I read with interest the recent announcement of the Canadian Department of National Defence/Canadian Armed Forces (DND/CAF) Data Strategy. The main goals of this strategy are to:

  • Manage data as an asset and institutionalize data governance;
  • Provide the tools and environment to allow all Defence Team members access to data they need;
  • Build data literacy so that Defence Team members can use data to create value for DND/CAF; and
  • Create a culture where data are leveraged in all decisions, and all personnel are held accountable for their role in managing data.

Let’s tackle each one to help describe why they would be important to Canada and Defence:

Manage Data as an Asset

If there is one thing that is common knowledge, but is just now getting the recognition it deserves, is the fact that data literally is a controlling factor in our lives. From social media to finance to health to a myriad of others things, the bulk of this value and impact resides in data. There is a reason why numerous companies create and implement various processes to encourage us to provide our data – it has value to them and for their business. From a defence perspective, the same is certainly true, since the ‘Business of Defence‘ needs the timely and accurate infusion of data to begin to gather knowledge and generate insights about it, and effectively make decisions.

Provide the tools and environment

It makes no sense to gather copious amounts of defence data if it is not going to somehow be accessed effectively and efficiently by authorized users in order to get at decision-quality insights. Setting up the architecture to do this is no trivial exercise, especially for a government organization that must protect both national and personal information. Even today, DND struggles with server access operations that effectively ‘silos’ many organizations from each other, even though in many cases there is general acknowledgement that more data sharing would be beneficial to meet operational outcomes.

And then there is the advent of cloud data services, such as Amazon, Microsoft and many others (I am using one now to build, design, store and publish this blog). The incredible amount of sophistication and potential services available to DND via these commercial tools have to be carefully weighed against the amount of data protection that can be guaranteed. DND certainly wants to avoid any chances of major data breaches as have been experienced by Capital One, Marriott Hotels, Facebook, etc.

Build data literacy

While it might seem to be a simple question – what is Data – the truth of the matter is that this does need to be clearly delineated for the DND/CAF. Documents, images, videos, graphics etc all need to be identified as both being data that falls under the DND/CAF policy, but also informing users that certain kinds of data hold or can hold unique operation-enhancing characteristics for them and the DND/CAF as a whole.

Create a culture

It is not just important for a user to know that data exists, that they can access it, and that it has value, but also that the user is ‘socialized‘ to work with data in a responsible and productive way that benefits the DND/CAF in the end. Personnel, at all ranks levels, must be encouraged to move away from ‘traditional’ stove-pipe processes that tend to protect, hide or otherwise lose defence data – data that could have significant defence system life-cycle implications. One area that comes to mind is the incredible amount of data that can be generated over a defence project timeline – literally can be decades of information if we consider items such as ships or aircraft. By having a DND/CAF culture socialized to the benefit of carefully securing this data (via a process enacted under the Data Strategy), it is quite possible that Canada will see savings and capability acceleration unbeknownst to it up to now.

Data Strategy Linkage to Digital Mission Engineering

The US Department of Defense (DoD) defines digital engineering “as an integrated digital approach that uses authoritative sources of system data and models as a continuum across disciplines to support lifecycle activities from concept through disposal” (ODASD, June 2018). Note that this definition goes beyond just data but also considers models, of various forms, that have been, are, or will be instrumental in making engineering/development/acquisition decisions regarding complex systems (or systems of systems). Its goal is to leverage digital data and models in order to accelerate capability development.

Digital Mission Engineering (DME) encapsulates the importance of capturing mission objectives and requirements digitally and connecting them to the broader ecosystem to create a persistent digital thread throughout the entire product or system lifecycle. When viewed from a Data Strategy perspective, DME is enhanced when there exists a culture that looks to leverage and optimize data-driven models towards achieving process efficiencies in the conception, design, build, integration, training, operational and sustainment phases of complex systems.

The Way Ahead

The DND Data Strategy is a visionary and ambitious document, and it is recognized that there will be a number of milestones, of varying difficulty, that will need to be reached in order to recognize a semblance of success. As an institution, the DND will likely struggle with its implementation on two fronts: stakeholder inertia and operational prioritization. Stakeholder inertia relates to the aspect of getting people to change their attitudes and thus behaviour with respect to handling data – there is no easy button here. Operational prioritization underscores the difficulty in making significant organizational change in the midst of high operational tempo and mission complexity. When lives and missions are the line, the DND/CAF personnel will tend to ‘revert’ to what they know best, even though that may be contrary to new processes or procedures. Add these to the increasingly scarcity of human resources in the DND/CAF, and we can get a sense of the challenge ahead.