Innovative Social Media Community Lets Users Share Knowledge for Faster, More Efficient Cost Estimates

October 2014
Topics: Economic and Cost Analysis, Collaborative Decision Making, Decision Support Systems
Cost analysts routinely face a big roadblock when creating cost estimates—collecting the data they need. A MITRE team built a one-stop-shopping information-sharing community where cost analysts and data meet.

Government, industry, and academia rely on obtaining quick, sound, defensible, and reliable cost estimates—these estimates provide decision makers the information they need when planning for purchases, services, and acquisition or operations support. Often, the process is long and time-consuming, with initial data collection alone often taking many months.

If available at all, much of the necessary information resides at agency websites, on individual computers, in emails, or in other locations. However, searching for and gathering this data from disparate sources makes the initial data collection process long, cumbersome, and inefficient.

In January 2012, a MITRE team—Ruth Dorr, Dan Harper, Hieu Chau, and Stan Drozdetski—recognized the challenge that scattered cost data posed for anyone providing estimates. To make the process more efficient, the team created a collaboration forum to help estimators locate dependable, shareable information and store it in one location.

The forum, called Cost FACTS (Factors, Analogies, Cost Estimating Relationships, Tools, and Studies), is an information repository and collaboration community that houses public information, such as cost estimate templates, cost data, guidance, and other "building blocks" essential to creating a credible estimate. Cost analysts can leverage this information to develop their estimates.

In only two years, Cost FACTS has grown steadily and received national recognition for helping government agencies save time and money through knowledge sharing.

A Handshake and an Estimate

MITRE's business networking platform, Handshake, hosts the Cost FACTS repository. Cost FACTS is open to any MITRE employee and by personal invitation to our external partners, such as government sponsors, partners in the private sector, academia, and staff at other federally funded research and development centers (FFRDCs).

Members can search the site via traditional file folders or via intuitive, user-generated tags, also known as metadata. They can search for templates, guidelines, current and historical cost-related information, hold information exchanges between site participants, and learn from or contribute to best practices and tips. According to Harper, a MITRE economic and business analyst, "Cost FACTS has many elements and building blocks. So far, there are more than 300 artifacts, including files, discussions, and comments that people can use for developing an estimate. This information can reduce data collection time significantly, leaving more time for performing analysis."

Members also can help populate the site by uploading new cost-related information that benefits other members. With its open-source approach, the repository is steadily growing. Contributions from a variety of domains and agencies have included inflation rates, government-wide acquisition contract rates, new publications and guidance related to cost, and IT and software costs.

Small Start, Big Delivery

During the first year of the project, the MITRE team focused on establishing the Cost FACTS group and building the initial repository structure. They created and uploaded templates for nine common scenarios, and then uploaded new data as it became available.

The team also focused on expanding membership from MITRE employees to invited government agencies and members from academia. Through word of mouth and presentations at technical conferences and professional organizations, the site's membership grew from 20 members to 118 members in 18 months. At that time, representation within this group included 28 external members and 90 internal members. As of July 2014, there were 213 members—135 MITRE staff and 78 outside the company. The group expects non-MITRE participation to reach 40 to 50 percent within the next 18 months.

A Social Media Site for the Cost Analyst Community

The Cost FACTS group facilitates teamwork within MITRE and among government agencies, vendors who support the government, other FFRDCs, and academia. The site not only offers templates and guidelines—i.e. "FACTS"—members can also ask for advice and discuss their costing challenges. In addition, the conversations remain on the site as historical content that other members can reference.

Harper says, "The Cost FACTS group is part LinkedIn, part [Microsoft] SharePoint, with a dash of Facebook. Users can see how many members reviewed a document or discussion and add their own commentary. In addition, the site integrates with Outlook email. This makes it convenient for conversations to continue outside of the Handshake environment."

Finding Cost Estimating Answers across Government

Today, the Cost FACTS collaboration process helps members deliver quick and reliable cost estimates. What used to take months can now be done in weeks or even days.

Ruth Dorr, a MITRE economic business analyst, notes, "With all the reductions in budget, we needed to find a way to get solid cost estimates quickly. In our research, we found that many areas in government are stovepiped, but their cost-estimating processes overlap a significant amount of the time. Through Cost FACTS, we’ve established a way to share these processes."

The sharing takes place both inside and outside of MITRE. For example, a civilian agency analyst asked for advice on developing an estimate for instructor-led training. Since members from the MITRE Institute, our in-house training arm, had first-hand experience developing such training, they provided a repeatable and detailed methodology quickly.

A Top 30 Innovative Solution and Cost-Estimating Winner

The American Council for Technology/Industry Advisory Council Board recognized the Cost FACTS estimating group as one of the Top 30 Innovative Solutions in the 2014 Igniting Innovation competition. The judges cited Cost FACTS for its unique use of technology across the government sector. The team also presented Cost FACTS at the annual 2013 International Cost Estimating and Analysis workshop where it received the award for Best Paper in its track. Adds Dorr, "It's a one-of-a-kind tool and a new way to use social networking for cost analysts."

The early success of Cost FACTS is encouraging, and team members expect membership and participation to grow, especially as the tool matures. The word is spreading within the government agency cost groups, and participants are referring their colleagues to Cost FACTS.

"The process is still evolving," Harper says. "We're building this site from the bottom up to deliver to the cost-estimating community what it wants and needs.”

If you're a cost estimator and are interested in joining the Cost FACTS group, please send an email with your contact information to costfacts@mitre.org.

—by Elvira Caruso

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