paul Lin, a California National Guard soldier left a comment about his experiences in the Iraq theater. Paul and his good friend Carlos Castillo had deployed together and quickly got frustrated dealing with manual processes that could be easily automated using skills that they brought with them from their civilian careers. They set about the process of getting a linux server certified on the network (it took six months for one box) and then once it was available, began solving a wide variety of problems for an unexpectedly huge swath of users. Essentially they brought the generative web with them into the enterprise and once that server was established on the network it became a platform for rapid cycles of local innovation. These guys are my fatigues-wearing coder heros.

I was fortunate to be able to arrange a meeting in the Pentagon between Paul, Carlos, and Lt. General Sorenson, the Army CIO in December ’08. Their story seems to have stuck as a powerful example of what is possible and should be encouraged (and also of what is wrong – since once they rotated out of theater there was no one to take care of the stuff they built). I’ve heard both General Sorenson and his Deputy Mike Krieger re-tell this story many times. It’s only a small part of the bigger picture, but a seed had been planted and along with it a really great propelling narrative.

At about the same time I was circulating a paper inside the Army that talked about enabling the long tail of emergent development inside the enterprise. I proposed that they build a “battle command innovation platform” (BCIP) that would intentionally enable the emergent end of the enterprise development continuum. One part Google App Engine, one part content API strategy, and one part social coding with App Store like deployment processes it would support innovation at the edge. The goal was to intentionally enable non-traditional developers to build things they hadn’t thought of yet which would improve the Army’s “maneuverability in code.”

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I spent a lot of time in meetings suggesting to incredulous Army researchers and acquisition people that they go play with Scratch and imagine an environment like that grafted on top of Git (to give a layer even simpler than Github). Such a layer would not only enable development at the edge, but would also provide the kinds of social support and learning that would be needed to really make it flourish. Eventually we got to build a small prototype of the idea for Army CERDEC.

There are lots of other people advocating similar ideas in the Army (and throughout the DoD – for example, Dan Risacher and the DoD Storefront initiative). Back in 2005 Carol Wortman and Rob Pitsko, two Army civilians working on Battle Command systems at Ft. Monmouth, wrote a paper called “Toward an Information Management Framework” which described a platform concept to “enable warfighters to build their own capabilities on a common managed foundation.” By the time of this story Carol had become part of the CIO staff focused on enterprise architecture where she continued to advocate for the adoption of these ideas. Now she is involved behind the scenes in Apps for Army.

The fact that the Army was fighting two wars and the acquisition system simply couldn’t keep up with all of the needs in the field added to the growing sense that something had to change. The deployed soldier has to be enabled to solve at least some of their own problems. Besides, a two million person force, even if it didn’t explicitly staff for it, was bound to have some people in the field who could code.

General Sorenson spoke at the Web 2.0 Summit last Fall and in the process cemented a relationship with Tim O’Reilly that ultimately led to plans to introduce him to the other service CIO’s in the Pentagon. In the Spring I shared my BCIP paper with Tim and, as it resonated with his ideas for Government as a Platform, he passed it on to General Sorenson with the suggestion that it might be a starting point to harmonize Army efforts with the kinds of things that Vivek Kundra was promoting more broadly.

At the same time Apps for Democracy was still generating buzz as a model for innovation in government and Tim suggested to Peter Corbett that it might be possible to apply the same model to the military. In June of ’09 all the ducks lined up and General Sorenson arranged a meeting in the pentagon with the other service CIO’s, Tim, and Peter Corbett to discuss an Apps for Defense contest. I attended as a kind of web-military translator and because there was some thought that the work we were already doing might be able to support the contest. It was perhaps a bridge too far for DoD-wide contest at that point and Apps for Army was born under General Sorenson’s sponsorship.

General Sorenson first announced his intent for Apps for Army at the annual LandWarNet conference in August ’09 where he repeated Carlos’ and Paul’s story. With repeated tellings, it had started to sound like folklore so I arranged for them to get on stage together at the Government 2.0 Summit in September. Lin Wells, General Sorenson, and General Justice (at the time PEO-C3T) discussed their goals for “innovation at the edge” (video) and then officially announced the Apps for Army contest. They were followed onstage by Carlos Castillo telling the details of his and Paul’s story (min 25′ish of the video). After Carlos finished, Gunnar Hellekson relayed the story of a reservist RedHat employee who had also built some really innovative local solutions while deployed.

I wonder what Peter Corbett would have thought if, walking out of the Pentagon last June, he had known it would take till now get Apps for Army launched. I give him tons of credit for staying with it this long and wrestling the DoD contracting issues to the ground. I have no doubt the process was much more difficult than he imagined when this started.

A lot of people reading this will probably wonder “how could it take that long?” Well, there are a lot of answers for that but not many of them all that good or even very interesting. Mostly good intentions implemented in bureaucracy. The awesome thing though is that General Sorenson sponsored it the whole way through and his staff stayed with it until it was done. Through the legal details to platform provisioning to security and etc. This is a tough thing to pull off in the DoD and I’m just thrilled to see it launch and can’t wait to see what comes out of it.

The Hybrid Enterprise

I see this exercise as much bigger than a contest. Naturally, I hope that it delivers some cool and useful apps, but what I’m really hoping is that a successful first phase of Apps for Army will encourage further experimentation in emergent development across all of our military services. As these “super-enterprises” of massive scope demonstrate the value of intentional emergence at their edges, I hope it will cement the idea of the hybrid enterprise by demonstrating the effective combination of planned systems development in the core with emergent platforms to serve the edge. If it does, don’t be surprised to see Apps for Yourco coming to an enterprise near you.

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