Beyond the Innovation Void

23 March 2017

Two of our project leads, Ian Dreelan and Andy Wire, have been involved in a number of challenging and innovative projects in the Intelligence and Cyber Programme within Niteworks. They discuss what they’ve learnt about the practical challenges in applying innovative techniques to defence projects…

Everybody is suddenly being innovative, or are they? A much vaunted word sprinkled liberally through many a meeting, but what do people mean when they talk of innovation and are they actually delivering?

Innovation, it’s all about good ideas, right? Well that’s partly true. Good ideas, whether technical solutions to problems or better ways of working are extremely important. Unless you can get those good ideas practically exploited into the hands of users, then your efforts are wasted and you’re simply staring into what we consider the ‘innovation void’.

To achieve “the practical application of good ideas”, our working definition of innovation, it is necessary to take not just an innovative approach to recognising new ideas, but also to acquiring capability, governing delivery and thinking about risk and uncertainty. For fast moving technology-led capabilities, the idea of fully specifying the users’ requirements and undertaking a lengthy acquisition means that the delivered solution has often been overtaken by events, changes in technology or changes in the landscape and environment within which we are operating.  

So how does Defence break the cycle of acquiring obsolete capabilities - what has been referred to elsewhere as the “future-legacy” problem? Our experience within Niteworks in particular through recent projects focussing on Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), Cyber and Social Media has allowed us to learn how innovation can be incorporated effectively into projects. During the OSINT project we helped Defence define a new acquisition approach with innovation and iterative capability delivery at its heart.

Industry and academia can provide a unique perspective on Defence’s capability acquisition plans. This input will ensure that the ambitions of Defence are realistic and achievable based on where technology is likely to be within the near-to-mid-term. Experience within Niteworks through Hackathons, Academathons and Sprints has shown this engagement typically results in Defence revising-up its ambitions, based on a better understanding of the art-of-the-possible. The Niteworks 2016 Academathon enabled Defence to calibrate its understanding of the art of the possible for technologies seeking to make sense of large complex datasets, but also the likely future Social Media landscape.

Investing during the pre-concept or concept phase for a future capability is important.  The use of concept demonstrators to bring to life particular problems and generate evidence (through learn-by-doing) is essential in exploring and accelerating the understanding of non-equipment, softer issues that will be important factors in a potential future project, such as training and policy. A good example of this approach within Niteworks would be the use of a Capability Concept Demonstrator (CCD) during the OSINT project.

Innovation in delivery is also essential. An incremental approach delivering frequent updates and improvements to a core capability fits with an Agile approach, but this needs to be under the direction and governance of Defence. Anarchy does not lead to innovation: a degree of governance and control is essential. 

Recognising and capturing good ideas will need to be at the heart of capability evolution - whether this is doing things differently, or doing different things enabled through technology. The importance of this “innovation function” should not be underestimated, nor the work required to ferret out potential good ideas. 

In summary, innovation is not simply about good ideas but critically how they are exploited. Defence will need to think innovatively about how it commissions research, specifies requirements, approaches acquisition including approvals, and how it addresses the delivery challenges of continual capability evolution. Within Niteworks we have been fortunate enough to be at the forefront of helping Defence achieve this vision. With Defence, we have stared into the innovation void, and helped build a bridge across it. We look forward to continuing to do so in our current and future projects.

About the authors:

  • Andy Wire and Ian Dreelan have been involved in Niteworks variously as Project Leads (both), Subject Matter Experts (both) and Technical Lead (Andy). Andy is a Senior Consultant with Montvieux Limited and Ian is a Chief Consultant with Nova Systems (UK)
  • The Intelligence and Cyber Programme is led by Steven Harland  (