Futures Research at AF CyberWorx Defines the Problem for Creative Solutions

Futures Research at AF CyberWorx Defines the Problem for Creative Solutions

Futures Research at AF CyberWorx


CyberWorx Futures Graphic

At the Heart of Our Process

CyberWorx helps people solve complex problems. More than that, though, we make sure that when we are solving operational problems, they are the right problems given all the circumstances.

Our human-centered, futures-focused approach reorients problems in a way that puts the people directly affected by the problem at the heart of our process. To do this, we employ several research methodologies, depending on the nature of the presenting problem. We use the knowledge we gain from the user community to solve the problem.

We all use inquiry as a method of navigating the world. We wonder why the grass is green and discover chlorophyll; we wonder how our talent management decisions might affect retention and discover possible trends. Questions are a fundamental component of what it currently means to be human. But not all questions are the same, and not all inquiry is equally effective. Research shapes our inquiry and enables more robust discovery.


CyberWorx Distinctives

The Air Force has a number of research organizations, from AFRL to the Skunks, each with a different perspective on the way they conduct research. When we describe ourselves as a research and problem-solving unit, we are including our organization in this group. Yet, if we were all the same, there would be little use in having multiple organizations. How is CyberWorx different?

We Find the True Problem

Within research methods, AF CyberWorx focuses on generative and exploratory research. What does that mean? When we are helping an Air Force organization, we are helping them explore the problem space to become more knowledgeable about the root cause of their problem. We often use user experience research methodologies; however, for certain problems we also employ research methods from futures studies. 

We Focus on the Future

Futures studies comes from a long tradition of using our understanding of the nature of the future to inform the present. However, the goal of a futures practice is not to predict the future. Instead, the goal is to use future research and methods that give next steps to account for the nonlinearity of the future.


When to Use Futures Research

When would you employ futures methodologies? As the name implies, a futures practice is most valuable when an organization needs to understand how to move forward—or gain a greater appreciation of what forward even means.

When coming to AF CyberWorx with a problem in mind, you should consider two main dimensions: time and outcomes. If you are constrained by time, that will constrain the amount of research you can accomplish. If you need more understanding of a problem that includes past and present, or help with a product or process, you will want to consider other research methods, such as user experience research. For outcomes, if you need help crafting strategy, this is well-suited for futures research.


Futures Word Cloud CyberWorx Graphic

The Five Steps of Futures Research

Five major steps frame our futures practice here at AF CyberWorx: horizon scanning, problem definition, scenario making, analysis, and strategic output. It is important to know that while some of these can be conducted individually, they produce the best results when practiced together. These are not purely linear but can lead into prior steps or circle back to the beginning depending on the nature of what is learned at each step. 

1. Horizon Scanning

Horizon scanning might be the most familiar. It is the process of looking at various sources of information (research papers, news, patents, etc.) and compiling them in a meaningful way. Different futures practices compile these scanning hits differently, but at AF CyberWorx, we often use a thematic approach.

A trend reported on the news can be valuable. However, what is more valuable are the themes and/or values that are fueling the trend. You might read a news article about gradually improving quantum computing technology. While it would be tempting to put that improvement on a graph and use linear predictions to see how that trend looks in the future, this doesn’t reflect reality.

Instead, if you realized that the rise of quantum technology has everything to do with combining our increasing understanding of nature with the technology that best gives us efficiency (computing), you can then see further possibilities of how an understanding of nature might affect computing (or any other technology). 

Historical research brings in data from twice as far back as you are looking forward. For example, if you’re looking 10 years ahead, you should look back 20 years for historical data. After horizon scanning and historical research , you are nearly ready to add some firm definitions around your problem.

2. Problem Definition

To best define your problem, first speak to the people who experience it. We conduct interviews at AF CyberWorx, though we are agnostic to the exact process. For example, some problems may require more observation than interviewing. Compiling the results at this stage will result in a clear understanding of what the problem is, or at least a general domain of the problem. Now you can do something with this understanding. 

