Disconnected Operations In Defense: Identifying The Right Business Processes

Matthias Ledwon

According to recent statistics, up to 95% of Americans now own a cell phone of some kind and 77% of Americans own a smartphone. Mobile devices have become part of our way of life, and most organizations are leveraging mobile applications that expose business systems to their workforce and/or customers to increase productivity and provide additional benefits. All of us are familiar with the devices used by FedEx, UPS, rental car companies, etc. – how they update data instantaneously and how easy they are to use.

In the defense sector, business systems don’t have the same priorities as weapons systems. Often, technology leaps ahead even though previous-generation tech isn’t fully leveraged. Regarding tactical deployments, defense organizations face additional challenges as connectivity can’t be guaranteed 100% of the time and adversaries try to interfere. Although defense business systems can operate on satellite networks, tactical circumstances might lead to downtime. Pen and paper will always be the backup, but that leads to redundant data capture and often errors, e.g., when capturing 18-digit serial numbers.

Soldiers on the tactical edge should be able to perform their core and essential business processes in connected as well as disconnected mode using the same user interface on any device. At the same time, the solution must allow for fast data entry, given the tactical nature of the environment. It must also scale and be flexible to support taskforce reorganizations, individuals using disconnected devices (e.g., an aviation crew chief), small and larger teams connected through a remote server (e.g., a vessel or forward operating base), and several teams interacting with each other (e.g., maintenance units connecting with a warehouse on another remote server), and given budgetary constraints, it must be sustainable.

Find the right scope

One challenge is to determine which processes need to be exposed. Of course, it would be nice have all processes available in disconnected mode, but it would be cost prohibitive to expose all the ERP capabilities on disconnected devices. Just think about complex processes like material requirements planning (MRP). This would mean rewriting all the code of the backend business system for the disconnected devices or copying and partitioning the business system (which is an alternative approach for larger units). So, limiting the business processes to the most essential components is key to designing successful disconnected business systems.

A concept of operations describes how it will work on the business side; several factors determine the business processes that should be exposed. Key factors are:

  • Units and roles that would operate disconnected
  • Duration of the disconnect
    • Duration (max./avg.)
    • Planned/unplanned
    • Frequency of occurrence
  • Gains in productivity
    • Reduction of double entry (paper and electronic)
    • Error reduction (e.g., serial numbers)
  • Available workarounds
    • Paper form or just delayed posting/reporting
    • PDF

These factors can be leveraged to put the ERP processes into different categories, for example, processes that must be available for disconnected operations, those that are nice-to-have, or those that should never be exposed for disconnected mode (“backend only”).

If a physical inventory count is required once a month, but the disconnect wouldn’t happen for longer than a few hours or days, and the process is probably not mission-critical, it might make the list of “nice-to-have” processes. Creating/updating a work order, on the other hand, would be mission-critical and the users might be closer to the tactical edge, which means a longer duration of disconnect. This would be an example of a good candidate.

Future opportunities

Today’s technologies already allow for data capture via image or voice (digital assistants) but usually on connected business systems. Soon it’ll be possible to leverage these options in a disconnected environment, as well. That will be the next step towards simple user interfaces and quick, efficient data capture – for the right processes.

Defense forces need to understand the digital revolution and have the right strategy, underpinned by the right technology, to cope with it. Learn about Achieving Defense Agility In The Digital Revolution

Matthias Ledwon

About Matthias Ledwon

Matthias Ledwon is the Industry Executive Advisor for the DoD at SAP America, serving as an intermediary between SAP’s defense customers in the US, SAP’s partners, the Market Unit, and the Industry Business Unit. Over the past 20 years, he has supported business transformations with SAP solutions in various industries. Matthias is a former infantry officer, graduate of the University of the Federal Armed Forces in Hamburg (Germany) and lives with his family in Northern Virginia.