Col. Patrick Burden, the departing General Fund Enterprise Business System Project Manager. (Rob Curtis/Staff)
Rob Curtis/Staff / Military Times
Four years ago, Army Col. Patrick Burden took over as project manager of one of the Department of Defense’s largest enterprise resource planning (ERP) efforts: the Army’s $800 million General Fund Enterprise Business System (GFEBS).
In that time, he completed roll-out of the system worldwide and, in so doing, revolutionized the way more than 50,000 financial managers across the Army approach their jobs.
On July 16, Burden was assigned to become deputy program executive officer for ammunition at Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey. Days before his transition, Burden discussed with Federal Times Editor Steve Watkins lessons learned from his experience rolling out a large ERP system and upcoming modifications to the GFEBS program. Following are edited excerpts:
You’ve been with the GFEBS program for a number of years, bringing it through deployment and the last couple years of sustainment. What were the biggest challenges faced in planning, designing and preparing and then rolling out the program, and what lessons learned are there for others across DoD as they take on similar projects?
Some of the biggest challenges were developing a set of standard business processes that could be accepted across the entire Army. The Army in the past had a number of legacy systems, so the standard business processes weren’t standardized across the Army. So when you have an enterprise system, you have one process that has to be adopted and adapted by the entire Army. So that was one of the biggest challenges is getting buy-in on what those new processes would be and ensuring that they follow the process.
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Were there any other challenges that you would point out?
On implementation, just developing that standard solution with that level of complexity — requirements complexity — in the system. So the more complex it is, the more difficult or the more costly that implementation will be, whether it’s configuring your COTS [commercial-off-the-shelf] product or building extensions to the COTS products based on DOD regulation statutes.
And then another one is just keeping pace with the compliance standards. The Federal Financial Management Improvement Act [FFMIA] is really the heart of the requirements for the financial management system and it has about a thousand-plus requirements specified. It’s also referred to as the DFAS Blue Book. Those requirements change periodically; sometimes they change annually. The business enterprise architecture changes, standard financial information structure changes, and there are other compliance changes. Just trying to keep pace with those changes to ensure you continue to maintain an auditable system, and maintain auditable processes is a bit challenging too. And there are other regulations and statutes that require systems to make changes; so in the middle of developing the system, deploying and sustaining the system, you still have to keep pace with changes in our statutes and regulations.
Those are requirements changes. So they require us to either reconfigure this COTS product or make technical changes to the solution. We try to stray from making changes to the core, commercial-off-the-shelf product and we build extensions to that product to be able to execute within our Department of Defense framework. So we want to try to minimize changes to the COTS product as much as possible; so yeah those are requirement changes.
It sounds like quite a juggling act. And of course we’ve all heard the stories about how constant meddling with the requirements leads to out-of-control projects and it sounds like you were able to be resilient with those changes and keep things on track nevertheless. How did you do that?
One of the things we negotiated with our functional partners and the Army staff is developing a schedule where you’re not making changes too frequently. [One approach is] to go on a two-year cycle of implementing those changes. [Another is to] alternate in the implementation of [our compliance-driven requirements changes] so you don’t have to impose all the compliance changes all at once, so you just have to manage it as close as possible. And then they understand when those changes will be actually implemented and applied to the system.
Another challenge is sometimes changes have to be made in multiple systems or ERPs at the same time too for you to get the benefit of the change. One system does it, but then you can’t turn it on until the other interfacing partners have done it as well; so we have to synchronize those schedules with other program offices. But I think we’ve been pretty successful in communicating our implementation with higher headquarters so everyone has the right expectations of when those changes will be applied.
What are you hearing, now that there have been a couple years of deployment in place? What is the response now that people have kind of adopted that lifestyle change?
When we initially deployed the system, there were a lot of comments, not positive comments, about, “This is essentially change, we have to enforce change.” They were now doing business differently in this new system, so it was hard for some. Also, part of the challenge is the turnover in employees so we had to ensure that we have an active refresher training program so folks will know how to use the system. The more you know about the system, the more comfortable you are with using the system. But recently the comments I’m getting from the field are [that] they love it.
And what is the new capability they have that they love?
Now you have an integrated financial management system... the ability to get information about how you’re executing your funding across your particular command or your subordinate commands. Before you had to pull it from several sources and aggregate it in another tool to get a total picture of what you’re executing. Now everything is in a single system, so the amount of time spent to get information about your execution is all real time at the tip of your fingers.
So are the time savings and integration of information the biggest benefits in terms of return on investment or is there more to it?
