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Reduce IT failures with good CONOPS

Of late I have been working my way through a detailed and exceptional example of a concept-of-operations (CONOPS) document for a particular Navy IT system now under development. I am happy to say that this CONOPS actually accompanied the request for proposal to the vendors competing to build the proposed IT system. With the news full of government failures on large-scale IT projects, I contend that this one document, if done well, can be a strong indicator as to the success or failure of a large IT system. 

So, what is a CONOPS document and why is it important?

While a CONOPS document can be created for purposes other than IT systems development, in my career I have created them as part of the justification of proposed IT systems. Specifically, a CONOPS is a document that envisions a future state where the operation of a new IT system positively impacts the mission of a group of end users. In other words it conceptualizes how the new system will operate by providing user scenarios that show, in detail, how the new system improves the way people work to achieve their mission. 

Those detailed user scenarios are critical to a good CONOPS document as they serve to both justify and specify how the new system will work. It helps describe a “day in the life” of an end user after the new system is put in place. 

An important distinction here is that only a good, detailed CONOPS will reduce IT failures because it has the ability to actually guide the development of the IT system. In contrast, I have seen quite a few poorly written CONOPS that were nothing more than high-level “puff” pieces full of fancy sounding words with no concrete vision of how the system will operate. In other words, all concept and no operation. 

Without a doubt, the devil is in the details, and those details, extracted through painstaking sweat and tears, must be evident in the envisioned user scenarios. 

One final point on a good CONOPS is that it should also follow standard enterprise architecture methodology that consists of understanding the “as-is” environment, the “to-be” objective environment and the transition from the former to the latter. Demonstrating an in-depth knowledge of the current environment is critical to understanding its weaknesses and how the proposed IT system fills those gaps.

A Web search for CONOPS templates produces numerous useful outlines. One good outline is the IEEE Concept of Operations Document Template, and a more detailed version of the same outline with explanations of each section is provided by the state of Florida. Furthermore, a Web search for CONOPS examples produces numerous sample documents from many different agencies. While many of these require operational knowledge of the domain to judge their efficacy, it is still worthwhile to peruse some of the examples. 

For many government organizations, a CONOPS document is already part of their software development life cycle; however, if it is not part of your organization’s SDLC then now is the time to add this useful tool to your development process. If you already require CONOPS documents, now is the time to re-examine some of them, differentiate the good from the bad and train your staff on CONOPS best practices. All of us, as taxpayers, deserve nothing less. 

Michael C. Daconta (mdaconta@incadencecorp.com or @mdaconta) is the Vice President of Advanced Technology at InCadence Strategic Solutions and the former Metadata Program Manager for the Homeland Security Department. His new book is entitled, The Great Cloud Migration: Your Roadmap to Cloud Computing, Big Data and Linked Data.

Posted by Michael C. Daconta on Feb 05, 2014 at 1:15 PM


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