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Fighting Internet-based Capabilities: Irresponsible and Ineffective

It’s the latest buzz, the Department of Defense (DoD) announcement that it had finally issued policy on Internet Based Capabilities early afternoon on February 26, 2010. I’m excited to see it finally arrive, but in some sense it’s a surprise left cold and waiting like a ragged banana peel discarded last fall and finally uncovered from under the receding snow of winter. Scrolling down through the comments section of the article is a post by Noel Dickover, stating that he spent seven months working and reworking the draft of this article. Regardless of whether seven months from draft to signature is a short time or not, we are arguably 5-7 years behind the curve on incorporating the technology itself, let alone facing the massive, transformative cultural changes that need to occur.

How do you reconcile the difference the “control” of things brought on by policy in the face of technologies designed not to necessarily subvert it, but to easily get around it? Noel and I were both at a meeting last September, where one of the topics discussed was the time it took to create policy and the fact that the speed of Internet based capabilities danced circles around our ability to draft and incorporate guidance surrounding it. Jack Welch noted that “if the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.” This in effect is stating the business world equivalent of something called the Red Queen Principle, whereas competing, evolutionary systems must spend a good deal of energy just keeping pace with each other, less one become overly dominant. The problem is simply this: when our adversaries don’t play by the same rules we do, our ability to compete requires more energy, past the point of diminishing returns. The self imposed controls and regulations brought on by an unwillingness to change and break the status quo becomes a detriment to the mission and an unfair advantage to those seeking every possible way to do us harm.

But I am not talking about the antiquated acquisition process, the laws, or the technology: it’s the culture. Bureaucracy within the Government has allowed the private sector to get far ahead, furthering the technology gap of what exists and what we are allowed to use while these new technologies are freely available to our adversaries. Granted the financial motivation of the private sector and looser security requirements help, but it’s the adaptation of the culture to the new philosophy brought about by the change that’s more important. It’s because the people working inside the companies have the right incentives to reward the behavior of adopting and using these tools that they have taken root. If the government can take lessons from the market, but not be able or allowed to put them into practice because that might upset the balance of a “robust government organization” then isn’t that no better than intellectual daydreaming, self gratifying but serves no purpose in doing anything different?

One positive about the new directive is that it sets goals that require changes to have tools open and available. This is a crucial point because having success goals that preserve the status quo only serve to barricade people against healthy change. But, the bureaucracy has a defense system designed to combat the evils of change: the hierarchy. I have played my small fiddle on how I dislike technologies that allow the DoD to continue its bad behavior of preserving the hierarchy. Symptomatic examples of the hierarchy are exemplified by the knee-jerk reactions to create a duplicate system and spaces for the purpose of controlling operations, access and being the gatekeeper for what gets put there. If we want to develop the “Gov 2.0” culture, we need to incentivize a kind of change that is flexible, agile and adaptive. How are hierarchical structures adaptive? They are meant to handle (for the most part) predictable change, to maintain the health and care of the organization. This works well in maintaining a robust Government, but has interesting consequences when the mechanism of protection becomes toxic and impervious to perception due to its slow, corrosive pervasiveness. Strong growth requires less stratification and more turbulence within the laminar strata of streamlined process to encourage evolution. Its time to flatten the organization with the understanding that there are “rules” and “chain of command” issues that will be tested and the new lines will have to be drawn and understood to find the right balance.

I’ve often referred to the upcoming, under-30 crowd as the cultural tsunami, ushering in a wave of transformative change. But is it really all that radical? If Facebook were it’s own country, it would be the fourth largest in the world in terms of population. By the end of 2008, a study conducted by Nielsen Online found that more people were spending time on Social Networking than they were on email. The same study also found that Facebook’s largest growth demographic was the 35-49 group, but adding twice as many 50-64 year members as the under 18 crowd. The shift has happen and as Bob Dylan said, “The times are a-changing.” We could go onto countless examples of the benefits, the plusses, the empirical ‘Return on Interaction,’ and seemingly do not get far with the traditional metrics. We nitpick about every conceivable security issue and the ramifications on the available bandwidth made to us. We will probably hear the same tired propaganda used to combat streaming audio and video with “what if” some General or Admiral can’t get their email or PowerPoint because people are on Twitter or Facebook. Expect it to be a game of inches played out over several miles, persistence and hard work will be the keys to success. The heels will be dug in, lines drawn, excuses ready because faced with this perception of radical change an entrenched power is most difficult to remove despite all best efforts. Yet true in business as it is in nature, rocks that refuse to roll with the river are simply worn away over time, their sands swept away in the wind, an inert stratum enveloping the paleontological remnants of an earlier age.

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Rob Ahern

Wow, excellent post! Thanks very much for taking the time to articulate something many of us are feeling. Despite the cynics, it’s an exciting time to work in government.

Noel Dickover

Just a brief thought or two on DoD’s current cultural issues concerning the use of these tools. While I would definitely agree with Brock that the Department as a whole has a long way to go, there are some of the most incredible pockets of excellence that are doing some truly terrific stuff with social software. In collecting the values and benefits, along with the risks and vulnerabilities, we encountered some terrific stuff. There is innovation occurring – the question is how to take these innovations to transform the larger work culture.