Preliminary, non-operational, but used operationally? Huh?

The ‘O’ in R2O is sometimes confounding. Whereas the realm of research is an expansive net for innovation, the concept of operations is more of a broadening spectrum. What constitutes operations? When is a research byproduct considered operational? Does an operational status confer consistency and reliability requirements? Must training be available for operations before a research byproduct is operational? Who decides whether a transitioned research byproduct should be used operationally?

These are not necessarily easy questions to answer, and they may vary depending on the nature of the project and byproduct, but there are some guidelines that can make it easier to assess where in the R2O cycle a transitioned item sits in its readiness for application to an organization’s deliverables and services.

First, it is important to define the portion of an organization or enterprise that constitutes “operations” at the onset of the research—before it is ready for any demonstration. There are sometimes two different visions of operations that exist downstream. Systems engineers will see “operations” as the system or set of systems responsible for creating a research byproduct in a consistent and reliable sense, and the personnel that support that infrastructure. For them, their reality of operations, as unsettling as it may be, is less about the practitioner and more about the upstream computational resources that must deliver a transitioned item based on pre-established metrics of timeliness and availability.

Because these stringent metrics usually require a sustained level of funding, and there is software development necessary to formally implement transitioned items, this concept of operations can amplify a “speed bump” in the R2O cycle to an impenetrable barrier, especially absent strategic planning well ahead of an item reaching this stage. For this reason, using systems engineering metrics as a proxy for an item’s operational status is typically less than ideal, at least for the purpose of making it available for demonstration to practitioners. After all, the genesis of quality R2O is collaborations, so impediments to the interaction between research and operations, and evaluation of transitioned items, should be minimized to the most practical extent possible.

With few exceptions, practitioners are often the targets or receivers of transitioned items in the R2O cycle. In this sense, “operations” is the customer-facing presence in an organization, and potentially the second tier, or “back line” support. This allows, perhaps paradoxically, for pre-operational research byproducts to be used operationally, even in a demonstration capacity. In other words, transitioned items that are still run on a development platform may be used to support decisions for their customers. But is this always appropriate?

The question in this scenario is whether a transitioned item is stable enough and easy enough to interpret or use without formal or recurring training. If a practitioner can determine when a research byproduct is behaving outside of its prescribed quality specifications such that it can be ignored, then the operational use can only yield a benefit. If allowing practitioners to make that delineation requires training, then that must be a necessary component of an operationalization effort.

A lack of clarity about what is operational and what can be used operationally has led to real confusion. When imagery from the first satellite in the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R-Series (GOES-R) became available via direct broadcast services, there were competing concepts of operations. Should practitioners use imagery from a new satellite for real weather analysis and forecast challenges? The satellite was still undergoing a necessary checkout period to ensure quality calibration and navigation. Since imagery was routinely available, some meteorologists took to social media to decry the mandated “preliminary, non-operational” tag as a punch line to the same bad joke. And who could blame them? If imagery from GOES-R could help their operational needs and deliver a better deliverable or service to their customers, why should the operational status of the satellite dictate whether it should? Fortunately, the National Weather Service assured their staff that this pre-operational data could be used operationally so long as it was available.

Let the value proposition guide your operational assessment. It should matter less about what availability metrics say about operational status than how much value it adds for the practitioner decisions that ultimately reach the users or customers. While poor consistency and reliability may be detrimental to the R2O cycle, too stringent definitions can withhold benefits. Achieving a balance is important, and establishing that expectation early on in the R2O cycle is paramount. Letting both “ends” of the R2O process decide the best approach to the operational transition timeline is ideal. After all, “research” generates the value and “operations” captures, realizes, and exploits it for the betterment of the organization or enterprise.