Monday, May 22, 2006

Reading :: Power to the Edge

Originally posted: Mon, 22 May 2006 23:19:31

Power to the Edge

By David S. Alberts and Richard E. Hayes

Power to the Edge, like The Agile Organization, is an electronically published book that focuses mainly on information-age transformations in warfare. As the subtitle suggests, the authors are concerned with how military organizations will have to adapt as they move from the Industrial Age to the Information Age.

As I've remarked elsewhere, this body of literature is required reading for anyone trying to make sense of the transformations that Donald Rumsfeld is trying to implement, how they have led to a particular type of warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq, and how these transformations have led to worry among senior military leadership. The so-called Generals' Revolt appears to be in large part an outgrowth of resistance to these transformations, using Iraq as an example of how they might be leading the military down the wrong path. That path leads to a smaller military footprint and a heavier reliance on information technologies, but it also leads to less hierarchy and more peer-to-peer interactions, or as Alberts and Hayes call it, "power to the edge":

Power to the edge is about changing the way individuals, organizations, and systems relate to one another and work. Power to the edge involves the empowerment of individuals at the edge of an organization (where the organization interacts with its operating environment to have an impact or effect on that environment) or, in the case of systems, edge devices. Empowerment involves expanding access to information and the elimination of unnecessary constraints. For example, empowerment involves providing access to available information and expertise and the elimination of procedural constraints previously needed to deconflict elements of the force in the absence of quality information. (p.5)

In such an organization, command and control are separated: "commanders become responsible for creating initial conditions that make success more likely" and exercise control in ways that allow for agile self-organization and relative autonomy; they command, but control is assumed by the personnel on the "edge," who are closest to the action (p.5). This sort of arrangement requires "shared situation awareness, congruent command intent, professional competence, and trust" (p.6).

To make their argument, the authors first lead us through a discussion of the different military philosophies found in successful 20th-century military organizations, focusing particularly on the degree of centralization in each (pp.19-26). Next, they describe the characteristics of industrial age command and control, characteristics that are just as relevant to commercial enterprises: decomposition, specialization, hierarchical organizations, optimization, deconfliction, centralized planning, and decentralized execution (Chapter 2). These characterisics, the authors claim, developed systems that were inherently cyclical, a result of the limits of Industrial Age communications technologies (p.49; cf. p.175).

But, the authors argue, Industrial Age assumptions are not adequate for Information Age organizations; the latter should be optimized for interoperability and adaptability, and should allow the organization to better bring its information, assets, and expertise to bear (p.56). "Centralized planning," they say, "is antithetical to agility because it (1) is relatively slow to recognize and respond to changes in the situation, (2) results in ill-informed participants, and (3) places many constraints on behavior" (p.63).

One problem that arises is that the "stovepipes" or hierarchically separate branches of an organization result in "seams" that "create gaps in roles and responsibilities that lead to a lack of accountability for interoperability, information sharing, and collaboration, all of which are necessary for a transformed military" (p.64).

Stovepipes, then, must be gotten rid of, because different branches and units must be interoperable; a "super star" commander is not enough (p.88), so "rather than rely on individual genius, Information Age processes tap collective knowledge and collaboration" (p.89). Furthermore, military organizations must be able to forge "a coalition that will in all likelihood include nonmilitary and/or nonstate actors" (p.103), an assertion that brings to mind Castells' networks or Zuboff and Maxmin's federations as well as the networks described in Arquilla and Ronfeldt.

Such networks, the authors claim, "are inherently more resilient than the hierarchical and stovepipe systems that characterized Industrial Age military organizations. Because there are multiple links available, the loss of a single node or link is absorbed by a robustly networked force" (pp.135-136). In such an organization, "control is not a function of command but an emergent property that is a function of the initial conditions, the environment, and the adversaries. Loyalty is not to a local entity, but to the overall enterprises" (p.217).

This resilience of networks, in fact, is one of the characteristics of an agile organization: robustness, resilience, responsiveness, flexibility, innovation, and adaptation.

Compare this vision of the military to the "Powell Doctrine" used in Gulf War I: win through overwhelming force and numbers. This doctrine is most easily carried out through a massive Industrial Age structure, and despite its strengths, it is not especially agile. (If the US had used the Powell Doctrine in Afghanistan, the war would have probably been far longer and bloodier.)

Alberts and Hayes' book is interesting reading for anyone who wants to know how organizations are adapting, and could adapt, to the Information Age. >

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