Army Research Lab in Adephi Maryland


Pushing innovation beyond buzzwords

The Army Research Lab in Adelphi, Md.

The Army is looking to absorb startup culture with its move to locate Futures Command in Austin. The Texas capital is nicknamed Silicon Hills for the high concentration of tech businesses and professionals in the region. But as the Army's Director of Strategic Plans Lt. Col. Chris Cline explained in an interview on the sidelines of GovernmentCIO Media's national security forum July 18, the Army will need more than proximity if it hopes to radically change its acquisition culture. This interview was lightly edited for clarity.

FCW: During Army Secretary Mark Esper's announcement that Austin would be Army Futures Command's new home, he emphasized that a physical location change was needed for the modernization efforts to succeed. What's your perspective on this, and what else does the Army need to do to facilitate a culture shift?

CLINE:  First, I think that locating Army Futures Command in Austin is a great idea. It really makes a lot of sense, not only to put the command in a location that is an innovation hub, but it's good to physically get away from a nearby base, forts and especially the Pentagon. There still needs to be interaction and good communication between the Pentagon, for example, and Army Futures Command, but it will really help get people who are actually working there in the mindset of we're doing something different, this is not business as usual. It really gives us a chance to open our aperture and see things differently.

FCW: What else do you think needs to be done? Culture shifts are hard, they take a long time. What else needs to be done to bridge the gap between industry and DOD?

CLINE: There needs to be more emphasis at the leadership levels on the importance of innovation. Within any organization, there's always going to be that area of middle management that usually stymies any real sense of [innovation or change]. You'll have the CEO talk about innovation, but there are a lot of people below who are more focused on what they do, their job, and don't really know how to fit [innovation] into what they're doing. There needs to be a way where the emphasis on innovation is constantly being talked about so everybody gets it. I think you're going to see that a lot of people at the lower levels, they understand, they get it. So it's going to be top down and bottom up -- and everyone in the middle is going to realize we need to run with this because the momentum will demand a change in the way we operate. It's going to take time, a lot of time…

FCW: How much time do you think?

CLINE: I think that ... in five years you'll really see a change.

FCW: For innovation to become second nature rather than a buzzword?

CLINE: Yes, it'll be second nature, especially when you have a lot of people at the lower levels who understand it. As they move and progress in five years, you'll start to really see change and they're going to be forcing it down. For example, you'll have young officer leadership, a lieutenant who gets it right now. In five years, he'll be a captain or a major, and he'll understand the point of innovation and make sure that everybody he's responsible for is afforded every opportunity to be as innovative as they can. [We have to] try to find ways to incorporate it into the way we operate. It's going to make a difference, it's going to be slow but we'll get there eventually.

FCW: You mentioned during your panel talk that when it comes to innovation, the services don't often look inward for talent and expertise that is readily available in the research labs. Why are the labs forgotten? They're there, they get funding…

CLINE: That is something I don't understand. And I'll be honest, for a long time I knew they existed but I didn't know a whole lot about them until the last couple of years. They're just not talked about a lot, especially the Army Research Lab. [But] there's just been a lot of information put out in the last year and a half to two years showing everything that they're doing, and people outside are starting to notice. That's why you have this collaboration between Uber and Army Research Lab where they're going to come up with flying vehicles and how to make that work. Because there are a lot of great minds there, the scientists are brilliant. It's just a matter of everybody within the services understanding we have a lot of great people internally, we don't always have to look outward. We can look inward and bolster what [our researchers] do in order to help them create the magic that's needed.

FCW: That seems to be a theme. There's a strong, strong industry focus...

CLINE: Yeah, everyone is always [talking about] Silicon Valley "We gotta look at Silicon Valley! That's where everything is, it's a shiny thing!" But … looking just a few miles north on the Beltway [in Adelphi, Md., where ARL is based], you have people who are already doing this kind of stuff, and they're coming up with ideas. Let's work on the funding and make sure they can continue.

FCW: But somehow nobody talks about what they do.

CLINE: That's why I'm linking up a meeting between leaders at Army Research Lab and my own within [Army] strategy division so we can start incorporating the work that Army Research Lab does into the Army's strategies. Gen. [Mark] Milley understands the importance, but it's working that into the strategies in a meaningful way where it's not just mentioning "innovation." We're going to have an actual plan where the work that's done with Army Research Lab is part of what the Army does and its overall strategy.

FCW: When do you expect that to take shape and implemented? Next year?

CLINE: Hopefully. Right now, we'll do what we can to at least get more recognition to ARL so people in the Army will start looking to them for innovation. 

About the Author

Lauren C. Williams is senior editor for FCW and Defense Systems, covering defense and cybersecurity.

Prior to joining FCW, Williams was the tech reporter for ThinkProgress, where she covered everything from internet culture to national security issues. In past positions, Williams covered health care, politics and crime for various publications, including The Seattle Times.

Williams graduated with a master's in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park and a bachelor's in dietetics from the University of Delaware. She can be contacted at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @lalaurenista.

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