The FBI and VCF: A Case Of Clockspeed Mismatch?
Recent news reports indicate the FBI may abandon a project central to “Trilogy"—the brand name for the agency’s mission to upgrade its technology in order to more quickly access and share information about terrorism and other domestic threats. The FBI started the $170 million project, called Virtual Case File (VCF) in 2001 after Sept. 11, and intended to deploy it in December 2003.
During project development, four different CIOs and 14 different project managers cycled through the agency.The FBI has acknowledged that "the pace of technological innovation has overtaken our original vision for VCF, and there are now existing products to suit our purposes that did not exist when Trilogy began.”
So in the three plus years between the project launch and today’s looming project scrapheap, related off-the-shelf technology products matured and reached the marketplace at a faster rate, and with a superior quality of user experience, than the FBI’s custom-application building process. VCF would seem to be a case in clockspeed mismatch.
In his book, “Clockspeed: Winning Industry Control in the Age of Temporary Advantage,” Charles Fine, a management professor at MIT, coins the concept of “organizational clockspeed” as the pace at which companies and institutions evolve by making decisions about product design, process technology, and supply chain management.
The term clockspeed has long been used in computers to describe the rate at which the central processing unit (CPU) can execute instructions. Each tick of the computer’s internal clock sends a pulse to the CPU, and the CPU components await each pulse to execute a single round of instructions. A 733 MHz CPU chip has a clock which ticks 733 million times each second, each tick representing an “instruction execution cycle.”
Fine extends the clockspeed analogy in two directions, one to biology and the other to business. Fast-clockspeed companies must act like fruit flies, who “go from egghood to parenthood to death in under two weeks,” and therefore must make fast decisions that impact their genetic future. Slow-clockspeed companies, by contrast, are more like the sea turtle, who, with a lifespan of up to a century or more, “has evolved little since its terrestrial cousins, the dinosaurs, roamed the earth."
Fast clockspeeds, Fine notes, "shorten the duration of any competitive advantage.” Slow clockspeed institutions, particularly in the public sector, respond slowly to changes in the environment, and are easily overtaken by the fast-clockspeed dynamos of the private sector.
VCF seems to be a case of the FBI trying to regain lost advantage in information technology but operating at a clockspeed mismatched to the situation of extremely accelerated change. Ironically, it seems the extreme internal change within the agency contributed to the slow clockspeed in making critical decisions.