Network-centric warfare is supposed to help us achieve a "revolution in military affairs," a technological transformation of the U.S. Navy. The power of information technology is going to increase our awareness of both enemy and friendly forces. Using this networked "big picture" to organize our actions from the bottom up, we will respond to threats more rapidly and effectively. Some have argued that our individual ships, aircraft, and submarines are only "transitional technology"; that in the future Navy, a platform is only as good as its ability to act as a node, enhancing information flow within the entire network. It would appear that there is no turning back from this revolution.
There will be, however, some unexpected, probably unintended, and largely unrecognized consequences in terms of the impact of networking forces on the foundations of traditional military culture and organization. That innocuous-looking Palm Pilot or laptop is a window on the world, the keys to the city, the ultimate "gouge." It allows access to huge amounts of information and to other people up, down, and across rank and service boundaries. Information no longer just flows downward from senior authority figures, but often bubbles up from the bottom. As a result, the top-down chain of command and the wire diagram-styled hierarchies will flatten. We will begin to see a loss of that deference to authority that is inherent in rank structure. The military will start to look like the networks it is using—like a web, not a wire diagram.
Is the Navy really prepared for such a fundamental cultural and organizational upheaval? I say we are not. Once the implications are understood fully, the required revolutionary changes to achieve fully network-centric warfare's promise will be rejected, or at a minimum will be creatively stonewalled.
This rejection can be anticipated and perhaps checked if we acknowledge and attempt to understand some of the possible cultural and organizational consequences of a move to a network-centric model of war fighting. While a military organization is in many ways too different in mission and purpose to allow direct comparisons with the business world, the similarities between e-commerce's effect on traditional businesses and the impact of network-centric warfare concepts on the traditional Navy are many.
It's Not Just the Bits and Bytes
"E-commerce is not a technology play. It's a relationship, partnering, communication, and organizational play, made possible by technology."1 If we substitute "network-centric warfare" for "e-commerce" in this quote from Tom Peters, we are led directly to what is missing in the debate about military adoption of networks as a way of fighting wars. It is not technology in and of itself, but all the new things people can do by using technology that is significant. Much of the current literature on these technological revolutions is dense with mind-numbing jargon: bandwidth pipes and sensor grids, clock speed, lock-out, and OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) loops. What we are not fully recognizing and appreciating is that the most important effect of these inanimate switches, routers, and processors is sociological: how people use these systems; how networked people and organizations might act differently. That beige box and the networks it supports operate and derive their enormous powers according to human values, especially those that support the free flow of information and communication across boundaries.
This sociotechnical view holds that information technology is not just a new kind of tool. Its real power is not in squeezing more efficiency out of our current organizations but in the "potential to spark transformative change."2
In an information technology network, the inert machines connecting to it have thinking, creative people attached to them, making the network seem almost alive because it harnesses those minds together. It facilitates the "hive mind," which probably is more capable and powerful than any computer we could ever devise because it has emotion, intuition, instinct, and human-to-human connections. In an uncertain, frantically fast battle space, we should take full advantage of that amazing warfighting tool—the round thing on top of a sailor's neck, especially when it is networked to hundreds or thousands of other magnificent machines just like it. We cannot, however, exploit the power of the network with a mechanistic, wire-diagram organization and a "do as you're told" culture.
Military Culture Meets the Revolution
To get network-centric warfare on track, we might experience some cataclysmic cultural shifts in terms of the type of leaders we need to develop, our attitudes toward personnel (especially junior personnel), and how we handle challenges to our rank-driven respect for authority. Beliefs, rituals, and traditions are ingrained in military culture, many for good reason, but they have a downside—they can impair original, "different" thinkers.
