Information Management from the Bottom

It’s time for the Marine Corps to make better use of its Internet capabilities. 

Introduction
The motto of the Marine Corps Command, Control, Communications, and Computers (C4) group is “Think Big, Start Small, Scale Fast.” Although this is a reasonable idea given the task of directing all the information management activities in the Marine Corps, the C4 motto could do a better job in its implementation. While the motto suggests a top-down approach to information management, the Marine Corps’ current strategy is everything but. As the Training NCO with VMAQ-3, I regularly encounter instances where better-managed information would benefit everyone. In addition to reducing man-hours, a top-down information management strategy would aid Marines in the performance of their jobs, in the use of online resources, and transitioning from the Marine Corps.

Records Management

It is time to do the yearly swim qualification. I produce a list of Marines from the Operation’s Department Ground Training Database. The list is passed to the Maintenance Chief who runs the list past his database. I get the list back and it looks like this:

Name Shop

LCpl Smith ECM

Cpl Jones A/F

Sgt Rodriquez Maint Control

The Maintenance Chief has scratched LCpl Smith off my list because he has been assigned temporarily to another unit through the end of the year. Meanwhile, Cpl Jones has become Sgt Jones, and Sgt Rodriquez now works in Flight Equipment. The Maintenance Chief wants to know why my training information is so inaccurate.

This problem is systemic of organizing information with a bottom-up approach. Within VMAQ-3, we have five databases that track much of the same information. This approach has numerous problems including inaccurate information, excessive man-hours, and an “information middle-man” in the form of Combined Administration Centers (CAC). Instead of helping to audit errors, the extra layers of bureaucracy create new ones in three ways.

First, information that must be reproduced repeatedly is naturally open to error. General information such as name, rank, and social security number is maintained in every database, which gives every Marine five chances to have his information entered incorrectly.

Second, man-hours can be reduced greatly if units simply used one database to maintain all information and restricted the access to certain sections. For example, if the S-1 changes a Marine’s rank, why should the other four sections have to make this change as well? Restricting the write access of Administrative fields, such as Name and Social Security Number, to only S-1 Marines will increase accuracy and decrease redundancy.

Third, a global unified database that can be programmed to interface with the Marine Corps Total Forces System (MCTFS) would greatly reduce the need for units like the CAC. The key to making a system like this work is limiting the dissemination of the password that would allow updates to the MCTFS. Eliminating this “information middle-man” would greatly increase the efficiency of the individual units and also save man-hours. Instead of having entire units whose function is to put information into the MCTFS, designate one Marine per unit who is the gatekeeper for information into the MCTFS.

Some think that the CAC serves as a filter or security checkpoint for information that is placed into MCTFS. In my limited experience, this is not the case. As a security measure, the CAC uses security by obfuscation. That is, no one can find the information to alter it. The CAC is not a filter; it is a stumbling block. If I cannot directly control information about my Marines, then the Operations department will become ineffective. I cannot enumerate all the instances when I have submitted something to the CAC and it is either never processed or is done so incorrectly. Centralizing the information and then holding individual units responsible makes more sense from both a security and accuracy standpoint.

In short, the records management of the Marine Corps has not been tackled at the highest level. This oversight is costing both man-hours and accuracy of information. A simple solution is for the Marine Corps to adopt a global unified database that can be utilized by all subordinate units. While this is not a trivial undertaking, it is certainly worth our time to ensure that information about our Marines is accurately reported and recorded. If not for that reason, then produce the database to decrease man-hours on administrative matters and increase the number of trigger pullers.

Online Integration

Forgot what your last Rifle Qualification was? No problem. The Marine Corps has set up an outstanding online resource for you. Log onto Marine Online (MOL) (https://www.mol.usmc.mil), create an account and password, and look at your entire service record.

Want to take a course online? No problem. The Marine Corps has set up an outstanding Online Distance Learning Portal, through which you can take a myriad of courses. Log onto MarineNet (https://www.marinenet.usmc.mil), create an account and password, and learn all about Microsoft Office.

Want to connect to Marines from your hometown? No problem. The Marine Corps has set up a unique program called Marine For Life so you can contact Marines from your hometown. Log onto Marine For Life (https://www.m4l.usmc.mil), create an account and password, and start chatting with Marines from your hometown.

Unfortunately, by the time most Marines discover all of these resources they are going to be EASing. Once they are being utilized, it is unnecessarily difficult to remember all the logins and passwords. All of these resources are great, but they need to be in one place with one login and password. The Marine Corps needs to combine all these services, and possibly other online resources like MyPay and the MCI website, into one integrated conglomerate perhaps by integrating all of them under MOL. Temporarily, we will refer to the conglomerate as Marine Portal.

Take LCpl Leonard as an example. LCpl Leonard is about to be Honorably Discharged from the Marine Corps with an Associates Degree in Professional Aeronautics thanks to Tuition Assistance. He is going to pursue the College Student Pre-Commissioning Initiate (CSPI) in the Coast Guard. This is an outstanding Marine, but he has never logged onto MarineNet or Marine For Life. If LCpl Leonard, who has taken college courses online, is not utilizing these resources, what are the chances that other junior Marines are doing so?

