On the morning of June 14, 2004, when Kenneth
Percell, the CIO of the Air Force Materiel
Command, walked into his office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base located near Dayton,
Ohio, everythingÂdown to the pen on his
deskÂlooked much the same as it had every
day for the previous three years. But Percell
was no longer just a CIO.
On that day, Percell stepped into the newly created role of
director of transformation for the AFMC, the group that handles
technology logistics and acquisitions for the Air Force. The Air
Force minted that role to do nothing less than completely
re-engineer its business processes and give it better insight into
"We have to be able to see what's
coming with technology," says Col.
Paul Law, AFMC deputy director
for communications and information.
"Then, we need to apply technology
innovations against warfighter and
business needs, maintain information
assurance standards, and do that fast
enough to create an operational and
business advantage for the command."
The Air Force drafted Percell for this
role because of his credentials: He's a
long-time tech veteran who understands
how to bridge the gap between deploying
technology and managing change.
Percell, the second-highest-ranking
civilian in the organization, began his
career in 1975 at McClellan Air Force Base
in Sacramento, Calif. He served at Hill Air
Force Base in Ogden, Utah, before coming
to Wright-Patterson in 2000 as chief
information officer, chief technology
officer and chief architecture officer.
Wright-Patterson, the largest air force base,
is primarily responsible for acquisition and
management services, as well being home
to its aeronautical and aerospace research
Percell spent six months preparing for
this role. He started by moving AFMC
operations from a unit-centric model to
a base-centric model, with a command-centric model as the ultimate goal.
AFMC merged the communications
and information directorate with the
command chief technology officer
directorate to form the new information
technology directorate. According to the
Air Force, the move would "help give
the command more oversight of IT
development, reducing the amount of
time it takes to get IT to the field and
allowing it to focus more on a results-oriented business solution mentality."
Percell recently spoke with Fed Tech
about his new responsibilities, the
process of streamlining Air Force IT
operations and the dichotomy of being
a civilian in a military world.
Fed Tech: What are the biggest IT
challenges facing the Air Force today?
Percell: Our biggest challenge is to
stop viewing technology as individual
pieces and view it in a much more
integrated fashion. A lot of folks
come to the door with "technical
opportunities," and they can be
deployed one at a time and gain
us some efficiency.
But the entire Air Force is
adopting more of a capability
frameworkÂwhat are the
capabilities we need, and how
do I put all the pieces together
to form a capability to do
businessÂin our case, to provide
Our challenge is to move to a
model of integrating technology
capabilities, IT and business
processes. That's a far more
strategic kind of activity than
just shopping for another
Fed Tech: Did that require
eliminating redundancies and
Percell: Yes. That was one of the first
things I looked at as CIOÂmoving
from a unit-centric model to a base
model, so everything on a [military]
installation was integrated. Now the
challenge is moving from a base-centric
model to a command-centric model,
where all the components of the
command are integrated. That [includes
consolidating] 120 discrete e-mail
systems into one standard e-mail
application across the whole command.
Here's another example: What if I
went to a base and wanted to know
how to check into a building? At all
the bases I went to, that [check-in]
information was in a different place on
their Web pages. So, the first thing we
had to do was come up with standards
for page architectures. Now we're
migrating to a very large common
application called the Air Force Portal
to deliver that information.
We're also moving to regional
architectures for servers and service
delivery. Instead of 12 installations with
data centers, we're moving to four
installations. That's about halfway
[complete]. We're doing the same thing
with our secure networks to consolidate
classified services at two locations. After
those are consolidated, we'll try to
bring common applications to those
locations. On a timeline of things to do,
we're maybe 65 percent [complete].
But it's more than that. It's also one
standard way of doing some of our
business processes. If you went to
three of our installations, each might
take on a particular business process
differentlyÂeven though they're all
reading from the same regulations and
standardsÂbecause of the different
technology they're deploying.
Fed Tech: What's the next
Percell: We've done the easy stuff to
work internal business efficiency. Now
the big mining operation has to start,
which is how we connect to the
supplier base and sophisticated
acquisition and supply chain
management business processes that
are under way. We buy things like F-22
airplanes and Joint Strike Fighters,
which require very IT-centric changes
in the way we connect to those
suppliers, as well as how we engineer,
test and field those platforms.
