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More on DOD as a social networker

In case you can't tell, I'm fascinated by all this Web 2.0 stuff. (How's that for technical?) And, in many ways, I think the Defense Department has been at the forefront of this issue.

So in the Dec. 3 edition of Federal Computer Week, in the Buzz of the Week, we focused on "DOD as a social networker."

But I wanted to expand on it just a bit because I think it is important -- and fascinating.

After all, the theories of network-centric operations essentially mirror Web 2.0 theories. Web 2.0 is about tapping into wisdom of crowds, while the theory behind DOD's network-centric ideas are that data should be made widely available to those who need it because those people know what data will help them make decisions. The wisdom of crowds.

Of course, there has always been something of a battle in the Pentagon between the "shooters" and the techies. Many of the shooters have long been suspicious of all the gee-wiz gadgetry. That was, in part, behind the debate about whether the U.S. had enough warfighters in Iraq.

In recent months, somewhat quietly, there has been a real evolution in the halls of the Pentagon about network-centric operations.

Today, "transformation," as trumpeted -- some would argue steamrolled -- by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, is almost a verboten term. Rumsfeld believed that an armed force suited with technology could make warfighters more efficient, more lethal, and more nimble. In part, he was right. The initial invasion of Iraq was very efficient. But, as is often the case with many government programs, determining real results is more difficult.

Convention wisdom today suggests that Rumsfeld's transformed DOD was very efficient about defeating Iraq's military – and that was an effective result. But that was only the beginning. The trimmed down, hyper-efficient armed force has not been able to truly win the war.

So I'm fascinated by all the Iraq stuff -- I've read just about all of the Iraq war books out there; I'd recommend Fiasco as the best of the bunch. And I'm fascinated by the social networking/Web 2.0/network-centric operations stuff... And there have been a number of stories about DOD folks assessing what worked -- and what hasn't -- in Iraq. The WSJ did a story over the summer touching on this stuff. (See the third item in this post.)

But the December issue of geek sheik magazine Wired has a story, "What went wrong in Iraq (Hint: Blame the geeks)."  The story is long -- some 6,452 words -- and I think Wired magazine's print version still tends to be over-designed. Regardless, I would highly recommend it -- and even beyond DOD. And I think it is well worth reading for anybody who works in government IT because the issues facing DOD are certainly different and unique, but they aren't all that different and unique. Every agency, in their own way, faces similar issues.

Anyway, the Wired story by contributing editor Noah Shachtman makes the point that under the Rumsfeldian concept of transformation, war was... well, efficient -- almost overly efficient. In fact, Shachtman makes the comparison between DOD and Wal-Mart. (Remember when DOD was touting Wal-Mart's RFID program as a model.) Wal-Mart is very, very efficient. But for DOD, what got lost in transformation were the social connections -- the links that are critical in insurgent operations like Iraq.

"Network-centric warfare, with its emphasis on fewer, faster-moving troops, turned out to be just about the last thing the U.S. military needed when it came time to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan," Shachtman writes. "There aren't enough troops to go out and find informants, build barricades, rebuild a sewage treatment plant, and patrol a marketplace."

In a blog post, Shachtman writes:

The war was launched, in part, on a premise that you could wipe out more bad guys with fewer troops, as long as those troops were networked together.  Businesses like Wal-Mart made their supply chain more efficient through information technology; the military could do the same with its "kill chain," the theory of network-centric warfare went.

The idea -- first popularized in article published ten years ago, next month -- pretty much worked as advertised, for a while. The problem is, killing people more efficiently is one of the last things you need to do a counterinsurgency situation, like the one the U.S. is facing in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Instead, you need to take steps to reinforce civil society, rather than blowing it apart.  And that takes an understanding of the society you're trying to build.

The idea of an IT focused DOD is evolving somewhat dramatically.

Just weeks earlier, in the October 25 issue of The Economist, there was a story headlined, "Irregular warfare: After smart weapons, smart soldiers," and an Economist editorial, "Armies of the future: Brains, not bullets.

From the editorial:

If the biggest threat comes from rising powers, such as a belligerent Russia or a pushy China, America and its allies will need to invest in aircraft, ships and advanced weapons to cope. If the greatest challenge is the fight against militants and insurgents around the world—seen by some as a new and different “fourth generation” of warfare (see article)—then they will need more boots on the ground and, crucially, different sorts of soldiers wearing them. Sadly for taxpayers everywhere, the emerging answer from America is that a modern power needs to prepare for both challenges. But there has been a clear swing towards manpower from technology.

And so transformation and network-centric operations are transforming yet again, most likely to incorporate more of the social networks as defense thinkers ponder how to fight the wars of the future.
I really like the Wired story, but I don't think it does far enough into the social networking aspect. It was interesting down at ELC in October, somebody asked Wikinomics co-author Anthony Williams about this in a round-about way. Williams and his co-author, Don Tapscott, do a good talk about the power of a networked world. But somebody asked them, paraphrasing, 'So won't the bad guys be using these same technologies?'

Williams was very honest. He said, um, yes, they will. And I agree with him. Guess what -- if neighborhoods and 'communities of interest' are building social networks, don't be surprised ifthieves, crooks and terrorists don't use them too. In fact, they already are. So the questions is: Whose network is bigger?

So.. there is some stuff to add to your reading list. And I welcome your thoughts about what it all means.

Just as a total aside, on Friday, GAO release this:

"DOD Transformation Challenges and Opportunities," [.pdf] by David M. Walker, comptroller general of the United States, before the Department of Defense FY 2008 Managers' Internal Control Program Conference, in Washington, DC.  GAO-08-323CG, November 29.

Posted by Christopher J. Dorobek on Dec 03, 2007 at 12:17 PM


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