Executive Spotlight: Karen Dahut, Booz Allen EVP on the New Strategic Innovation Group and Cloud Analytics

Karen DahutKaren Dahut serves as executive vice president and head of the strategic innovation group at Booz Allen Hamilton.

She had previously led Booz Allen’s analytics capability and the firm’s U.S. Navy and Marine Corps business.

The retired Naval officer was a comptroller for the Navy’s biomedical research institute and is a current board member of the Northern Virginia Technology Council.

Dahut sat down with ExecutiveBiz to discuss her new role as head of the strategic innovation group, her previous work in analytics technology and how her Naval career translates into her current leadership role.

 

ExecutiveBiz:  You’ve been at Booz Allen for a number of years and had a number of positions.  Can you explain some of those roles you’ve had and how they’ve prepared you for your current role as the head of the strategic innovation group?

Karen Dahut:  I have held many roles and I’ll just focus on the three that I think are probably most relevant.  First is, I led the Economic and Business Analytics team for the firm that did economic and business analytics across all of the core markets that we serve, commercial, defense, security and intelligence.

The second one was more of a client facing or market role, where I led the firm’s Navy and Marine Corps business.  That was very much focused on a client set, a market, and driving a functional agenda across that market set and growing it over time.

And then the last job was I led all of analytics for the firm across the institution, so not just economic and business analytics, but also intelligence analytics modeling and simulation and cloud. That was the role I held just prior to taking on the leadership of the Strategic Innovation Group.

When you start to think about innovation really it is the sum of matching an original problem or a client problem with a creative solution.  The client problem has a market component to it, if you will, and the creative solution has a functional or a capability component to it.

When I think about my career now and the fact that I’ve held both significant market roles as well as capability roles, that is what’s led me and prepared me for the Strategic Innovation Group job that I have today.

 

ExecutiveBiz: What work is Booz Allen doing in analytics, and where are they trying to go? 

Karen Dahut:  We have a very large analytics business.  It’s probably around 5,000 professionals, and it focuses on five or so key areas.  An important area for us is intelligence analytics.  That’s everything from signals intelligence to human intelligence to all sorts of different analytics supporting the security market.

We also do a lot of financial and economic types of analytics.  So whether it’s working for large commercial banks or working for large agencies in the government, like the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, we do a lot of work around big, big data:  Big numbers, databases, data sets that have a lot of numbers and quantitative components to them.

We also do a lot of work in the area of Cloud analytics. This is a new and burgeoning area, which I think we really coined the phrase on a couple of years ago. When you think about the availability of data, it is absolutely overwhelming to contemplate.  Our notion is that, when you put a lot of different types and varieties of data into what we call a “data lake” and into a reference architecture, you have a whole new way of looking at problems that you didn’t have before, because you can correlate different data sets in new ways that give you different insights.

 

ExecutiveBiz:  Moving onto your current position, could you explain what the Strategic Innovation Group is and some of the work you’re doing now, and how you’re trying to grow that business that you lead?

Karen:  Back in the December time frame we decided to stand up the SIG, the Strategic Innovation Group.  And, really, it is a sign of Booz Allen’s commitment to innovation and to our future.  I believe we will both empower and equip the firm to habitually generate and capture fresh ideas and to transform those ideas into original innovations that create value for our clients.

And so when you think about what I just said, it really is about taking a fresh or original approach to problems that have plagued our clients for a long time.  These are not new problems, but what we want to do is bring creative or fresh solutions to those problems and also show Booz Allen’s commitment to innovation as a firm.

We have a long, almost a hundred‑year history of creating solutions for clients, and we wanted to remind people, we’re still very much in that business.  That’s very much who we are.

What we did was we created our innovation agenda, and what we did is we went out and spoke with a lot of clients as well as staff, and asked, What are the biggest problems that your clients are facing today and have been facing for some time?  Some are new and less mature, and others are very mature challenges or issues that clients have had.  So first, for example, how does a client get real value from data?

And when you think about it, most of our clients have extraordinary amounts of data.  They don’t know how to store it.  They don’t know how to manage it, and they really don’t know how to generate value from it.  And so what we’ve said is, really, we want to integrate Cloud computing services that span different infrastructure and create analytic tools to help our clients really generate value from their data and insight from their data.

So that’s a problem, and that’s a solution that we have: make enterprise data easy to locate, always available, and highly accessible.  Another area in our innovation agenda is rapid prototyping and product integration.  And what that means is developing time‑saving solutions for our clients that address pressing needs, where you really need only one partner to create a hardware or a software solution from conception all the way through production, thus creating small‑scale prototypes that can scale to whatever number a client might need.

And I’ll give you a third one.  Again, a client problem, How do you really understand the mission systems that you have as a part of your organization, and how do you make sense of all of those systems?  How do you modernize?  How do you equip with additional operational capacity, while at the same time saving money or becoming more efficient?  So we’ve created a whole product line around mission solutions as well.

