Paper-based processes are giving way to digital solutions across the military, but the transition from spreadsheets to apps can be tricky. IT modernization efforts “frequently fail to deliver capabilities in a timely manner, incur cost overruns, and/or experience schedule slippages,” noted an April 2021 Government Accountability Office report. Often, the mission gets lost.
One reason many programs go off the rails is that contractors and IT departments try to reinvent the wheel rather than leverage available solutions. Digital platforms, such as Salesforce, offer an express route to problems by providing low-code and no-code solutions using proven, secure cloud technologies.
If you’ve ever used TurboTax or ordered a Domino’s Pizza online, then you’ve used the Salesforce platform without even knowing it. Chances are, your bank and favorite online retailers are also running their systems on the Salesforce platform. Loaded with built-in analytics and artificial intelligence, that same platform can answer a host of defense requirements.
“Anything that can be done manually—spreadsheets, emails, clipboards, checklists—can be converted into a digital workflow,” said Tahera Zamanzada, a principal in digital strategy at Salesforce. That’s true whether you’re running an Air Force logistics program or managing personnel.
The terms “platform” and “platform-as-a-service” can sometimes be confusing. Salesforce is a computer architecture that lives in the cloud; because it’s in the cloud, organizations don’t need to buy or build out the hardware they need to use it. Rather, they can run applications on top of that platform in the cloud and scale to whatever their need is now or in the future. Rather than build those applications from scratch, government IT managers can pick and choose from existing apps and automated processes, accelerating the pace of modernization.
Consider personnel-use cases, such as recruiting, transitioning, separations, and retirements, for example, said Michael Parker, former CIO and for the Air Force’s Manpower, Personnel and Services Department, and a business development VP at Salesforce. “Every interaction can be managed and handled as a single entry point through the SalesForce platform. You’re simply utilizing repeatable workflows to support those business services.”
Board management processes can use the same tools. “Any case that’s managed can be easily and seamlessly built out on the Salesforce platform,” Parker said.
Logistics is another common-use case, simplifying inventory management. Parachute management is a notoriously paperwork-heavy process with the need to carefully document what happens every time that parachute is touched. A digital platform like Salesforce is a natural fit, Zamanzada said. “There’s a digital workflow for it which allows you to do our end-to-end processing, packing, repacking, inspection,” she said. “You know everything from start to finish.”
Built into the Salesforce platform is a coordinated set of tools, proven security meeting a range of federal requirements, and baseline configurations with a built-in governance model. Those tools enable “drag-and-drop” development rather than a coding task, Zamanzada said. “Sometimes you feel like coding, but most of the work can be done without any type of heavy lift and shift.”
Development then becomes a no-code or low-code process, using existing building blocks. Once the foundational capability is in place, repeatable workflows support incremental development efforts and help ensure timely delivery of needed capabilities.
“Everything is agile and iterative, and constantly being improved upon, versus the kind of long-term waterfall approach to delivering yesterday’s requirement tomorrow,” Parker said.
Moving to the cloud has its costs, but Parker points out that staying put with a legacy system is no bargain, either. “Legacy portfolios are costly and contain technical debt,” he said. “It’s the data center costs, managed-services cost, it’s integration, sustainment, maintenance. A lot of that technical debt can be avoided when you move to Software as a Service and the Salesforce platform.”
Security and compliance are built in and updates are managed centrally.
“Customers really do inherit the majority of the security controls from Salesforce,” Zamanzada said. “We provide numerous enabling resources, training, and implementation. We help them feel comfortable knowing that their data will be safe and secure on our platform.”
Forensic capabilities are also baked in to ensure compliance with government regulations for data retention and auditability. “We do everything from platform encryption to event monitoring,” Zamanzada said. “The auditing logs are all there, they’re archived and available for up to 10 years.”
Salesforce built its success by focusing on the customer, rather than the IT manager, and Parker said that focus is central to its strategy today. It’s about easing the modernization process, which inevitably involves overcoming cultural resistance to process or other changes that come with new digitally enabled processes.
“Culture is everything, It’s the structures and the rituals of an organization. And you have to understand the culture in order to transform the workforce and business environment with modern technology by utilizing change management principles,” Parker said. “Concepts like human-centered design and leveraging the voice of the customer are so important, because that is how you pull everyone in.”
Whose Data is it Anyway?
Central to any modernization strategy is protecting intellectual property—that is, the organization’s data—and ensuring that data is accessible and portable should a time come in the future when another change is necessary. IT managers have learned from experience to beware of vendor lock-in, which can keep them in an unhappy marriage because moving is too hard or expensive, as well as data ownership.
Zamanzada acknowledges this. “Vendor lock-in is a real fear,” Zamanzada said. People don’t want to be trapped in a single pathway or solution set.
“We get that,” she said. “Your data is your data at Salesforce. We consider ourselves the guardians of the data, but it’s your data. You become an annual subscriber to our platform. If for any reason you feel unhappy—which I doubt you will—you can say, ‘Give me my data,’ and you’re on your way.”