What sort of people are we looking for? According to a study prepared for the Office of Net Assessment,
in the past, many military occupational specialties were well suited to those who prefer the discipline of solving well-defined problems and fulfilling clear organizational roles, and who have a lower tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity. A completely different mind-set and personality profile may be required to operate effectively within a C4ISR [command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance]-type force. Interaction in such organizations will require personnel who are more comfortable with higher levels of uncertainty and ambiguity, and who have highly developed skills in negotiation and coordination.3
To paraphrase the Apple computer advertising campaign, networked leaders must "Think Different." Their education must be broad in scope. A former editor at Telecommunications magazine notes, "in the high-tech industry . . . a lot of the best gurus and researchers tend to have liberal arts degrees. . . . that's what education should be about—giving you the tools for thought and the arsenal to deal with technological change."4
For years the Navy has required that the majority of its Naval Academy and NROTC midshipmen pursue technical majors, and we have duly commissioned thousands of officers who might not have the skills most needed for network-centric warfare. Our emphasis on technical degrees actually could be counterproductive: "the services must encourage greater familiarity with nonlinear analysis. A heavy emphasis on engineering, which is prominent in the officer acquisition procedure of three of the services, reflects a mind-set that is not conducive to innovation. . . . what the services lack are biologists, mathematicians and historians."5 Network-centric warfare makes the dreaded and derided "touchy-feely stuff" a core competency for our leaders.
Now these are the Laws of the Navy. . . . take heed what ye say of your seniors. . . . Every law is naught beside this one—thou shalt not criticize, but obey!
"The Laws of the Navy"
Information technology is famously a great equalizer, a new hand that can tip the scales of power.
"A Farewell to Arms"
Wired, May 1997
Too much of intranet development is focused on whiz-bang technology and not nearly enough on the cultural revolution all this implies and in fact demands.
Doc Searls, and David Weinberger
The Cluetrain Manifesto
Technologies are not neutral, objective, or independent, but they are social because they are constructed by people.
"The Truth Is Not Out There:
An Enacted View of the 'Digital Economy'"
19 May 1999
Why do we have a decision chain in the first place? Ostensibly it's because those up in the organization chart have a wider view as well as more experience. . . . but if everyone has access to information, those on top no longer necessarily have the widest view.
Doc Searls, and David Weinberger
The Cluetrain Manifesto
Leaders should no longer perch at the top of the organization but rather in the center. . . . true leadership hinges on an ability to grasp the value-creating potential of the organization's knowledge base. . . . the shift from being the source of all knowledge flows to managing the network of knowledge lies at the heart of new leadership.
and Ruth L. Williams
"Through the Knowledge Glass"
Darwin, 15 October 1999
New Attitudes and Expectations in Junior Personnel
Intellectual property, human capital, and creativity are the most important assets for the military, just as in the business world. And while the military is moving in a "people first" direction, driven in part by the recent recruiting and retention crises, former Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig rightly commented that the services still are "infected by a psychology of conscription" that considers people (especially junior enlisted) to be a free and limitless labor pool for all manner of work. In the Internet economy, people aren't expendable, they can't be replaced easily, and there isn't always someone just as good or better waiting to step up.
Given the current and future demanding security environment, junior personnel will make battlefield decisions that may have strategic impact (hence the term "strategic corporal")—and they will expect to be valued and to be treated well. As we move to a military of heads versus a military of hands, the price of their hard work and imagination (reflected in their paychecks) will go up.6 Keeping the best minds engaged means more than money, however. Surveys of the youth employment market show that once these young people get what they are worth, it's about "learning opportunities, more training, cool people to work with, personal autonomy."7 In the war for talent, does the Navy have enough to offer a bright, educated young person with enthusiasm and ideas?
If authority and prestige in the military no longer were driven so much by rank, but by the talent and skills one provides to the networked organization in a team setting, it would be inevitable that educated, intelligent young service members would feel freer to challenge authority figures. One of the huge dividing lines between officers and enlisted personnel has been college degrees. Through service programs and their own initiative, many enlisted personnel are earning their baccalaureate or master's degrees. An innocuous self-improvement program is producing well-educated troops who will expect more and question more. Will a strict officer/enlisted stratification be justifiable much longer?