In order to promulgate these resources (to our junior Marines in particular), it is in our interest to create a “one-stop-shopping” for all our Marines’ online needs. I can already foresee some of the obstacles:

  1. The Marine On Line staff doesn’t want to cede control to the MarineNet Marines who don’t even talk to the Marine For Life guys. While these functions are separate, their method of delivery is the same — the Internet. I am suggesting administrative control not operational control. While this will strain each group somewhat, the eventual benefit is more usage for each individual online service.
  2. We do more with less. Yes, we do, but I believe that the cost of partnership is going to be minimal. Right now, we are spending money on these programs individually. We should combine these resources into one pot and increase the usage of all these programs. After the initial investment to integrate these services, the cost of maintenance and upkeep will be no more than it is now.

What would the benefits be of this approach?

  1. The guy in your hometown (Marine for Life) who is trying to help you get a job can benefit from knowing that you completed the entire Microsoft Office Suite (MarineNet) and that you received a Meritorious Mast for supervising 15 Marines (Marine Online).
  2. Security will also be improved which is a major concern with identify theft on the rise. Information like social security numbers and date of birth can give a criminal enough information to get a credit card. With all online resources integrated, having only one login and password will allow intrusion detection and avoidance to be better staffed. That is, it is easier to guard one door than it is to guard three.
  3. The Marine Corps will save money by integrating all our online resources. In the short term there will be an added costs to make sure that the online services can support the needed bandwidth and that all online tests are accurate, but in the long run, we will make up for that cost by reducing man-hours associated with the current method. Every administrative cost we save means more trigger pullers for the fight.
  4. Marines who have the least amount of exposure to computers and the Internet are going to benefit the most from this partnership. Once every Marine is issued a Marine Portal account at boot camp, the Marine Corps can start to administer tests online, including the annual Common Skills Test (CST) and MCI Tests. This will assist junior Marines leaving the Marine Corps to be better prepared for college curriculum that increasingly relies on computer use.

I know what some will say about utilizing online testing: “It cannot be done.” Yet our squadron, VMAQ-3, is currently deployed to Bagram, Afghanistan, and over 80 of our Marines have completed the CST via MarineNet. The more we use these resources the better the resources will become, and that has a disproportionately positive effect on our junior Marines.

When Amazon.com started, they sold only books. Now, you can get anything from a tube of toothpaste to a 54-inch television to the latest bestseller from Amazon.com. It is time for the Marine Corps to catch up and integrate our online services. We owe it to our junior Marines who are going to leave the Marine Corps to prepare them as best we can for the world that awaits them.

E-mail Management

In many instances, I have been tasked with tracking down the Flight Operations NCO for VMAQ-4, a sister Prowler squadron. For example, when other aircrew fly our aircraft, it is imperative that we receive the NAVFLIRS so that we can close out the month. The only problem is that I have no way to find out who in VMAQ-4 is responsible for this information. While they have the exact same Table of Organization (T/O) as we do, it is impossible to know which Marine does my analogous job in that squadron.

The Marine Corps should create a Table of Information (T/I) that provides an e-mail address for each billet within the Marine Corps. For example, if Flt.Ops.NCO.VMAQ-4@usmc.mil existed within the Global Contact List, I would instantly know whom to contact about our dilemma. The (T/I) should also be readily available through other online resources such as USMC.mil. This billet e-mail address can be quickly aliased to a new Marine should the billet be switched for whatever reason. This recommendation is made to fulfill continuity for individual billets.

It is also recommended that Marines be issued a permanent e-mail address when they complete recruit training or officer candidate school. This information would be included on identification cards along with blood type, social security number, and other personal information. This recommendation is made to fulfill continuity for our individual Marines. If this recommendation is accepted with the recommendation for Online Integration, it is not hard to envision that a Marine’s permanent e-mail will also serve as his Marine Portal Login.

My understanding is that NMCI will set up permanent emails for all Marines, although this motivator has yet to receive one, but that billet emails are not allowed by the NMCI contract. If that is the case, when the contract is renewed, the continuity of billets is an issue that should be considered for the new contract.

Collateral Duty

Collateral duties in our squadron run the gamut from Electronic Warfare to Legal Officer. However, there is no one who is directly responsible for the user-friendly, accurate utilization of information within our squadron and rapid, precise dissemination of information to other senior units.

Individual units will be better served if all units have an Information Management Officer (IMO) to ensure that information is processed, stored, and utilized in a coordinated fashion. In addition, each unit should have an Information Management NCO (IM NCO), a Marine from the S-1 or S-3, whose specific job is quality assurance for information that is entered into the MCTFS. I am not suggesting that the T/O be adjusted. I am merely suggesting that a collateral duty billet be created and manned by an officer and NCO already assigned to a unit. The IM NCO need not be an ISC because the IM NCO’s job is to serve as the gatekeeper for information that the unit enters into the global unified database.

