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Jul 23 2013

The Incredible Importance of the Interoperability Continuum

By Bob Greenberg

Topics: Homeland Security

One of the most important, but often overlooked lessons of the many efforts to solve the information sharing problem is that technology alone is not the solution. Often agencies and organizations believe that by finding or developing the “right” technology, the problem will be solved and unfortunately that is not the case.  In fact it can be said that technology is only one-fifth of the solution, with the rest of the solution being based on addressing a number of “soft issues” that determine whether the implementation of a technology will be a success or a failure. This is why the Interoperability Continuum (Continuum) can be a helpful planning and implementation tool for organizations. The Continuum provides both a guide for and a measure of how to successfully address the information sharing issue in its totality.

The Continuum was first developed by Project SAFECOM as a “maturity model” to help agencies determine their progress in achieving the goal of (voice) communications interoperability and has been widely adopted for that purpose.  Since that time it has been adapted to address data interoperability as well and is now being further refined by the Department of Homeland Security in partnership with organizations such as the National Information Sharing Consortium (NISC) as the Incident Management Capability Maturity Model.

The Continuum provides five (5) “lanes” or functional areas that need to be addressed to achieve effective and interoperable information sharing.  They are:

  1. Governance - the structural framework or “rules of the road” under which varying agencies and organizations agree to share information.
  2. Standard Operating Procedures - specific instructions on how best to provide information in order to effectively deal with a specific situation (these may be annexes to existing SOP’s- regarding what information needs to be provided).
  3. Technology - should be developed to specifically serve the standard operating procedures in order to enable decision makers to get the information they need, when they need it and in the format they need it in a timely fashion.
  4. Training and exercises - should be carried out to provide a test to the SOP’s for information sharing, with lessons learned being used to improve those processes and procedures. To borrow a phrase from the military - the key factor is that “you train as you fight and you fight as you train.”  Training and exercises must be designed to be as realistic as possible and not solely to make someone look good.
  5. Usage - should be oriented towards using the processes and technology on a daily basis.  The watchword here is that if you don’t use it every day you won’t use it in an emergency.    

None of this should be surprising to anyone who has effectively implemented a new technology but many times people skip the first two steps and just go right to procuring a technology. And, too often, they fail as a result.  It cannot be emphasized enough that the key to success is that the technology has to serve the existing – or newly developed- business processes of an agency.  While it is okay if those processes have to be tweaked as a result of deploying a new technology, they shouldn’t have to be completely changed. The Continuum is invaluable in that it gives you/your organization a framework to be successful.

Necessity of a Business Model

Another consideration is the absolute necessity of having a sustainable business model in order to make the technology implementation successful. Too often technologies are procured and deployed without first considering the long term implications of the cost of ongoing deployment into the day-to-day operations of an agency or organization. Thinking through a sustainable business model should be an included part of the Governance framework.

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