3. Scenario Making

Scenarios are one of the core features of a futures practice. It is the art of taking all the data explained prior to this stage and crafting a story of the future from it. It is a sort of alchemy of turning data into creative stories, which will then create insight.

In many practices, a team of writers often connected to the team of researchers will write the scenarios. These scenarios will then be presented to stakeholders of an organization for them to engage with strategic implications.

Where there is merit in doing so, AF CyberWorx employs a workshop method of creating scenarios. We assemble a group of subject-matter experts from government, industry, and academia and leverage the diversity of their perspectives to write the scenarios. Typically, we subdivide the group into smaller groups to generate multiple, disparate scenarios. 

4. Analysis

Rather than present the scenarios as is, we do thematic analysis of the scenarios. Why thematic analysis?

We have just used a workshop method to generate scenarios, and now to harness the power of these crowdsourced stories, we need to explore the similarities. Here’s an example.

Let’s say you broke out the main group into four groups, and each group comes up with a vastly different scenario. We could say one is a doomsday scenario for your organization, another might be a utopian vision, etc. Which has more value to you: four visions of the future that tell you different possibilities, or a set of recommendations based on the overlap of the scenarios? Thematic analysis finds those thematic overlaps. 

5. Strategic Output

The themes then become the basis for various strategic recommendations: plans of action, vision statements, and the like. No matter the format of the output, it specifies what actions the stakeholder(s) need to take next.

It is the difference between a check-engine light and talking to your friend who happens to be a mechanic. The check-engine light will tell you that something’s wrong; your mechanic friend can isolate the problem. In the same vein, our strategic outputs can provide more granularity than simply stating something is wrong with the organization, but they will also outline concrete steps to move toward a future desired state.


Want to learn more about how AF CyberWorx solves problems? Check out our Previous Projects! Keep up with us by following AF CyberWorx on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.

The United States Air Force (USAF) – Innovation Through the Ages

The United States Air Force (USAF) – Innovation Through the Ages

A Salmson 2A2 of the 1st Aero Squadron over France during WWI, 1918.
A Salmson 2A2 of the 1st Aero Squadron over France during WWI, 1918. (Photo Credit: United States Army Air Service)

On Sept. 18, 1947, the United States Air Force (USAF) was born on the promise to innovate, accelerate and thrive. This promise has led USAF through 75 years of growth and change, bringing about cutting-edge technology and fostering an environment of leaders. 

USAF got its humble beginnings in 1907 as part of the United States Army Signal Corps (USASC). In 1909, USASC purchased its first aircraft from the Wright Brothers. The 1st Aero Squadron, now known as the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron, was formed soon after in 1913. It is the military’s first flying unit, as well as the first unit of the U.S. Army dedicated exclusively to aviation.

World War I & World War II

When the U.S joined World War I in 1917, the 1st Aero Squadron took charge of airfare militarization for the U.S. Army. It was during this time that the U.S. government began to see the importance of tactical airfare. World War II emphasized the gravity of aircraft warfare and the need for an aviation force became increasingly evident.

By the culmination of World War II in 1945, the Army Air Forces had grown spectacularly in size and had more than proved its weight as a major military organization. The National Security Act of 1947 finally solidified USAF as its own military power, separating it into its own branch of government.

Notable Figures

William “Billy” Mitchell was an Army Brigadier General commonly referred to as the “Father of the United States Air Force.” Mitchell served in WWI, where he was appointed Chief of Air Service and Chief Group of Armies.

Left: Army Brigadier General William Billy Mitchell Right: Army Major General George Owen Squier
Left: Army Brigadier General William Billy Mitchell
Right: Army Major General George Owen Squier

After the war, Mitchell was a loyal advocate for air power and believed that the U.S. government should invest more heavily in militarized airfare. Mitchell’s staunch, and occasionally erratic push for strengthening air power, ostracized him from the military community, which led to his resignation from the U.S. Army in 1926.

Posthumously, he was promoted to Major Gen. by President Truman, and his personal sacrifices paved the way for innovation in the Air Force as it is known today. 

