Naval Postgraduate School lecturer takes case studies on the road to offer the acquisition workforce a rare immersive opportunity.
By Michael Bold
Defense acquisition is a complex, painstaking and constantly evolving enterprise, and that’s not going to change. That’s why Dr. Bob Mortlock, a professor of the practice at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), developed a one-day seminar that he’s offering to program executive offices to give defense acquisition workforce members “a chance to step back and take a day to think about the business we’re in.”
“It’s so big, it’s so complex, it’s so incredibly engaging, but oftentimes we don’t take the time to just think about things—to think about the business of acquisition,” he told Army AL&T in April.
Mortlock, who retired as a colonel after a 27-year career in the Army (the last 15 in acquisition), now teaches defense acquisition and program management in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at NPS in Monterey, California. He took his classroom on the road in February and March to the Program Executive Office (PEO) for Ground Combat Systems (GCS) in Warren, Michigan; the PEO for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation (STRI) in Orlando, Florida; and the PEO for Enterprise Information Systems (EIS) at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
The PEOs supply the students and a room to meet in, and NPS supplies the funding and the course materials. Mortlock provides the leadership and the passion.
“When you offer things to folks, often the reaction is, ‘Argh, what do you want? What’s your motive here?’ I don’t have a motive other than sharing case studies with the larger workforce.”
That passion for acquisition—providing lessons learned and best practices, passing on knowledge so that the same wheel is not reinvented endlessly—has made Mortlock a frequent contributor to Army AL&T’s “Been There, Done That” commentary series, which he helped to develop.
“What I get out of it is I stay in touch with the civilian acquisition workforce,” he said. “So I learn things out of this as well. It’s not like I’m completely selfless here. What I get out of it is a connection to the folks that are in the trenches still.”
Most graduate-level classes use the case-study learning approach because it involves students in real-world situations through an experiential approach, Mortlock said: The students can place themselves in the case as the “protagonist,” ask themselves what they would do and justify their recommendations based on facts presented in the case. Defense Acquisition University’s PMT 401 Program Manager’s Course, which involves hundreds of case studies, was “one of the best courses at DAU that I went through,” Mortlock said.
To stimulate thinking about acquisition, Mortlock uses two case studies:
- The rapid developing, testing and fielding of the Enhanced Combat Helmet (ECH). The ECH had to address the rifle threat, be fielded as quickly as possible, and reduce the weight on Soldiers and Marines in combat. It was fielded despite objections from the testing and medical communities. Mortlock uses the ECH case study to illustrate the pitfalls of focusing on speed above all else.
- The incremental development and evolutionary acquisition of the Joint Common Missile (JCM), a joint Army, Navy and Marine Corps effort initiated in the late 1990s to replace HELLFIRE, Maverick and aviation-launched TOW missiles fired from aircraft. The program successfully reached milestone B in early 2005 but was canceled later that year, only to be followed by the Joint Air to Ground Missile program, which reached milestone B in 2015.
While Mortlock writes and publishes case studies in his position at NPS, “the larger acquisition workforce never gets to read and study those case studies that board-selected product managers see. And what I was thinking was, ‘OK, let’s offer to the PEOs a chance to give their civilian workforce training, development and education through these case studies.’ So that’s what I really wanted to do.”
The case studies he uses—peer-reviewed, journal-published studies he has used in his classes for years—are built around three central themes: critical thinking, problem-solving and decision-making. The ones he selected for the class, he said, are applicable to the challenges facing defense acquisition at large. “We all know that the emphasis of senior leaders and Congress is, ‘OK, fix this broken acquisition system that’s too slow and unresponsive.’ ”
WELCOME DOSE OF REALITY
How was Mortlock’s class received? “It was overwhelmingly positive. … They seemed really engaged and really appreciative of the fact that they had an opportunity to step back and just think about the business they’re in,” he said.
The students Mortlock gets in his PEO classes are quite different from the ones he gets at NPS, he noted. Students at NPS are typically officers at the O-4 level—majors in the Army, Air Force and Marine Corps, lieutenant commanders in the Navy—who are either new to acquisition or have had just one assignment. At the PEOs, Mortlock is reviewing case studies with acquisition workforce professionals.
“The civilian acquisition workforce is so diverse, so experienced,” he said. “And so when you get those folks in a room together, it’s really incredible to see the dynamics. Some folks are just new. And some folks are very experienced. And to see them working on the same case study and giving different perspectives on the same case study. … In these cases studies there’s no right answer, usually, and that’s what makes it really interesting. Because they can learn from each other.”
Judith A. Gachupin, strategic planner for the Project Manager for Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle within PEO GCS, took Mortlock’s class at Warren. “The studies provided insight into how the DOD [Instruction 5000.02] and acquisition management has changed over the years,” she said. “What was not even a consideration six to eight years ago is now possible today, as we work to ‘lean’ our processes and look at alternate solutions to speed up the acquisition process.”
She added: “This training was different as we were using real program data versus a made-up training scenario. The real data brings a better sense of reality to the discussion and more clearly portrays the impact of the decisions we make as acquisition developers.”
Mortlock is hoping the three PEOs will invite him back next year, where he’ll introduce some new case studies and maybe help them develop a case study on a program specific to the PEO. “And maybe next year I get a few other PEOs to jump on.”
For more information, contact Mortlock at firstname.lastname@example.org.
MICHAEL BOLD provides contract support to the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center. He is a writer-editor for Network Runners Inc., with more than 30 years of editing experience at newspapers, including the McClatchy Washington Bureau, The Sacramento Bee, the San Jose Mercury News, the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of Missouri.
“Been There, Done That: Beware the Rush to Failure,” Robert F. Mortlock, Army AL&T, and January – March 2019: https://asc.army.mil/web/news-alt-amj19-beware-the-rush-to-failure/
“Been There, Done That: Short-Cutting T&E can have Big Consequences,” Robert F. Mortlock, Army AL&T, and July – September 2018: https://asc.army.mil/web/news-alt-jas18-how-much-testing-is-enough/
“Been There, Done That: Think Ready, Be Ready,” Robert F. Mortlock, Army AL&T, and October – December 2017: https://asc.army.mil/web/news-alt-ond17-been-there-done-that-think-ready-be-ready/
“Been There, Done That: Want a High Return?” Robert F. Mortlock, Army AL&T, July – September 2017: https://asc.army.mil/web/news-alt-jas17-been-there-done-that-want-a-high-return/