Government and defense firm collaborations pay off

The federal government is forced to address evolving threats at home and abroad under the limiting force of sequestration, and the defense industry is similarly challenged with shrinking funding and scaled back internal research and development (IRAD) resources. Better cooperation between the defense industry and government labs is a promising vehicle to accelerate technology advancement in today’s challenging environment.

Defense industry and government lab collaborations afford businesses the opportunity to put forward their best ideas and leverage organizational strengths in a resource-strained environment. These partnerships provide companies with greater exposure to end user challenges and overarching issues facing the Department of Defense, leading to more targeted and effective solutions. The labs are able to see a different perspective through industry, and working alongside each other from the beginning often leads to stronger—and faster—outcomes.  Pooling resources, technologies, and human/financial capital is one way to ensure optimal solutions with shared accountability.

Accompanying the benefits of these partnerships are inherent challenges.  As in any relationship, both parties must learn to communicate and trust one another. Industry should realize that in order to be successful, companies will not only need to dedicate IRAD and human capital, but also lend their intellectual property and share the results. Even though a company may collaborate with a government lab in the beginning stages of development, there will likely be a competition which may limit the work share that the original partner company receives. Industry must understand that sole source is not guaranteed, and the government should be straightforward with its intentions so companies can plan accordingly.

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Companies can be encouraged that collaboration often leads to adjacent opportunities. Our experience has indicated that working closely with government labs leads to additional development efforts and related programs.  Even if a company is not the sole beneficiary of the original project, the partnership will generally pay off in other ways, and more importantly, benefit the warfighter.  Ultimately, these partnerships provide a vehicle to share the ideas and the costs associated with new technology.

ITT Exelis has engaged in a number of collaborations and has seen the benefits first hand. Specifically in the Exelis Electronic Systems division, we have worked with government labs to produce several fielded technologies which were stronger because of the joint effort. For example, one of our partnerships involved packaging the core technology of our small form-factor transmitters into a variety of airborne electronic warfare applications. The end result was a multi-year, multi-phase award.

It is interesting to note that our first venture in lab partnership ended with a technology that the customer ultimately decided not to pursue. While this represented a cost – and an example of the risk involved in these partnerships– the groundwork we laid and the relationships we built ultimately led to the next generation of the technology. Because we focused on solving the problem and not selling a product, the customer was able to see how one technology could apply elsewhere.

In our experience, following are the critical ingredients for a successful partnership:

1)      Develop a shared vision for the end result and the process to get there.

2)      Define measurable and achievable goals to provide a roadmap for successful collaboration and allow both parties to quantify their results.

3)      Communicate frequently, candidly and respectfully to ensure alignment and expedite progress.  In-person meetings are critical up front, and continuity of personnel leads to greater trust and speed.

4)      Be flexible as the original scope of work may change due to external factors or new data. Use sound program management principles to include “off ramps” which allow for course correction.

5)      Create winning scenarios for each partner – industry must listen and respond rather than sell, and government labs must understand that industry will want to compete and sell products or services at some point.

In summary, our experience demonstrates that industry partnership with labs brings several advantages.  The collaboration offers companies a direct line of sight and a more in-depth view of the issues being addressed by the Department of Defense which can inform future strategy.  The partnership provides a larger pool of resources—technological, financial, and people – to apply to the solution set.  Joint execution shortens the life cycle of technology insertion into new products, by allowing for concurrent engineering and planning rather than serial handoffs from lab to industry. In short, partnerships lead to a shared vision and the development of better technologies. Collaborations are a win-win for everybody, but most importantly the warfighter. 

Sorelle is corporate vice president and president of Exelis Electronic Systems.