 

ExecutiveBiz: Could you talk a little bit about how the Strategic Innovation Group’s organized?  How many people are in it?

Karen Dahut:  The group is around 1,600 people. The leadership group is about 100 people.  And then we have staff that serve all of our core markets, commercial, security, defense, and the civil sector.  We have two types of innovation we are really focused on:  First is transformational innovation, which is developing creative new solutions to problems.

And second is adjacent innovation, which is taking innovations that we’ve already developed and bringing them in to new client sets.  So adjacent and transformational innovation.

 

ExecutiveBiz:  We’re in a time now of big federal budget uncertainties. How does your group that was stood up a short while ago fit into new climate?

Karen Dahut:  The U.S. Government is facing some of the toughest, largest scale problems of any organization in the world while at the same time lacking the funds to really invest in it.  That is a major challenge.  Having said that, I think we still see clients fitting into one of three different categories.

We see clients that are efficiency‑seeking clients, so they are looking for ways to become more efficient in their organization, facing the intense budget pressures that they’re facing.  So they need innovation to help them to become more efficient.

We also see clients that view innovation as a necessity.  Despite the cutbacks, despite the budget pressure, they still need real‑time responses to current events and changes in technology.  And they see innovation as a necessary tool. They  want to protect their organization, but at the same time, they know that they need to move forward and look at how innovation can help them do their mission better, perform better in the commercial sector, perform in a more agile way, whatever it might be.  The last type of client we see, even in this market, is an advanced innovation buyer. These are the clients that truly regularly work with and procure cutting‑edge technology.  They know they can’t solve their problems without using current software products, and they are very willing to fund the development of innovation solutions.

And so, even in a declining budget environment, you still have all three of these types of clients that very much still need to perform, to meet shareholder expectation in the commercial world, or to meet a mission in the government world.

 

ExecutiveBiz:  Could you give examples of all three of those clients? 

Karen Dahut:  So an efficiency‑seeking client would be a government agency or subset of a government agency, where they are either a support entity or an infrastructure entity to a larger mission.  They know they need to become more efficient in order to be able to continue to provide their service, but they need to look for ways of providing their service.

GSA is a good example.  because when you think about what Dan Tangherlini is doing, he’s really trying to create new ways of providing their services across government.  So using innovation to be more of a service innovator, he’s certainly doing that.

You see this happening across the defense industry as well, where they are trying to use innovation to  create better  solutions for the mission challenges they have.    And then, the advanced innovation buyer, the one everybody always talks about, is a great example of a client that is always going to continue to look for cutting‑edge technology and ways to employ it in the marketplace. I could think of a couple.  I probably can’t talk about it on this call, though.

 

ExecutiveBiz:  How did your Naval career help you prepare for an executive role at a consulting firm like Booz Allen?

Karen Dahut: I think there is no doubt that being a young person thrown into the United States Navy, some of the things that stay with you throughout your career are really around leadership: how to motivate, how to inspire, how to create visions that people will follow, how to be agile in your leadership approach, recognizing that people need different things at different points in either development of an opportunity or in one’s career.

When I think about my time in the Navy, it really helped me to define my own leadership style, how to be flexible in that style, but at the same time how to apply it to no‑kidding, big problems and get the kinds of results that you really need to get.

The reality is it was an incredible training ground for understanding and learning about our federal government and our Department of Defense and the complexity associated with it.  It’s very hard to come out of college today and truly understand the complexity that is truly unique to our federal government and certainly the Department of Defense.

So having been in it for about eight years and being a part of it, you really have a unique opportunity to learn what the different levers in government are, how to get things done, how the budget works, how the mission areas work.

There is a unique experience as a part of being in the military that really helps you to better understand and  identify with client challenges.

 

ExecutiveBiz: When you were in the Navy, did you come across consultancies or government contractors in your job? 

Karen Dahut:  I did two primary things when I was in the Navy.  I did finance and I did IT.  And in both of those areas we were very apt then and continue today, to use consulting firms or private sector best practices to improve what we were doing.

When I was leaving the Navy, Booz Allen was certainly a place I considered but   I did not go there directly but I interviewed.  I also interviewed at Deloitte and at KPMG.  These were the kinds of firms I was very familiar with.

 

ExecutiveBiz:  So moving forward in your current role as head of Strategic Innovation Group, what are you most excited for? 

Karen Dahut:  I am most excited about being able to create these very unique solutions to long, challenging, and really complex problems.

I’m very excited about that notion of being able to solve problems that have just been almost inescapably difficult to solve.  So when you bring a firm like Booz Allen to bear on some of these problems and all of the capability that we’ve brought into the SIG, I think you have the opportunity to redefine the landscape of innovation. I am truly excited about that.

I think we also have the opportunity to change, just internally, about how we think about innovation and really reinvigorate our culture of innovation inside the institution as well.

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