Yes, it’s the business execution throughout the Army. And it’s not just budget execution, but the true managerial cost visibility and asset visibility that you gain out of this new system. So it’s really the value of information that’s now in this enhanced capability for the Army that is invaluable.
In a previous interview with Federal Times, you said one of the things on your plate is integrating the contract procurement system into GFEBS. Where does that stand?
Yeah, so let me clarify that. The program office manages multiple products, so we’re sustaining the GFEBS unclassified system; we’re actually building a second iteration of GFEBS that will be hosted on the classified network for those sensitive activities. We have another requirement to develop another product called Army Contact Writing System. Now, what we haven’t done is determine what platform will be used for that particular requirement. So it could be the same commercial-off-the-shelf product that we’re executing and using for GFEBS or it could be another niche contract writing system provider that we will have to build an interface or integrate that COTS product with all of our financial management systems.
Those decisions haven’t been made yet. It will be a competitive acquisition to select a platform for the contract writing solution. I expect the proposals to hit the street within the next few months ... as a draft in a few months and it will be next fiscal year before the final goes out.
The GFEBS is built on SAP platform ... does it use the HANA in-memory database?
Not right now. We’re actually exploring doing a proof of concept with SAP. There’s a need for in-memory processing capabilities, so we’re looking at multiple vendors to see if we can meet that requirement.
Can you discuss a little bit more what that need is, particularly?
We have a business intelligence system within GFEBS. So we push additional data over into our business intelligence [BI] suite to allow our users to run reports and pull information without taxing our main instance of GFEBS. The more data you push into our BI solution, the more processing capability it will require. It would essentially impact the speed of service for the current architecture for our system, so we’re looking at transitioning to some technology that will allow us to continue to get the speed of service with the need to process more data. So I’m sure you’ve heard of big data. Big data processing requires us to do something a little different.
And when will that decision be made on whether to upgrade to HANA?
Those decisions haven’t been made as of yet, at least not on GFEBS. I know there are other Army ERP’s that are looking at HANA as well. We want to get through this use-case demonstration before we make a decision about what the right solution or product will be to meet our future needs.
What is the status of GFEBS sustainment from a contract perspective?
The prime contractor, the system integrator is Accenture. We provide management oversight and insight into their execution. We’re still making enhancements to the capability today, so we monitor and manage that as well. We make decisions on the technical sustainment of the program as well, so they’ve been the integrator. And we’ve actually just executed the final option on the contract with them. So we’re on the final option year and then we’ll be transitioning to a separate contract vehicle in about a year.
And the follow-on contract next year will be basically the sustainment through the life span of the system?
It probably won’t be a lifespan but probably five or six years of contract process again.
And there’s discussions within the Army about new requirements to be embedded in GFEBS, so we’re exploring using the same vehicle to build those new requirements.
Can you discuss what new requirements might be embedded with that new vehicle?
One in particular is environmental liability. GFEBS is not only the financial management system of record for the Army, but it’s also the real property management system for the Army. And a component of how we manage real property is managing environmental liabilities and environmental spillage. The Army a few years ago had an improved requirement to build a system to manage environmental liabilities; they initially invested in another SAP instance. And just recently the Army made a decision to integrate that in an existing larger ERP, so it’s going to transition from a separate instance into GFEBS; that’s a new requirement.
There’s also discussions on manpower reporting capabilities in GFEBS, managing spaces within the Army. And then the third vetted requirement is the time-in-attendance, so time tracking. Those requirements are being finalized in the Army and building the POM [Program Objective Memorandum] to execute that as a new effort.
Do you see GFEBS eventually absorbing more missions of some related systems that perhaps can be rolled up and put away?
Yeah, I do. Not just GFEBS — I do see our suite of enterprise tools doing that in the future. Eventually we may even do a better job of necking down the décor enterprise tools that we have into a smaller set. So our strategy of focusing on our domain to reduce duplication of effort was a great strategy and then there’s our strategy of looking across domains to ensure we don’t have duplicative strategies and other systems that can be consumed or replaced by our enterprise resource planning systems, whether it’s GFEBS or other systems.
We’ve also gotten a lot of requests outside the Army to leverage the capabilities we’re building so they don’t have to go out and develop their own. Either riding on our system or maybe even taking a copy of it and implementing it within their respective agency.
What are some of those organizations?
An example of that is the Defense Health Agency. We’ve implemented GFEBS at all installations across the world really, to all Army. And here in the national capital region, the Fort Belvoir Hospital is on GFEBS, which is a subset of the national capital region medical directorate. So now they have a request to utilize GFEBS for the Bethesda Hospital and the other health care facilities in the national capital region.