We say we need a better-educated force to have successful strategic corporals and to run our networks and provide good ideas, but are we ready for the possible assault on our military class structures? If we say we are ready but really are not, sailors will leave to work for organizations that welcome their initiative. The intelligent, thoughtful service member who has the same access as his seniors to reams of data about our programs or systems, and begins to question some of our underlying assumptions, must be appreciated as an opportunity. Our authoritarian culture must resist its usual tendency to question the sailor's loyalty, remind him of his lowly position in the chain of command, or tell him to "look at the color of his identification card."
Those who thrive in this new world are a different breed. . . .they're often young and iconoclastic. They haven't earned their stripes, and they don't seem to be coming up in a fair way. . . . the grizzled veterans sure would like to take an old IBM Selectric to their heads.
ecompany, September 2000
You have to teach people new thinking skills. . . how to be heretics, how to search out and challenge every element of dogma and convention.
"Revolt or Perish"
cio.com, 1 October 2000
In short, the Web breaks down fiefdoms. Resistance is feudal.
ecompany, September 2000
The real issue is whether companies have the guts to engage in creative destruction. . . . E-commerce will work to the extent that you alter every relationship in your organization. Do you have the nerve to do this?
"Business Guru Tom Peters
Sees Major E-Commerce Shakeout,"
Infoworld, 19 September 2000
Will We Accept These Changes?
It doesn't look good.
To commit fully to network-centricity will take guts—also known as overcoming fear. Fear of relinquishing control, of letting go of turf, of admitting that you don't have all the answers. Fear that the information technology revolution, the dominance of the network, will lessen the importance and prestige of the "things," the ships, aircraft, or submarines, that embodied one's entire career.
How many of our mid-grade and senior leaders truly are prepared to believe in the revolution and to put in place a system that could undercut their authority, even if it is better for a new way of fighting and winning wars? Very few, I submit. Streamlining the current system and finding more efficiencies can take us only so far; at some point we will need radical innovation, a new approach.
Will anything push us to really restructure our organization and change our culture? "Militaries that change are usually militaries that have been defeated. And so this is a difficult time for the United States. We have a formula that has worked. . . . Do we want to take a chance on a new way of fighting?"8 The U.S. armed forces' history of success conspires to convince many that change is not needed, that the old way of buying ever more expensive platforms still is the best way to protect national security.
It appears to have come to this: the last best hope to push change and force difficult decisions is the oft-bewailed upcoming budgetary train wreck and the finite amount of money available to recapitalize all those platforms. We won't change fundamentally until a crisis forces us to or we implode of our own weight. Let's hope we won't turn around after that happens and find that our best and brightest have defected to companies where the culture rewards radical innovation instead of "keeping your head down" in accordance with the Laws of the Navy.
Commander Scarborough, a surface warfare officer, was the co-Honor graduate of the March 2001 senior course at the Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island. She is assigned to J7, Joint Exercises and Training, at Regional Headquarters, Allied Forces Northern Europe. Her most recent sea tour was as executive officer of the Fort McHenry (LSD-43).
1. Michael Vizard, "Business Guru Tom Peters Sees Major E-Commerce Shakeout," Infoworld, 19 September 2000, (21 September 2000). (back to article)
2. John A. Byrne, "Management by Web," Business Week, 28 August 2000, p. 89. (back to article)
3. Mark D. Mandeles, "Organizational Structures to Exploit the Revolution in Military Affairs," prepared for the Director, Office of Net Assessment, contract DASW01-97-C-0054, January 2000, p. 5. (back to article)
4. Interview originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, reprinted in the College of Liberal Arts Newsletter, The University of Texas at Austin, summer 2000. (back to article)
5. Williamson Murray, "Innovation: Past and Future," Joint Force Quarterly, summer 1996, p. 60. (back to article)
6. Byrne, "Management by Web," p. 96. (back to article)
7. Byrne, "Management by Web," p. 137. (back to article)
8. John Carlin, "A Farewell to Arms," Wired, May 1997, (29 September 2000). (back to article)