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The Impact of Technology on DoD Mega Projects Discussed at AIRC-DAU Quarterly Research Forum

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The Impact of Technology on DoD Mega Projects Discussed at AIRC-DAU Quarterly Research Forum

The Acquisition Innovation Research Center (AIRC) and DAU presented the first Quarterly Research Forum (QRF) for Fiscal Year 2024 on their most recent collaborative research project, “The Future of Managing Mega Projects.” The focus of this latest endeavor is on determining how data visualization, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) can help leaders improve the project management of DoD’s largest projects, also known as mega projects. Mega projects often require an expanded network of support, and emerging technologies, such as AI and visualization, can help to bridge gaps in knowledge, fabricate solutions, generate conclusions and augment reporting. Led by Dr. Tom McDermott, Chief Technology Officer at AIRC; Dr. David Gallop, Director, Acquisition Workforce Education Partnerships and Dr. Zhongyuan (Annie) Yu, Teaching Associate Professor and Software Engineering Program Director at the School of Systems and Enterprises, Stevens Institute of Technology, this introductory QRF focused on what constitutes a mega project and the role and characteristics of leadership in this space and, finally, provides an overview of how visualization and AI can assist DoD in managing large projects. 

Dr. Gallop, the project’s sponsor, explained that the motivation and inspiration behind AIRC-DAU’s current project were the efforts made in 1956 by the Fleet Ballistic Missile Program, or Polaris, to develop and implement the Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT). PERT is now considered a breakthrough in program management strategies. PERT provided an effective way to manage the complexity and increasingly accelerated pace of the Polaris program by combining system dynamics with computer technology. Mirroring that innovative thinking, AIRC-DAU aims to recreate this success by finding ways that data visualization, machine learning and AI can improve how DoD is managing its largest projects. Dr. Gallop said, “So the question becomes, are we at an inflection point today in which the tools we are using to manage programs are excellent but not enough?” Dr. Gallop continued, “So if the answer is yes, then what would those tools look like in the future? And that's the essence of this research.” Interested in learning more about Polaris and its impact on program management? Read The Polaris System Development, available from the DAU Virtual Research Library (CAC required). 

During this kick-off QRF event, Dr. Gallop also talked about the project’s goals, which include gathering enough information to be able to provide the acquisition workforce with a web event or series of events focused on the practical use of data visualization, machine learning and AI in the management of DoD’s largest projects. Additionally, the team hopes to compile this information into a “playbook” that programs can use in their project management work. Dr. Gallop said, “[T]his is not just esoteric research or academic in nature. The team is going to come up with techniques and methodologies that we can use today in our programs.” Dr. Gallop also outlined the project’s lines of effort, the first of which—and the focus of this presentation—is to benchmark non-DoD mega projects and their use of data visualization, machine learning and AI. 

Dr. McDermott explained that the first phase of their research approach included a review of the literature primarily from non-DoD sectors to define what mega projects and programs are as well as determine mega project trends that may shape how DAU will train the acquisition workforce throughout the next 10-15 years. According to Dr. McDermott, the QRF team had been “conducting over the past 3 months a literature review across these areas of mega project management, mega project leadership, data collection, visualization, AI and other things.” 

From this research, the QRF team decided to work within the definition of mega project found in The Oxford Handbook of Mega Project Management. According to the Oxford Handbook, mega projects are large-scale, multifaceted endeavors that often have high levels of complexity-driven uncertainty, experience major lifecycle shifts and unpredictability, require specialized leadership skills and have multiple stakeholders, among other characteristics. Additionally, these projects often cost over $1 billion dollars, take many years to develop and implement, involve multiple public and private stakeholders and impact millions of people. 

Dr. McDermott also delved into the leadership skills required to manage large-scale projects with multiple levels of complexity and uncertainty. These traits and skills include being open to new experiences; having self-discipline, high emotional intelligence, and self-awareness of abilities and prioritizing people management and communication. According to Dr. McDermott, mega leaders need to be “systems thinkers” who know how to “zoom out or go deep and how to design flexibility into relationships.” He continued, “On the other side, the technical side, you gotta learn how to balance control and flexibility and challenge over-optimism and be real about projects. You need to be a deep domain expert, familiar with uncertainty.” 

Rounding out the panel, Dr. Yu provided a brief overview of the role of visualization and AI within mega projects and programs and how they play a part in interpreting data, report generation and generative augmentation to help close knowledge gaps and form conclusions. Dr. Yu said, “Our approach is combined with a data-intensive approach also with expert knowledge and expert-driven AI methodologies.” 

Some next steps for the AIRC-DAU team include applying this framework to Defense-related mega projects and programs and evaluating additional case studies. Dr. McDermott said, “And so we've been really focused on what are the frameworks, what are the categories, what are the things that we can focus our case studies and future research on in this first iteration.” 

To enhance their research and engage with the workforce, the AIRC researchers are interested in your feedback and recommendations. “I'm really excited to see this research begin and have you as part of the process, it's important to have connection with the field as this research is unfolding and I appreciate your contributions.” Dr. Gallop said. Please submit your questions, comments and suggestions to Dr. David Gallop at [email protected]. 

The next QRF will occur in March 2024 and will examine specific DoD mega project case studies. 

To learn more about mega projects and how DoD can apply project management best practices, data visualization, machine learning and AI to how it handles and supports large, complex projects, view the webinar, AIRC-DAU Quarterly Research Forum: The Future Of Managing Mega Projects. 

AIRC banner Maria Briggs