Fostering Workforce Innovation

NGA’s Sue Kalweit on promoting a culture of risk-taking among the agency’s analysts


Sue Kalweit is director of analysis for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), responsible for leading the agency’s GEOINT analytic capabilities as well as modernizing its analytic efforts. Prior to this role, Kalweit spent 12 years with Booz Allen Hamilton as a senior business manager. She was also previously a volunteer member of USGIF’s Academic Advisory Committee, through which she helped lead the establishment of GEOINT accreditation and certificate programs at the collegiate level.

How does an innovative approach to analysis benefit the future of geospatial intelligence?

I can point to many examples of innovative approaches to GEOINT analysis. One that my teammates regularly remind me of is the integrated work group concept. In that approach, we create multi-disciplinary teams of analysts and technologists to focus on specific mission sets. Our approach to structured observation management grew out of these groups. What our past examples of innovative approaches have in common is they tend to be individual experiments and not how we work as an organization. The result is these new approaches are not scaled or made operational across the enterprise.

Sue Kalweit

A more important question is, “How does a culture of innovation benefit the GEOINT mission?” I define culture as “a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization.” Innovation then is not a thing, but rather a way of working. A culture of innovation across all of NGA is critical to our mission. I see it resulting in behaviors of continuously exploring, realizing, and scaling new and untapped potential in our talent, technology, and approach to the mission. This is in contrast to “innovative approaches,” which are one-off experiments. A culture of innovation elevates our mission. Innovative approaches lead only to good idea demonstrations.

How do you foster a culture of innovation among your workforce?

By creating space and time to experiment, providing skills and tools to innovators, and ensuring resource and leadership commitment.

Space and time to experiment is making it clear that giving space to innovate includes risk taking. A first step was convincing my teammates I mean it when I say, “fail fast, fail forward, or you’re not testing the limits of what’s possible.” To encourage risk taking, I created “get out of jail free” risk-taker cards. The email from me that accompanied the cards said I expect everyone to take risks, I anticipate you will run into obstacles, and you may use this card with me or other leaders to work through those barriers. It’s encouraging to see the cards hanging at the desks of my teammates, and a few have brought them to me asking for help.

Time is the other critical ingredient to enabling innovation. In industry, I thought about time as direct revenue or indirect costs. In my current role, I think about time as “mission now” services or “mission next” costs. Balancing that time across the entire workforce is a challenge. The breadth of our customers and their missions, combined with the variety and velocity of data, could keep us solely focused on “mission now.” However, innovation for “mission next” is imperative. We must and are creating time for it. At the same time, we must balance the cost. To help determine what the right balance is, we have begun collecting metrics of how analysts and leaders spend time each day.

To provide skills and tools to our innovators, NGA’s Office of Ventures and Innovation has been tremendously valuable. They assisted by offering a “kick start” box for everyone who was planning to submit a proposal for the Analysis Innovation Experience we hosted last year, and lean startup training to those down-selected in final rounds. All five finalists pivoted with their final solution after attending a weeklong lean startup training. It has been exciting to see my teammates grow and mature their products and ideas into tangible solutions.

On ensuring resource and leadership commitment, NGA senior leadership is 100 percent behind innovation. At the analyst level, resource and leadership commitment is tied to providing space and time for innovation. Constant communication is central to ensuring our analysis leaders not only support but encourage innovation. Given what I have seen and discussed with my team during the many desk-side briefings I have at our flagpole and customer locations, I am assured many of my leaders encourage innovation across their teams.

How does being “data savvy” contribute to an innovative workforce?

I don’t associate being “data savvy” with innovation. Innovation is a way of thinking and behaving. Also, I prefer the term “data literate,” which connotes knowledge and education about data as a tool of analysis. We not only need to be comfortable working with data, but also need to have an understanding of which data is needed to solve key intelligence questions—or know when data scripts or algorithms are not correct because they are not using the right data or not using data in the correct way.

The importance of data literacy is not just for my teammates doing the analytic mission, but also for those supporting analytic operations. “Back office” data helps us align, monitor, and re-align our talent against our analysis program, and also helps us track our talent pipeline and development. It is no less important.

It is essential for my entire workforce to be data literate. We are working closely with the NGA College as they develop and offer computational thinking courses, we are encouraging the use of telework to take data science and computational thinking courses online from outside our buildings, and we are installing NSA’s Tradecraft Hub on our network, which will make it easier to share and collaborate on algorithms, data science expertise, and lessons learned across the enterprise.

How will machine learning and AI contribute to workforce innovation?

I think what you’re really asking is, “How do innovation and technology together contribute to elevating our analytic mission?”

By way of answering, I’d like to share an excerpt from a letter I sent my team in response to an article recently published by Foreign Policy:

“Machines are better than humans at routine tasks, such as change detection and target monitoring. Humans are superior to computers in critical thinking and cognitive analytics. We want computers to do the routine so we can take on the more intellectually challenging problems. In our mission “now,” as an example, we must monitor thousands of targets in anticipation of conflict. Something has to look at every pixel to warn of a critical change. We need automation and industry help. With that help, we get back the time to identify the subtle signatures and patterns that could lead to new ‘left of launch’ indicators.”

We cannot modernize without innovating. Our mission is not met if we cannot succeed in a world of ubiquitous data, which necessitates the use of automation and AI. We must be innovators working with automation and AI as tools to get us “left of launch,” keep eyes on activity and targets of interest, and elevate our analysis to anticipate threats and adversary actions.

Having spent time in both industry and government, what have you learned about how innovation is both different and the same on each side?

I remember the first GEOINT Symposium in 2003 when Bill Allder Sr., then director of NGA’s Strategic Transformation Office, led a talk with a panel of NGA senior executives. In his remarks, he talked about the symbiotic relationship between government and industry; one cannot do without the other. He further hypothesized that the best senior executives in industry have government experience, and the best senior executives in government have industry experience. He elaborated on this point around the need to understand what motivates the other, and how each operate in order to be successful working in this symbiotic relationship.

There is not a week—and sometimes even a day—that goes by when I am not drawing on experiences from 12 years in industry. My quest to establish a culture of innovation within our analysis team and across all of NGA is no different. Balancing time between “mission now” and “mission next” is like balancing time between direct and indirect hours. Whether in industry or government, people want to be recognized for their contributions, and they want to see their good ideas be given a chance. For me, what has been most different between my industry and government experience is the size and span of my government workforce. Creating and sustaining a culture of innovation, for which trust is key, requires constant communication. Communicating a message that resonates with everyone when you have thousands of people spread across the world is a considerable but rewarding challenge.

How has your engagement with USGIF shaped your outlook on the GEOINT Community?

The future of our industry and our ability to protect our nation’s security depends on a strong pipeline of GEOINT professionals. I value the work USGIF does with academia, K-12 schools, academic scholarships, and its Young Professionals Group. These all contribute significantly to growing and developing our future workforce. I’m proud to say I contributed to USGIF’s work in developing our future workforce through my efforts in initiating the collegiate accreditation and GEOINT certificate program.

Headline image: Sue Kalweit spoke at the GEOINT 2017 Symposium Government Pavilion Stage as one of five NGA panelists discussing analytic modernization.

Posted in: Perspective   Tagged in: 2018 Issue 2, Analysis, Innovation, NGA

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