The United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF) concluded its three-month GEOConnect Main Stage series focused on the future of work with a panel that addressed how the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has changed much about the way we work. Panelists Zachery Tyson Brown, Strategic Intelligence and National Security Futurist; Polly Hall, Director, Procurement Innovation Lab, DHS; Sue Kalweit, Senior Associate for Culture and Leadership Excellence, NGA; and Mary Hamilton, Managing Director of Technology Innovation for North America and Latin America, Accenture, joined Alex Glade, Presidential Innovation Fellow, for the discussion. Rather than a retrospective look at the community’s response to the pandemic, this panel projected how the GEOINT community will leverage the technological and cultural revolution to become stronger, smarter, and better—from anywhere.
Glade began the panel by asking Kalweit—who transitioned to her current role and began working on NGA’s Culture Initiative during the pandemic—what she thought was the most difficult hurdle to delivering NGA’s mission imperatives and Moonshot. She responded that the agency must focus on becoming a “learn it all” in contrast to a “know it all” organization. Becoming a learning organization is about shifting the mindset to focus on collaboration and learning from each other, in addition to formal learning and experimentation to become stronger. She projected that the most difficult hurdle as the agency moves forward from the pandemic will be maintaining the mindset established in the early days of the agency’s adjustment when the workforce and leadership were hyper-focused on connecting with each other and actively seeking contributions from across the agency.
Glade continued the conversation by asking Hamilton how she thought the commercial world would adapt to the new environment after the pandemic, particularly with regard to working parents. Hamilton noted that the pandemic has caused us to “redefine our reality,” highlighting how the “Anywhere, Everywhere” bring-your-own-environment concept is now one of the top technology trends. “It’s really changing remote work from an accommodation to an advantage,” she asserted. Hamilton continued by addressing how being on camera in virtual meetings has become exhausting to participants and promoted the exploration of other technology, such as augmented or virtual reality, to continue to elevate how we work remotely.
The panel continued with Brown discussing how the expectations for the intelligence community have changed after COVID-19. He echoed the same sentiment Kalweit mentioned at the beginning of the session, that humans are the most important part of the equation. He said the IC is better and that working from home has taught us how to deliver, produce, and analyze reports at a new level. As far as continuing work from home, “It’s not a binary choice between ‘no return to normal’ and ‘new normal,” he noted. “It’s got to be a hybrid solution that puts people first.” Noting that the 9-to-5 workday may now be a relic of the past, he advocated for employees to choose what method of working is best for them moving forward, for instance, how many days working at home and how many days working in the office. “The competition for talent is fierce, and we want to get the best talent to solve these thorny national security issues that we’re going to have. And going forward, we need to accommodate the workforce of tomorrow and today,” he offered.
Glade asked Hall how she has seen the government innovate its procurement practices since the pandemic. Hall responded that in the DHS Procurement Innovation Lab, the team has always focused on culture first, creating a learning organization culture across the acquisition community. She then addressed how the Lab focused on shifting procurement processes to accommodate the new work environment. The procurement process must focus on how to continue providing people with the resources they need. She highlighted how schedules have become flexible and enable remote work and how conducting procurements remotely has benefitted both the government and industry through reduced costs and tapping into a more geographically diverse pool of offerors. “I really think in hindsight, one of the benefits of everything hard we’ve had to go through is that nobody can say ‘we can’t do it’ anymore,” she said. “And now we can just continue to improve and iterate how we are doing it, and just make it better and better.”
An audience member asked if open-source information will become dominant in intelligence workflows. Brown answered by positing that open source will be an increasing part of the basis of intelligence assessments and that classified intelligence sources will still be needed for specific intelligence problems and hard targets. Kalweit added that the intelligence community needs to use all the information available, determining how to best leverage resources to create a persistent and shareable information environment. “Then we use the niche, unique intelligence sources to get at really, really tough problems that the insights provided through commercially and publicly available data can lead us to ask,” Kalweit said. Hamilton then highlighted how similar questions are being addressed in industry, leveraging human-machine teaming to focus humans on the most critical tasks.
At the end of the session, Glade asked each panelist their vision for how we will work based on what we’ve learned from the COVID-19 experience and offered her own as well:
Glade: “I envision a post-pandemic work experience that is intentionally inclusive, diverse, where we embrace empathy as a fundamental value, and we, regardless of industry or sector, collaborate to solve our nations and our earth’s most pressing challenges.”
Hamilton: “Change is something to be passionately pursued, not passively feared. So we should all become masters of change. Those who are embracing change, those who are embracing the technologies—and the human side, the human ingenuity that we talk about—are going to be the ones who are most successful. So I think we should all pursue that change passionately.”
Hall: “I think it’s all about taking smart risks and [putting] people first. If we embrace new ways of doing business, and if we create opportunities for our workforce to co-operate, collaborate, and communicate—and do that cross-functionally—we’re going to create new efficiencies and an improved environment for everybody. I think people will experience their jobs differently, and I believe that they will welcome the change.”
Brown: “I just want leaders in the intelligence community and our congressional oversight people to remember the lessons of the pandemic as we go back to some version of normal. It’s too easy to forget the lessons we’ve learned—I want us to remember them. This is certainly not going to be the last pandemic we face in the 21st century, and we need to remember these lessons going forward and build more resilient, flexible, adaptive organizations capable of handling the challenges the 21st century throws at us.”
Kalweit: “My vision is what I unpack from my COVID-19 suitcase. One, that we work in a no-walls environment—that we are not restricted by physical walls, we’re not restricted by walls of human-to-human interaction, and we’re not restricted by walls of what the clock says.
And that our no-walls environment includes the human-machine team fueled by humility and a growth mindset.”
USGIF thanks Alex Glade, Sue Kalweit, Zachery Tyson Brown, Polly Hall, and Mary Hamilton for their participation in this discussion as part of the GEOConnect Series Main Stage.