At Fort Monmouth in Eatontown, N.J., acquisition officers supervising the production of such software got a helping hand when subcontractor CACI Technologies Inc. built a dashboard that could pull together information on the projects. The information needed was scattered across multiple databases, particularly those in the Army's Acquisitions Information Management System (AIMS).
CACI, an IT consulting firm for the federal government, built an executive information-management system for the Army that lets acquisition officers build impromptu apps that find information about a given project. Using a point-and-click environment, they could pull information on "whether a project is on schedule, what it's costing, where the team members are, and how many hours they've worked," says John Dalton, VP of advanced programs for CACI. An Army acquisition officer is typically tracking 10 to 12 projects, he says.
The point-and-click environment was created for the Army project by Instaknow Inc., builders of a wizard-based, custom-app environment for businesspeople. Its Active Collaboration Engine uses if/then rules to build connectivity to a wide variety of data sources and to extract data, then transform and deliver it in a customized view. Such a process would normally require hours of programming work. "You don't need a black belt in C++ programming to implement this," says Dalton, who helped select the engine and implemented the executive information management system in two months. The schedule was "very aggressive, considering what had to be done," he adds.
Getting Army IT staff to repeatedly supply hundreds of custom views to Fort Monmouth's Knowledge Center, where the acquisition officers work, was an unlikely prospect in any time frame, he says. It was important that the executive information system be implemented both quickly and "in a manner nonintrusive" to the AIMS IT administrative staff, Dalton says.
Acquisitions officers need to know where the data, such as a programmer time-keeping database or an inventory of computer supplies, is located. But "business analysts know where the data is. What we're doing is eliminating the need for the programmer," Dalton says.
By using the wizards of the Active Collaboration Engine, an acquisitions officer doesn't have to set up a network connection or database or application access. The wizards are capable of connecting to most mainframe systems, including IMS and CICS, and relational databases, including IBM's mainframe DB2. The wizards can extract requested information from Adobe PDF files or off Web pages, if provided with a URL.
If an acquisitions officer knows the information needed is on a mainframe, a click on a mainframe icon calls up a menu of applications. To check inventory, the officer can click on a mainframe SAP inventory application and get a list of functions with which to seek information, such as "show current inventory."
And unlike periodic reporting systems, the acquisition officers' dashboards are providing near-real-time information. It's refreshed each time someone views it, says Paul Khandekar, CEO of Instaknow. Khandekar is the architect of the Instaknow engine and says its wizards were built around artificial-intelligence principles that allow them to function with minimal human intervention.
"If you give [the engine] one instruction, that implies the remaining nine needed to complete the job," such as retrieving data from a CICS transaction system, he says. The Instaknow Active Collaboration Engine is available for $100,000 for a perpetual license.