HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – As the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ commanding general issued a call to revolutionize its data strategy earlier this year, the U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville, was already well ahead of the curve.
In Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite’s January 2019 “SemoNOTE” to the USACE team, he challenged leaders to develop a “sound data strategy encompassing strong data governance and quality analytics” to drive informed decision-making.
Huntsville Center had a five-year head start on achieving this vision. In 2014, Dan Heinzelman, then Huntsville Center’s business manager, proposed a plan for a focus group that would later become the Business Practices office.
Dee Benson now leads this innovative team. She formulated the mission, selected the talent, and developed the way ahead. But it didn’t happen overnight.
“It was a very difficult time period because back then no one was thinking about data analytics and visualization,” Benson said. “There were no resources, and there were no tools to tap into.
“Over the years, we sought out opportunities and whatever resources we could access, whether it be tangible software resources or networking throughout the enterprise, [to aid in analyzing and visualizing data],” she said.
Benson’s first step was finding the right people.
She began by writing new job descriptions and utilizing the Office of Personnel Management’s Direct-Hire Authority process to quickly reach candidates with the right skills. Benson also contacted the head of the Management Science / Business Analytics (Master of Science) degree program at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and other universities for possible candidates.
“Some of the key skill sets I looked for were, certainly, the ability to understand data; the ability to understand the types of tools and methods that could be utilized to mine and visualize data; and understanding things like data structure and data analytics,” she added.
In 2018, Benson hired Manveer Singh Khanijoun as a business data analyst. That year, Khanijoun had earned his Master of Science in Business Analytics from the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
About three months later, the SemoNOTE from January validated that the data strategies the team was working on were the exact things USACE was moving toward, Khanijoun said.
In December 2017, Business Practices began using the software application Qlik Sense, giving people the ability to create and share real-time data visualizations by using a custom “dashboard” of graphical elements and other key metrics.
Since then, the Center has automated many of its management control functions.
The Business Practices team developed a dashboard for Human Capital to track and report acquisition workforce metrics for which the Army Acquisition Support Center holds the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers accountable. The ASC system uses what it calls the Career Acquisition Personnel and Position Management Information System, or CAPPMIS.
Laura Beth Quick, Human Capital manager, has the responsibility of delivering a variety of employee metrics to CAPPMIS. These metrics include employee certifications, Continuous Learning Points percentages, and the status of employees’ Individual Development Plans and annual ethics training.
The act of manually pulling the data from different sources, consolidating the information and then packaging it all into the correct format for CAPMISS was time-consuming, said Quick.
“Before Business Practices got involved, I was pulling two different reports, merging them together, spending time sorting and filtering and doing all of those calculations by major subordinate command, the Center, and for USACE as a whole,” Quick said. “With the Qlik Sense dashboard, I am able to turn three to four hours’ worth of work from those spreadsheets into less than five minutes.”
Another advantage of the Business Practices data strategy is that it requires employees to input data using more strict criteria.
The vision of where Huntsville Center is going is to have one central location that facilitates the collecting, mining and validation of the data in collaboration with the owners of the data, Benson said.
“This improves data integrity, which improves reporting, and ultimately improves decision-making for leadership,” Khanijoun said.
Also, Benson and her team have spearheaded the effort of automating the Contractor Performance Assessment Reporting System closeouts and put in place a tool for tracking Huntsville Center’s acquisition certifications across the enterprise – among other innovations.
“It tells the story of the data much better,” Benson said. “Prior to that there was just an Excel spreadsheet with no quality visualization.”
Good visualization and displaying information in dynamic views make the data easier to digest, Khanijoun agreed.
“Business Processes has greatly aided the entirety of HNC in being better able to see itself through the extraction, consolidation and assessment of data from numerous sources,” said Albert “Chip” Marin III, the Huntsville Center programs director.
“Their creation of visual tools to see and understand the data has been huge in allowing leaders to better understand issues, and thus, to make more informed decisions,” Marin added. “Additionally, the automation of tools used in presenting information for Project Review Boards, Acquisition Line Item Reviews, and Program-Branch-Division-Directorate Line Item Reviews are noteworthy and have saved countless man-hours previously spent manually gathering and displaying data.”
The topic of data analytics may not be glamorous, but it is revolutionizing the way Huntsville Center does business.
“I think it’s a huge success story for Huntsville Center that not everyone here knows about,” Benson said. “We have formed a group of people who are implementing pivotal data strategies.”
“SemoNOTES” are periodic messages from Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers chief of engineers and commanding general, to directly communicate key information and guidance to the USACE team.
To learn more about opportunities for direct-hire positions, visit www.hnc.usace.army.mil/Careers/Opportunities and www.linkedin.com/company/huntsvillecenter.