November 02, 2012 | In their recently released paper entitled "Patterns of Success in Systems Engineering: Acquisition of IT-intensive Government Systems", George Rebovich, Jr., and Joseph DeRosa of The MITRE Corporation used a method typically associated with social science to explain what's working—and why—in systems engineering (SE) and acquisition of IT systems in government. To identify and document successful SE practices within IT-intensive environments, Rebovich and DeRosa applied the concept known as positive deviance, which is commonly used in the healthcare and education fields. This method is based on the observation that every community performing an activity has certain individuals or groups whose attitudes, practices, strategies, or behaviors enable them to function more effectively than others with the same resources and environmental conditions. According to the authors, these practices and behaviors can be applied in the wider SE community to improve acquisition practices in government.
"Instead of developing guidance on systems engineering from the point of view of what doesn't work and how to fix it, we focused on figuring out who's doing something that works, finding out what it is, and spreading the word," explains Rebovich, who is director of MITRE's Systems Engineering Practice Office.
There have been numerous attempts to reform the SE and acquisition process, but none have taken hold, namely because previous studies have focused on fixes and remedies. Rebovich and DeRosa, director of Systems Engineering in MITRE's Command and Control Center, hope their work will effect positive change. As stated in their report, "True acquisition reform can come about by searching out and applying the wisdom that already exists inside the SE community engaged in government acquisitions."
In the course of their research, Rebovich and DeRosa identified 30 government programs, each with some notable success in the acquisition of IT-intensive capabilities. Twelve programs out of the sample were selected for extensive follow-up and analysis, including detailed interviews with front-line practitioners.
Two large-scale patterns emerged, one representing the social aspects of successful SE, the other the technical aspects. Rebovich and DeRosa labeled these "Balancing the Supply Web" and "Harnessing Technical Complexity." The first addresses the "social" interdependencies among enterprise stakeholders who have different stakes in the capability being developed. The second addresses the technical interdependencies among system components that together deliver an operational capability for the enterprise. The authors also identified 15 sub-patterns of success, which are roughly organized along social and technical lines. Collectively, these patterns form "a rough image of how to successfully systems engineer IT-intensive systems in the real world of government acquisition."
In keeping with the positive deviance objective, the authors are sharing the practices they identified so that the SE community can further advance the desired results.
More information on systems engineering best practices and lessons learned can be found in the online MITRE Systems Engineering Guide at http://www.mitre.org/seg/.
About The MITRE Corporation
The MITRE Corporation is a not-for-profit organization that provides systems engineering, research and development, and information technology support to the government. It operates federally funded research and development centers for the Department of Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Internal Revenue Service and Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Homeland Security, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, with principal locations in Bedford, Mass., and McLean, Va. To learn more, visit http://www.mitre.org/.