The IMO is separate and distinct from the Public Affairs Officer (PAO). For example, an IMO would ensure that all common files for a work center are kept only in one location on a shared drive. This practice ensures accuracy without redundancy. The IMO, with assistance from the IM NCO, would also ensure that information that is updated in the MCTFS is highly controlled. Assuming that this recommendation is adopted with the others, it is not hard to envision an online collateral duty course entitled IMO Course and IMO NCO Course available through the Marine Portal.

Conclusion

I refer to remarks that Brigadier General Robert M. Shea, then Director of C4, made before the House Armed Services committee on Information Assurance in May of 2001. “In addition to implementing DOD directives, the intent of our evolving policy is as follows: …use web technology to the greatest extent possible in support of training.” If indeed that is our intent, why has the Marine Corps not adopted a policy to utilize the MarineNet Distance Learning Portal as the sole means of examination for MCIs or the annual CST? Why have we not moved more quickly in this direction?

Moore’s law of technology predicts that computing processor power doubles every 18 months. A corollary to that law might be as follows: it doubles because people want it to double. Would we have a Pentium processor if no one had bought a 286 processor? Many people, without realizing it, make the counter argument: these resources are not used because they are not good products. No, they are not good products because they are not used. The online resources that the Marine Corps provides will only improve if the Marine Corps ensures that they are utilized. An excellent way to do that is to require that all testing be administered online and to ensure that all online services are integrated. Consider the costs of training one person in the traditional manner with classrooms and an instructor versus the costs of training one person online. The Marine Corps will make up any cost incurred in the initial change over to full online testing in subsequent years when it does not have to pay for the publication of thousands of CST booklets.

These recommendations also come at a time when the Department of the Navy, through its Program Executive Office for Information Technology (PEO-IT), is in the process of collecting and analyzing information on its IT assets. Several assets that we do not possess are as follows: a global unified database for individual units to utilize and interface with the MCTFS system; and an integrated, “one-stop-shopping” online resource that displays Marines’ biographical, training, pay information, distance learning transcripts, and opportunities that allow Marines to communicate with other Marines in their hometowns.

Disintermediation — the process of cutting out the middleman — is a process that is implemented more and more regularly by businesses and online resources. This principle allows parents to look up symptoms of their child’s illness at WebMD without directly consulting the doctor. It allows shoppers at Bizrate.com compare prices on digital cameras. Hopefully someday soon, this principle will allow us to take better care of our Marines . In general, because IT/IM grew up around the Marine Corps, instead of the other way around, these issues are natural and are not caused by human error. However, this should not stop us from centralizing responsibility for IT/IM issues to improve services that already exist. These recommendations work to reduce redundancy and increase accuracy across the spectrum of IT/IM issues, and I hope they will be given all due consideration.

Summary of Recommendations

  1. A global unified database that is disseminated from Headquarter Marine Corps to all subordinate units will greatly aid the process of record keeping. Specifically, this database would be designed to interface with the MCTFS system. The MCTFS interface must be password protected to limit its access to perhaps one Marine per unit. This recommendation has the added benefit that it should lead to a reduction in man-hours and possibly the elimination of CACs, the “information middle-man,” throughout the Marine Corps.
  2. The Marine Corps should combine the administration of all online resources and issue every Recruit a “one-stop-shopping” login and password. One Marine Portal login, with access to MarineNet, Marine For Life, and Marine Online, will greatly increase the usage of each of these programs and ultimately save the Marine time and money. It is not hard to imagine additional online resources, such as an Online chat program, the DFAS website, and the MCI website, are all incorporated. If Recommendation # 3 is implemented, the login could simply be the Marine’s permanent e-mail address.
  3. The Marine Corps should issue e-mails with two things in mind, as follows: a. Continuity for the billet & b. Continuity for the Marine

For this reason, each billet within the table of organization should be given its own general e-mail, called the Table of Information (T/I) in this article. In addition, Marines should be assigned a permanent e-mail before they depart recruit training or OCS. For example, PFC Roger Huffstetler would depart recruit training with roger.huffstetler@usmc.mil as his permanent e-mail. However, upon reaching his first duty station, the e-mail for the Training NCO for his unit, Trng.NCO.VMAQ-3@usmc.mil, would be set up to automatically forward to his permanent account, effectively aliasing the billet e-mail to the individual Marine.

4. Each unit needs to have an Information Management Officer who is responsible for ensuring that information is processed and disseminated in a rapid, user-friendly, and accurate manner. An Information Management NCO should also serve as gatekeeper for all information that is entered in the MCTFS.

This article originally appeared in the Marine Corps Gazette, November 2005: http://www.rdhjr.com/docs/information.management.pdf

.@USMC Veteran. @UnivWestGa and @HarvardHBS alum. Worked at @Twilio, founded Zillabyte. Democratic Candidate for Congress in VA-05.

.@USMC Veteran. @UnivWestGa and @HarvardHBS alum. Worked at @Twilio, founded Zillabyte. Democratic Candidate for Congress in VA-05.