Army leaders face challenging decisions regarding manpower, readiness and modernization as budget restrictions and uncertainties continue.
Now more than ever, leaders need data that is both reliable as well as understandable so they can make better-informed decisions on how and where to allocate their resources, said one of the Army’s leaders in data management.
Commanders not only need to know the current state of unit readiness, they’d also like to know where those readiness levels will be in six months or 10 years, said Lt. Col. Bobby Saxon, division chief of Enterprise Management Decision Support, G-3/5/7.
It’s a tall order, he admitted. Enterprise Management Decision Support, or EMDS, the system he manages, has only been operational since 2010.
Currently, the EMDS system draws from about five years of historical data and from about 20 databases. A lot of the data comes from the Defense Readiness Reporting System – Army and the Army Operations Directorate.
Business rules are then applied to the data to make it consistent and to present the material in the easy-to-understand format needed by the stakeholders – normally commanders and action officers.
In the near future, EMDS’s capabilities will increase, Saxon said.
“We’re now laying the foundation for strategic readiness,” he explained.
That is one of Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Ray Odierno’s priorities.
Strategic readiness means anticipating readiness levels in units, training, personnel, equipment and systems six months to 10 years or more in the future, Saxon explained.
To do that requires an enormous amount of historical and current data, he said.
Saxon likened the process to predicting a hurricane’s strength and then tracking where it will make landfall. To do that requires a lot of sensors in the air and in the water to measure water temperature, wind speed and other factors.
In the case of a hurricane, those data points are fed into a computer model which can forecast the storm’s intensity and a cone of certainty for its path. Over the decades, improvements in data and historical data have enabled forecasters to provide better warnings and predictions.
This is exactly the same process EMDS would use for strategic readiness data, he said. As historical data accumulates and as more databases are mined, the data EMDS produces becomes more reliable. That allows leaders to make more informed decisions.
Hour-by-hour, the power of EMDS grows as it consumes vast quantities of information – allowing operators to better spot patterns, trends and anomalies.
What emerges from the data can sometimes be surprising, he said.
“Readiness indicators we thought of as being valuable might not be and other indicators might be more valuable predictors than we thought,” Saxon said. “The data are not just about telling you what you already know. It’s making you aware of what you might not have even asked about before. Things pop to the surface you never realized.”
He added that EMDS can currently answer the “who, what, when and where” questions and over time it will begin to answer the “why and how” questions as well.
The model is constantly updated and adjusted based on past predictions and that gives EMDS an increased ability to forecast readiness at the strategic level, he said. “That’s where we’re headed, but we’re not there just yet.”
Human interaction with the system is just as important as the reliability of the system itself, Saxon said.
To that end, the team at EMDS maintains a robust user-testing program, he said, both formally and informally. Feedback about the user experience, both good and bad, informs the EMDS team on decisions going forward and what tweaks are needed now.
Saxon said he is very aware that using information technology can be an intimidating and frustrating experience for people if the system is not “friendly.”
The whole point of EMDS, he said, is not technology for technology’s sake. Rather, it is a tool leaders can use to get the answers they need. If they are getting those answers in an efficient manner, they will adopt the system as their own, he said.
Saxon admitted that not everyone is onboard yet, but that as more and more soldiers “discover” that EMDS meets their needs, they will adopt it.
EMDS is only as good as the databases it pulls from. Databases across the Army are undergoing a monumental change, away from “stovepipe” legacy systems to more modern enterprise resource planning systems, or ERPs, Saxon said. EMDS is evolving to handle the newer ERPs.
Saxon said ERPs are better at integrating the flow of information across an increasingly sophisticated network than are older systems, which work in a slower, more linear fashion.
Leaders and users today are more technologically savvy than they were a few decades ago, he said. They want a more efficient and sophisticated system to inform their decision making.
Saxon himself has worked for a number of years in the private sector, building interface systems not unlike EMDS. He’s been the director of EMDS going on three years as a mobilized Georgia Army National Guard soldier.
His efforts were rewarded recently when the prestigious technology magazine CIO identified him as “one to watch” among information technology professionals that include IT leaders in Fortune 500 companies.
He said he’s honored to receive the recognition but that it’s a collaborative team effort that makes EMDS a go-to system now and one to watch in the future.