Fed Tech: You report to Air Force
Gen. Gregory Martin, who ultimately
sets the agenda. Would you say
military and civilian sides are
working hand in hand?
Percell: I go to the staff meeting on
Wednesday mornings, and the agenda
is right there. No problem. Gen.
Martin is very focused. He's been
around a lot of these different areas of
command. He's very clear with his
direction, so [his agenda is] pretty
easy to steer by.
Fed Tech: You are the second-highest-ranking civilian in the AFMC.
How does that affect the way you
approach your job?
Percell: The real difficulty lately is
related to this focus on supporting
combat operationsÂthe warfighters. I
don't wear a military uniform, so I
have a credibility gap to get over. I'm
looked at first as a businessman,
second as an Air Force civilian.
When I sit down with the
operational wing commander who has
returned from a deployment in the
Gulf, the question [I'm asked] is,
"What are you doing to support me?"
I don't get immediate credibility; I
have to buy my way into that
conversation. That's key to this new
transformation role because our
mission is to shape the Air Force and
AFMC's operational support. If I'm to
shape this operational support, I need
to have credibility that I understand
how these operations work.
I know a lot about what it takes to
support the military component of the
organization. I have a lot of empathy
for what their operational needs are,
and I've worked with a lot of folks in
[that area] during my career.
Fed Tech: What's your strategy
for gaining credibility with military
Percell: It's more like tactics.
Sometimes I'll find somebody in the
room who knows what I know, and
I'll try to partner with them in the
discussion and leverage their carefully
placed questions. But, generally, it's
just about being able to quickly get to
my own articulation of their problem.
When they hear me say what they
need fixed, and they don't have to say
it to me, it makes all the difference in
Fed Tech: What key relationships
have you forged in preparation for
your new role?
Percell: Capitalizing on the
relationship that I already have with the
Air Force CIO is key, and I'm forging a
more in-depth relationship with the
[Deputy Chief of Staff for Warfighting
Integration] Lt. Gen. William Hobbins
in his role as the Air Force integrator
for C4 [Command, Control,
Communications and Computers] and
ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance and
Reconnaissance] capabilities. That tag
team leads the commander's integrated
product team [CIPT]. Its role is to help
the Air Force modernize operational
support. So, as the support command,
AFMC's role is now to understand,
empathize with, and act on their
requirements and policies in the CIPT.
I've also forged relationships with
each of the key functional communities
at the Pentagon levelÂthe installation
logistics organization, the personnel
organization, the finance communityÂabout 23 major offices in all. My
challenge is integrating all that.
Fed Tech: You refer to the Air Force in
business terms. Does that create a
communications gap with military
Percell: No, because I change my
dialect. I talk to my suppliers in one
dialect, which is "geek-techese." I talk
to my peers and other CIOs in the
commercial and services space in
whatever dialect they can relate to.
When I talk to the military folks,
I don't use the B word [business]
because it's not well thought of. [Some
believe that] when you make systems
more efficient, you've compromised
their effectiveness. So, I've switched
In fact, the chief of staff of the
Air Force took the "business
modernization" context and changed
its name to "operational support
modernization." I'm one of the first
people to start talking in those terms.
I'm not modernizing the business of
the Air Force; I'm modernizing the
operational support of the Air Force,
which means that the business gets
dragged along in the vortex.
That very much helps the
credibility issue and cements the
Fed Tech: What is your greatest
responsibility going forward?
Percell: The focus changes, the
intent changes significantly and
expectations change monumentally.
That's going to be the most
challenging part for me. We will
forever shift from just trying to be
efficient to trying to have a dramatic
impact on the overall effectiveness
and mission capability. [Overall
effectiveness] is really going to be
put in bold letters on the front page
above the fold.
The U.S. Air Force
(AFMC) provides the
science and technology
to develop, acquire and
sustain the combat
capabilities of the Air
Force. This includes
fielding, and operating
support. AFMC has an IT
staff of 100 military and
civilian professionals at
its Ohio headquarters
and 1,700 additional
As director of
transformation for the
U.S. Air Force Materiel
Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base
in Ohio, Kenneth Percell's
job encompasses the
duties of a chief
technology officer, chief
architecture officer and
chief information officer.
In addition, he was
for business process
him additional resources
to help the Air Force
become more efficient
by leveraging IT. Percell
has held various IT
positions within the
Air Force since 1975.