The Case for a Standard Data Reporting Format in a Massive Multi-Contractor Environment

 

If my team and I were on a mission to standardize our program control software, we might perform a benchmarking exercise. I firmly believe if we performed such an exercise, we would find that one-hundred different organizations would have at least one-hundred-five software architectures between them. In fact, that may be optimistic.

Schedule and cost control tools have matured to an extent that they can be integrated and provide adequate levels of reporting. Despite the maturity, it remains expensive and time consuming for a large project sponsor, such as the U.S. federal government, to perform program and portfolio assessment functions when their many suppliers are utilizing unique and varied program management tool solutions.

For large customers, standardization is one avenue toward finding common ground on which to perform schedule and cost analysis. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, for an organization such as the federal government to mandate which specific program control tools its many suppliers use. Although government may mandate specific tracking tools on individual contracts, this can be an expensive proposition, as in many contract arrangements, the burden of cost to acquire and train the workforce on the mandated tool will be passed to the customer.

For certain new contracts, the U.S. Department of Defense requires the use of the UN/CEFACT XML schema for reporting project schedule and cost performance. By mandating an output schema, the government avoids dictating a specific tool. The effort to implement UN/CEFACT XML has been performed alongside industry and tool vendors in order to ensure government contractors can have their “best foot forward” when they must implement the reporting format.

Ultimately, both the government and the contractors benefit. Government can assure that their oversight of contractors is consistent and accurate. This leads to efficiency of operations, while allowing contractors to utilize their toolset of choice. Contractors are now differentiated on the quality of their project information, not on their choice of toolset and the report formats that are offered. Effectively, the UN/CEFACT schema neutralizes differences in how various tools present information by drawing them toward a common output format.

This “common language” approach for Department of Defense contracts is beneficial, but also new. The success of the format will be contingent on its continued growth and evolution. As government adopts various progressive methods of contractor data analysis, the data schema must adapt to provide the government and industry with views of critical information. Tool vendors must remain nimble and work together alongside industry to ensure that their support of the schema is consistent with how the other vendors interpret the schema. One crucial hurdle is – in order for the common format to work, information type in the XML fields and files must be consistent across contractors, regardless of the toolset each utilizes to create their XML files. Varying interpretations of the same data field undermine the government’s effort to maintain a repository of common data types across projects and contractors.

Ultimately, I believe that the UN/CEFACT XML effort will be a compelling case study for standardization in other areas of government and private industry. With top tool vendors adopting and refining their compliance with the format, UN/CEFACT may evolve to become a de facto or perhaps a formal standard in other industries.

More information on the Department of Defense’s implementation of UN/CEFACT XML is found at http://www.acq.osd.mil/evm/resources/policies-standards.shtml

 

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