Leadership, Stupidity, and Assumptions

If you’ve read anything I’ve written, you know I favor government agencies using social media to meet their missions. Strongly favor. I see these tools as offering tremendous potential benefits. Yet there are also other considerations at play.

Did you know the Department of Defense runs its own TV station called the Pentagon Channel? I haven’t really explored it, but the point is it exists.

Did you know that the Air Force blocks the Pentagon channel? Yes, that’s right: one of the major military services prevents its members from seeing what the larger organization is broadcasting.

At this point, you’re probably thinking one of two things:

  1. The Air Force IT people are idiots, or
  2. Someone in the Air Force knows something you don’t know

When I hear of seemingly absurd situations, I try to remember that leaders generally aren’t stupid. Partly, that’s because I’ve made my own decisions that seemed stupid on the surface but reflected knowledge that wasn’t commonly known. Partly, it’s because of my basic faith that most people make thoughtful decisions. Even if I disagree with their conclusions, I try not to assume they’re inane.

So I didn’t appreciate this blog post. The writer was so busy ridiculing Air Force leadership that he didn’t seem to read the explanation he included from a spokeswoman: it’s a bandwidth issue.

Not fear of online video, concern about wasted time, or a desire to quash the use of social media. Nor a too-limited focus on information security, privacy, or any of a hundred other reasons government agencies can be slow to adopt these tools.

Granted, I don’t know what else the spokeswoman said, and I don’t know what else the blogger might have uncovered. Maybe the bandwidth concern is a smokescreen. I’ll probably never know.

But that’s my point. It’s far too easy to snipe from the sidelines. Too many people think they know everything going into these decisions, and that they know better what should be done.

For example, the blogger thought it was important for Air Force personnel to be able to watch a cooking show. As a taxpayer, I’m wondering why my money is going to pay for the creation of such a show, and why my money should be allocated to provide bandwidth for anyone to watch it.

But I also assume there’s more to that story, and that the decision makers have reasons I’m not aware of.

By all means, the blogger and others should ask those questions. And government leaders owe the public the answers.

But even as you question, and even if you disagree, don’t assume the people making the decisions are stupid.

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William Theuer

We’re all more or less ignorant; just in different realms. I get more humble as I get older. There is so much none of us knows. Its like we are upon a shore and the universe beckons.

Henry Brown

Most of the “noise” about bandwidth is somewhat dated. Have worked with DOD and other agencies for longer than I care to recall, and the issue of bandwidth probably was at least some what valid last century when a HIGH Speed connection was 9600 Baud. Very few government offices facilities currently use dial up (even deployed DOD troops). And related the cost per bit of transmission has fallen through the floor, even if you consider the somewhat less than ideal system of contracting for this service.

The issue of “time wasting” has changed little over the past 50 years. I can recall, when I first joined the workforce, being told that I was not to read non-approved books, including any fiction, while on the job.

Late last century there was a big stink through out the government, when PC’s became rather common on most desktops and management was in a “panic” over the time being wasted playing solitaire. The “solution” was to remove solitaire from all the computers. Because of the technology then it wasn’t a very effective policy(I can recall having to go to all the computers and for those 10 percent removing it again every 6 months or so.)

Early this century I had to sign an agreement that I would not spend more than 1 hour during my work day on Bulletin Boards. When that didn’t work for a significant percentage of the people who had access to them, the “Computer department” had to disable the phone number.

Have never fully understood why the solution to employee non-productivity is “banning” versus what to me is much more logical, if more time consuming, TRAINING/EDUCATION

Jeffrey Levy

Henry: I agree with everything you said. In fact, I’ve made those same arguments myself repeatedly.

My current favorite phrasing is “people have been wasting time at work as long as there’s been work.”

Wasting time is a management issue, not a tech, security, or other form of IT issue.

Gov’t agencies are slow to adopt these tools for reasons both valid and invalid.

Amanda Blount

Hey, I feel better about our systems. We get the Pentagon Channel and have for years. In fact, all TVs must either be on the Pentagon channel (which by the way; has many, many Air Force Anchors on them – more than Army – How ironic 🙂 or a News channel. When the weather is bad we switch it to weather channel. And if we are working WAY late, we will switch the TV to a music channel (not video – just music). None of us waste much time watching TV – it seems more like background noise. I would be just as happy if it were off. It is just one more distraction to me. But I sit way at the back of the office, so it is fine with me. Again, I am happy we get the Pentagon Channel. There are some seriously interesting stories covered on there which are not shown on other news channels.

Lovisa Williams

Great post! Bandwidth, steady connectivity and infrastructure are still very real issues for us. We are required to be in locations where there is very little real bandwidth and what is there is split between a large group of companies, organizations and us. With power fluctuations happening regularly and all of these things beyond our control we still have to consider all of these issues when looking at worldwide deployments of technology.

This is why we have gone with a more de-centralized approach for using social media. Our people on the ground are empowered to determine what technologies are being used locally and what is feasible based upon what community we are looking to build/join and what our objectives are. We do not ban the use of technology across the board, but encourage people to use what will work best in their environment.


Good post….One idea that I have is that I think it should be easier to turn on and off blocking and streaming. Too often it takes months and layers of paperwork to block or unblock a site. So I think we should be able to quickly block streaming when MJ funeral is happening and we worry it will bring everything done. But also quickly unblock a site if we find it useful and it meets muster.

Joe Boutte

Decision making is satisficing. Satisficing is the term that Herbert Simon came up with decades ago to describe our imperfect ability to have all the information we need about a topic in order to make the best or optimum decision. A combination of satisfy and suffice, the new word describes our “bounded rationality” The business dictionary defines it as follows: General: Aiming to achieve only satisfactory results because the satisfactory position is familiar, hassle-free, and secure, whereas aiming for the best-achievable result would call for costs, effort, and incurring of risks.

In terms of social media, we can make better decision, by crowdsourcing issues that we need multiple perspectives, more information, and alternatives. I believe social media is an asset for organizations to fully leverage the experience and intellect of their workforce. For example, the conversations, links, and issues discussed here help me think through or think differently about issues in my own organization. Having more information, provides an alternative another way to enhance one’s decision-making processes. Although we may never acheive optimal decisions as human, at least we can address more aspects of a decision problem through social networks.

Dannielle Blumenthal

This post raises a lot of issues that are worth addressing, but one of the most striking to me is the lack of attention to the symbolic meaning of blocking the channel. From the outside one could draw the conclusion that there is actually some kind of internal rivalry going on here and that the bandwidth explanation is just an excuse. From a communication/organizational development perspective I would think that the AF and the Pentagon might want to have a meeting about how to manage perceptions here. Also maybe they could find some other options to just blocking the channel, if the content is worthwhile to all. Maybe they could make it fun; I think work has to be somewhat enjoyable in order to keep people engaged. How about an Iron Chef competition where the winner gets air time?