Huntsville Center employs 'engineering solution' to track operation orders

U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville
Published Feb. 9, 2017

When Russ Dunford sketched his idea onto a napkin, little did he realize that it would take two years and an engineering solution to bring it to fruition.

There were times, he admits, when he questioned whether a solution was even possible.

Despite any misgivings, the chief of Operations, U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville, persisted. There had to be some sort of process to track and update operation orders, taskings and follow-on responses.

Dunford explained how prior to 2000, the Army Corps of Engineers used email messaging to collect and process information. This would entail numerous man-hours and constant communication up and down the chain to manage the status and completion of tasks and suspenses. That, coupled with personnel leaving the organization, either through attrition or reassignment, left an information void and made this process even more daunting.

“I wanted to build something so that when I left, for whatever reason, there would be continuity,” he said. “When an individual leaves the Center, others should be able to pick up and find the information they need to monitor the status of the inordinate number of OPORDs I get on any given day.” 

Taking a page from the Army’s playbook, USACE adopted the use of OPORDs to disseminate guidance, manage and monitor mission or project status.

According to Dunford, the Army has always used OPORDs. Its format breaks down and organizes information into five paragraphs, i.e., situation, mission, execution, administrative/logistics and command/signal, making it easier to identify, understand and execute mission tasks.

Though more effective, Dunford said, there had to be a more efficient way. USACE publishes 50-100 OPORDs a year. Add in fragmentary orders and that number quickly increases to 200.

“So about every day and a half, you’re cranking out new guidance to the entire USACE enterprise of 36,000 people,” he said. “I’m one deep. There’s no way on God’s green Earth that I can keep up. It’s crisis management at best.”

That, he said, was the impetus to seek out and establish a viable system to track report documents, especially OPORDs.

Realizing that a solution could not be achieved without collaboration, Dunford teamed up with Daniel Shepard, chief, Information Assurance and Information Technology Branch; Angela Rackard, operations officer; and later Andrew Spear, who at the time was a Pathways intern and is now employed as an information assurance specialist.

Established by Executive Order 13562, the Pathways Internship Program was adopted by the Center in 2012 to afford high school/college students and recent graduates paid employment as well as the opportunity to explore federal career possibilities.

Though new to the Center, it was not unusual that the intern was included on the team. He, Spear commented, had an “extensive knowledge in web application development and database management.”

That collaboration got the team off on solid footing.

Shepard’s experience working with OPORDs while employed with the U.S. Army Network Enterprise Technology Command, Spear’s unique skillset and Rackard’s experience with document tracking would prove instrumental in finding that solution.

Shepard contacted his NETCOM “buddies” and connected them with Spear to work with and obtain the necessary permission codes and standard operating procedures needed to lay the groundwork in developing an OPORD tracking solution.

By that time, Dunford had already built the framework for what he was looking for, Spear said.

“He just needed the application, and that’s where Dan and I came in.”

That application was Microsoft SharePoint, he said. “There were other software programs that could have been used, but SharePoint is really the direction the Corps is trying to move for its web applications.”

Dunford reached out and contacted the North American Aerospace Defense Command who used SharePoint extensively, then to USACE Headquarters for access to its database for input.

“NORAD showed us how they used SharePoint,” he said. That, and Spear’s extensive knowledge of the program allowed us to move forward.

With assistance from NETCOM, NORAD and buy in from USACE, the team developed “a working product.”

“If we would have outsourced this to someone – contracted it out – it could have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Shepard said. “We did it with inside labor for 10 percent of the cost.”

Dunford saw value in the product and forwarded it to USACE Headquarters where, according to Shepard, “they took our mold and created their own to meet their requirements.

“It’s just a prime example of what started out as just an idea to address a challenge, then having the foresight to think – well, if I’m having a problem I know someone else is,” he said.

“We’ve used our own internal resources, but it wasn’t just in a stovepipe, we actually brought in functional areas of expertise into that whole integrated product. Now, we have something that can be sustained. We’ve got the skillset, the know-how,” Shepard said.

“It’s not earth shattering. It’s not like we discovered the cure for polio,” he said. “We went through a logical process and said that this is something we can take at very low cost that everyone is going to be familiar with. It’s already hosted. We’re not going to have to go to another website. It’s already in their operational mindset for day-to-day business. We’ve increased the capability and enhanced it for a usable product.

“Most important, we took a junior employee and increased his knowledge of OPORDs,” Shepard said. “It’s so important for our junior force to get involved in how the Center and big Army does business. Any tool that I have to effectively support management, and care and mentor my subordinates is huge. It’s a good feeling to know that we’re making a difference.”