Another notable figure in Air Force history was Major General for the U.S. Army, George Owen Squier. Squier served in the Signal Corps until 1916 when he began as the head of the Aviation Section. Even before his time at the Aviation Section, Squier was involved in aviation and worked with the Wright Brothers to prepare the first military plane.

Among Squire’s notable inventions also includes the development of phone networks, which he coined “wired wireless.” He was also the inventor of Muzak, which transmitted music through powerlines and telephone wires, although he died of pneumonia in Washington, D.C. before he could see it become a success.

Innovation & Technology

Innovation has become ingrained into the history of the Air Force and is widely known as one of its many important functions. USAF has an efficient way of handling obstacles and developing technology to suit the users’ needs.

Many widely used technologies originally created to solve an Air Force problem, are now commonly found in everyday life. For example, the Global Positioning System (GPS), as well as drones, can be credited to the Air Force. USAF can also be credited for many of the safety and efficiency functions utilized by commercial airplanes.

AF CyberWorx is proud to be the U.S. Air Force’s Leading Problem-Solving Unit, with innovation and collaboration being the lifeblood of our organization. Learn more about how we solve problems for the U.S. Air Force and feel free to reach out with questions! 

Creating a Standard Scheduling Paradigm Across the Air Force

Imagine a day when a squadron’s flight scheduler arrives at the office and creates the following week’s flight schedule before her coffee even gets cold. Then one of the pilots scheduled for tonight’s inflight refueling exercise calls in sick. She marks the pilot as “unavailable,” and the system recalculates to schedule another pilot who needs night refueling practice. Total time on task: 5 minutes.

It requires immense effort to develop a complex schedule that meets all the training objectives and priorities to prepare a squadron, group, wing, or the Air Force for its primary role. With today’s current tools, scheduling requires one to two people to work all week. Last-minute rescheduling is even more difficult, resulting in scrubbed missions or training. Given that the Air Force is using a myriad of tools and processes to solve this problem with disjointed apps, puck boards, and spreadsheets, complex scheduling tasks are left to be performed in the heads of humans. These are not so much scheduling tools as they are schedule-capture tools; rather than creating a schedule, they only provide a way for the user to capture a schedule already created in her head. In addition, lack of standardization results in a steeper learning curve when aircrews move to new units, making it difficult for schedulers to assist sister units.

How can the Air Force solve this ubiquitous and complex problem?

AI to the Rescue

As part of the AF CyberWorx User Experience (UX) team, we conducted Human-Centered Design (HCD)–focused observational user research at several squadrons and discovered that units typically solve the same scheduling problems with custom solutions, custom apps, custom spreadsheets, and always incongruously. The biggest issue was that regardless of the tools used, the process placed high demands on user cognition, thus relegating each solution to the limitations of each scheduler’s capabilities. A solution to this problem relies on reducing the demands on human cognition by developing a system that can balance the complex needs and priorities to create a workable schedule.

We have identified a single, enterprise-wide Smart Scheduler Paradigm that can be applied to various scheduling domains across the entire Air Force—such as pilot scheduling, Airman training, and readiness forecasting/preparation.

The Smart Scheduler Paradigm (an AI algorithm) puts the emphasis on designing the system to do the work for the human, effectively reducing the cognitive burden of balancing varying assets and personnel needs. After a system is primed with rules-based objectives, assets/resources, personnel, and other adjustable parameters and priorities, the system can automatically generate a suggested schedule. Users will be able to adjust the parameters, such as indicating a pilot is out sick, which can trigger the system to recalculate the schedule using the prioritized objectives. This Smart Scheduler Paradigm will reduce the typical pilot scheduling efforts from about 60 hours per week to about 30 minutes. Other scheduling tasks will likely see similar benefits.

Smart Scheduler Paradigm

The Smart Scheduler task flow is quite simple, only requiring that users define the different elements of the system, objectives, and priorities one time. The system is ready to calculate a new schedule with each parameter adjustment.

Smart Scheduler Task Flow

Poor Technology Maturity

The Air Force’s current approach to technology design and development tends to focus on the technology without much emphasis on the end user. Instead, we adapt the technology to the user. While the rest of the commercial world embraces HCD principles to improve user and organizational successes, the Air Force focuses on technology risk versus the risk of fielding capability that forces the user to adapt to the technology.

