The Challenges of COTS: Part 2

In part 1 of this blog I discussed the benefits of events such as DSEI. With that event now in the dim and distant past, I wanted to complete this by discussing some of the challenges we have faced in our attempts to bring a COTS solution in to service.

Dealing with the MOD can be daunting for a company that has yet to do so. Let’s start with the language….for someone entering this world for the first time, you would be forgiven for thinking that it is not English. The MOD refers to things differently and, more often than not, through the use of TLAs (Three Letter Abbreviations).

The fact that I am referring to telematics as HUMS probably highlights this quite well. It doesn’t seem like a big problem when we put it to paper like this, but there is a very real risk that you can seemingly be having the same conversation and end up drawing fundamentally different conclusions on what is being asked for.

The Importance of Credibility
I’ve raised the issue of credibility in previous blogs, but it’s worth raising again. In any business sector, if you have tangible experience in your field of expertise you stand a significantly better chance of being taken seriously. It’s an old adage that military types like to talk to other military types, and it is true. As an Army Officer I remember how cringe-worthy someone sounded if they used “Army talk” in completely the wrong context. Do that and however good your product is you’ll struggle to convince the purse string holders of its worth.

Defence Standards
There are lots of them and you can’t read all of them because some are secret! Many of the standards that we need to abide by in the commercial world do map across, some do not. It can be soul destroying when you see a standards list in a tender, but it’s important work and cutting corners can, not only de-rail your bid but ultimately could endanger lives. That said the authority does have a responsibility to ensure its tender authors are not lazy. By that I mean that standards written down as a requirement should be selected carefully for their relevance. Too often I have seen lists containing completely irrelevant requirements. If they are written down, the person responding to the tender has to find it, read it, understand it and comply. There are few less frustrating things than spending several hours finding and reading a DEFSTAN to find that actually one sentence was relevant!

Secret Level Information
One of the key challenges we face comes when you have to deal with secret level information. For a non-list X company, getting eyes on standards that you have to comply with is challenging to say the least. And there aren’t many workarounds. Take TEMPEST as an example. Fitting COTS communication devices to a vehicle system obviously brings this in to consideration. If you are a commercial business, without a secret accredited system, it is very difficult to work out what you need to do. Hopefully these sorts of things are considered when tenders are compiled, I suspect not always, but if the MOD wants to use commercial expertise more then it certainly will need some thought in the future.

Stakeholders
It can seem quite ludicrous just how many stakeholders are involved in vehicle systems. The Project Team at DE&S will normally be your key point of contact but don’t fall in to the trap of thinking that’s it. DE&S aren’t the “User Customer”, that’s the Army so they’ll want a pretty big say in what goes on. That’s where you start briefing working groups, in these you’ll meet all the other stakeholders. These communities are made up of representatives of the user community, the people responsible for the vehicle itself, then there are the people managing all the other systems already on a vehicle, then of course there are the security guys, the ordnance safety types, the radio communications people, the ECM experts and the list goes on.

What you can find, and trust me on this one, is that you give the same brief and answer similar questions on numerous occasions. My advice is not to fight it and stay patient. They have an interest for a reason and you need to make sure you are satisfying everyone’s needs.

Unique Military Requirements
In telematics contracts there are some fairly safe assumptions as to what people want out of a system, and lots of the military HUMS requirements mirror these. The MOD isn’t going to sniff at saving a bit of cash on fuel or better management of its fleets, but they are definitely going to ask for different things too and will recognise success in a different way.

I won’t go in to these now, as my next blog update will discuss some of the possible telematics benefits to the Army and some of their unique needs.

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