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Leadership Key to Moving Defense Department Toward Data-Driven Future

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (June 10, 2022) -- In April, the Defense Department hired a former computer science professor and head of machine learning for Lyft to elevate digital and artificial intelligence strategy development and policy formulation.  

As chief digital and artificial intelligence officer, Craig Martell is responsible for accelerating the adoption of data, analytics, digital solutions and AI functions. But shifting the largest agency in the federal government toward a data-driven future is a tall order. Such a task will require a skilled leader and will require a lot of people to be convinced of the value of what DOD is trying to achieve, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen H. Hicks said. 

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"I think leadership is incredibly important," Hicks said. "And the ways in which leadership speaks, use their time, drive the system, hold people accountable -- will be very important here. The secretary and I are ready to be at the forefront of that, to be part of that change and to help Dr. Martell do the same, along with the team and CDAO." 

A key part of leadership is holding people accountable, Hicks said, and that can be a challenge. Unlike in private corporations, there are, legally, many different subcomponents with different mandates -- some of which might not always align completely with what the department is trying to achieve. Additionally, she said, lawmakers may also have different ideas about the way the Defense Department should go about its mission -- they have a say, as well. 

Hicks said getting after what motivates people -- the incentives -- is how the department will further it's data and AI goals. 

"The heart of how you change culture is you go after the incentives," Hicks said. "So far, part of our theory is showing, particularly combatant commanders or commanders at the operational level ... what can they not live without." 

What that means for the department's drive toward a data-driven future is showing those most invested in DOD's mission just what the department is trying to achieve, how it'll make it easier for them to accomplish their own part of the mission, and how it will save the department money in the process. 

"More than anything, what we want to do is be able to find those use cases and unlock the potential for decision-makers like the secretary, out to the field, to the warfighter to show them how they can achieve their objectives, their military objectives, operational objectives on behalf of the United States -- better, smarter, faster with ... this toolkit," Hicks said. 

Right now, Hicks said, the Defense Department is not where it needs to be in its exploitation and analysis of the data. Part of the CDAO's [chief digital and artificial intelligence officer] mandate will be to change that. 

"I sit as the COO [chief operating officer] of DOD, on top of the largest organization in the world," she said. "And we are under-gunned in terms of the analytic capability that we tend to bring toward problems relative to the scale of both our size and then the kinds of the consequences of the challenges we're looking at. Data is another way, an avenue, toward better analysis, better fact finding, understanding how to see ourselves, understanding how to see our adversaries and all the other facets of a situation." 

From understanding the true costs of sustainment efforts or the logistics underway to help Ukraine, Hicks said, the effective analysis of data is key. 

"What if we could really analyze all that data in a way that's speedy -- with AI -- and also even then be predictive?" she said. "That shows so much potential ... and then, as you get closer in the ... sensor-to-shooter piece of it, you start to see the advantage for data and for AI and the CDAO [chief digital and artificial intelligence officer] construct ... as that tech stack comes tighter together and there's a virtuous feedback cycle, in really giving the United States that advantage on the decision-making side, [and the] accuracy/prediction side."

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