Many innovative “solutions” are higher functionality spreadsheets. While many AF members have PhD’s in “Spreadsheet-ery,” users are still left with the cognitive burden of developing schedules while the spreadsheet serves as the knowledge repository. Many spreadsheets are often digital representations of paper or whiteboard tools from the ’60s, ’70s, or ’80s that did little to address the problem or advance the solution. A hallmark of good UX design is getting the system to do more of the work for the user rather than just capturing human outputs.

Commercial companies recognized the cost of non-standard user interaction and interface design models decades ago. They adopt and implement HCD strategies to create cross-platform standardized interaction models that leverage repeatable interaction. These models promote immediate success when a new user tries a new application and reuses familiar interaction models.

Training Addresses the Symptoms, Not the Problems

The Air Force tends to rely on training as a solution for poorly designed technologies. For example, just about every unit completes scheduling tasks with a custom scheduling solution. Every solution is different, requiring new users to waste an inordinate amount of time learning new tools for the same tasks.

It makes sense, then, for the Air Force to commit to developing an enterprise-wide, common scheduling interaction model that could drive the design of every scheduling app. This approach would incorporate greater UX maturity, saving thousands of hours of training time and millions of dollars in development costs.

Institutional Knowledge/Best Practices

A key benefit of a common design paradigm is that it captures best practices from shared institutional knowledge across the Air Force rather than the disparate knowledge specific to individual solutions, driving systemic improvement and efficiency gains rather than incremental improvements at the unit level.

Next Steps … ?

Create a simple mock-up to see how this paradigm can evolve the Air Force into a learning organization and produce a blueprint for other enterprise-wide solution approaches. How many other problems can be solved with such a Human-Centered Design approach?

Project Update: CWS Inform

AF CyberWorx Project Update: CWS Inform

Written by Lorren Stahl, Technical Writer
and Clara Cirks, Marketing Specialist

CWS Inform Project Background

In 2018, AF CyberWorx began a project to assess current readiness management systems for 621st Contingency Response Wing out of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey. AF CyberWorx interviewed Graduate Training Integration Management System (GTIMS) users to understand user needs and assess the ability of the GTIMS. Our User Experience (UX) Designers solicited feedback on user pain points, user journeys, and needs of an ideal system.

Key Factors Discovered in GTIMS User Interviews

AF CyberWorx team members discovered three key factors during this series of interviews:

  1. Readiness is a critical factor for squadron commanders.
  2. Commanders rely on the readiness information they receive to be current and accurate.
  3. Current systems do not collate information, making readiness assessment difficult because information needs to be verified through more reliable sources.

Additionally, data sets pulled from GTIMS were disparate and lacked actionable intelligence. As the stakeholder’s goal was to enable commander/staff readiness orchestration and expand capabilities of the system, further development of solutions was integral. Small business CyberWinter Studios was introduced to AF CyberWorx and project stakeholders through a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program to further develop solutions for the platform. The SBIR program enables small businesses to engage in federal research and development for technological potential.

Current Stages of Developed Solutions

Following the discovery phase, CyberWinter Studios designed and developed a minimum viable product (MVP) that consolidates relevant data into a single, intuitive format. This product and partnership are still active, and currently, CyberWinter Studios has a Phase II SBIR award. CyberWinter Studios’ current product, CWS Inform, has potential for enterprise automation, as the platform and code provide an interactive dashboard, automated workflows, and normalized back-end data. Code from this project has also been pushed to Github for common use by developers looking for a platform to understand and measure force readiness. Thank you to our partner with CyberWinter Studios, Mr. John Grigg, for continuing to push efforts to engage crucial technology with warfighters.

To learn more about AF CyberWorx initial efforts for this project, please visit the CWS Inform project webpage.

For more information on CyberWinter Studios, please visit the CyberWinter Studios website here.

Images courtesy of Mr. John Grigg, CyberWinter Studios


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