Hanscom team accelerates change, trains contracting personnel on robotic processes

  • Published
  • By 1st. Lt. Amelia Leonard
  • 66th Air Base Group Public Affairs

More than 50 contracting personnel from across Air Force Materiel Command participated in a robotic process automation workshop here to provide exposure to RPAs through guided training and access to professional developers, June 20-24.

Charged by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr. to take on the ethos of innovation using courage and creativity in his, “Innovation Letter to Airmen,” the Hanscom digital transformation team has done just that, utilizing RPA technology. 

“My job, and our collective job as leaders, is to pour fuel through innovation and collaboration on the embers to create a fire of culture change,” said Brown during his address to the Air Force Association’s Air, Space, and Cyber Conference in 2021. “Culture is not just sufficient. It is necessary to accomplish what seems impossible. It is necessary to transform our Air Force to meet the demands of tomorrow.”

RPA is a software technology that makes it easy to build, utilize, and manage software robots that emulate human actions and communicate with digital systems and software, according to global software company UiPath.

“Think of RPA as a set of digital employees that work alongside you, expanding your workforce,” said Joel Cherkis, UiPath product management – private sector, during an RPA demonstration at Hanscom in 2020.

The eight-member Hanscom digital transformation team organized the RPA training workshop for contracting personnel across the command. It was facilitated by Matt Roberts, program manager for the RPA Center of Excellence, his team, and Jim Grenier, Chief of the Process Management Branch under the Air Force's Director of Business Transformation.

While most who attended did so virtually, 10 received in-person, hands-on training.

Although the Air Force has been conducting similar RPA bot roadshows and workshops since 2021 through the RPA Center for Excellence, the training at Hanscom was the first to focus entirely on one career field -- contracting.

The workshop focused on teaching contracting personnel how to use RPAs and make them executable in processes specific to contracting in order to overcome hurdles in the career field.

AFMC contracting personnel from Alaska to Japan attended to learn how to understand RPA bots, implement their use in the contracting field, and encourage one another, according to Joe Buzzell, chief of Clearance and Program Support, Air Force Life Cycle Management Center-Hanscom Contracting.

“It’s really important to push forward what RPAs can mean for process improvement,” said Stephanie Papia, AFLCMC-Hanscom, contact specialist who attended in-person. “This workshop provided the opportunity to actually work through bot building. It helped to have the hands-on training and opportunity to network, meet people and see what RPAs can mean for contracting and the Air Force.”

Contracting personnel learned and worked with several bots created specifically to help reduce the time they spend on mundane tasks. One such bot takes documents from a customer-facing SharePoint drop box and automatically transfer the data to various document repositories. Another bot automatically pulls information from the official U.S. government system for contract opportunities, contract data entity information like disaster and response registries, wage determinations and more. Several other bots were demonstrated and will continue to evolve to meet the needs of contracting.

These are the types of innovation and solution-based thinking Brown has called the force to implement.

“To succeed, we must properly identify problems, empower decentralized solutions by individuals and teams, and infuse an ethos of innovation at all levels” Brown wrote. “Innovation depends on both creative individuals and supportive organizations to turn concepts into reality.”

Many processes used in contracting take up a lot of time or are repetitive and don't really require much brain power or attention, said Capt. Jason Kyles, AFLCMC-Hanscom contracting officer.

“I definitely gained a better appreciation and understanding of what bot capabilities are and what they can do, in terms of making things easier for the workforce at large,” he said.

The potential to streamline work and allow people the opportunity to put more attention to active-thinking and decision-making could result in thousands, or hundreds of thousands of man-hours saved, across the Department of Defense, according to Kyles.

“Something that takes five minutes for me may take a total of 150 minutes for my office, and then when you compound it – it’s just exponential,” he said.

Although the RPA workshop at Hanscom was geared specifically toward the contracting career field, the problems it can help solve extend across the entire force.

“RPA bots are not limited to just helping the contracting career field,” said Kyles. “I would assume just about any career field has tasks involved that take up time and don't require a lot of brain power.”

One of the long-terms goals of the workshop is to extend what attendees learned to others, inside and out of the contracting realm, said Buzzell.

“I learned enough to teach myself and hopefully re-visit some of the ideas that came up during the workshop,” said Kyles. “I plan to continue to spread the word that this technology is at your fingertips, and you don’t have to be technically savvy to utilize it. A lot of people can benefit from it.”