Ray Ozzie's Weblog


Tyranny, Terror, and Technology

Unreasonable taxation. Unwarranted violence. Tyranny. King George had managed to bend the laws of the time to suit the government's needs, enabled by extreme "centralization" of power. In creating a new nation, our founding fathers sought to develop a new type of governing body: one that fostered and assured liberty "at the edge", recognizing individualism, equality, and the natural rights of mankind.

But doing so was tough. The concept of "democracy" taken to its extreme could arguably have resulted in the tyranny of the masses. What was needed was a new organizational form: one with checks and balances. An appropriate mix of centralization and decentralization, masterfully formed so that it could take on the best attributes of both. A wholly centralized executive branch for strategic leadership and vision, a wholly decentralized legislative branch which best represented the needs of those living at the edge, and a judicial branch to ensure balance between the two ... and justice for all.

The founding fathers had mastered the art of shaping organizational networks. In creating the U.S. government, they'd "mastered the network form", empirically creating an organization with sustainability, resiliency, and agility.

Fast forward.

In the course of my work with our many customers in DC, earlier this year I had the honor of meeting John Arquilla - coincidentally only about a month after reading a book that he had edited with David Ronfeldt - Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy. 

In listening to him speak eloquently and with conviction, and in reading his book, I found an incredible and unexpected parallel between our defense challenges and those that I'd been dealing with for years in commercial environments. Many of my enterprise customers' issues - those that led me to create Groove - seemed directly analogous to those confronting world governments in combating terrorists' organizational forms: The need to coordinate and organize for effective strategy, tactics, logistics, execution. The need to find the appropriate mix of organizational centralization and decentralization. The struggle to get off-the-shelf technology to work across organizational/security boundaries. The need to address leadership and doctrinal issues that arise when effective cross-boundary collaboration becomes mission-critical. Could the solutions also be analogous?

(I strongly recommend the book if you haven't yet read it - full text online since late last year. "It takes networks to fight networks; whoever masters the network form first and best will gain major advantages." In it, you'll find example after example of edge-based, largely decentralized organizational forms and how they compete, e.g. how swarming tactics can be used to overwhelm adversaries. In reading it, I gained a much better appreciation of the challenge before us in combating highly-decentralized organizations - from al-Qaeda to drug-smuggling cartels. The premise that hierarchies have a difficult time fighting networks is compelling.)

I must say that my initial reaction was something akin to "this threat model is going to be close to impossible to deal with." But over the next week or so, it began to dawn on me that there might be lessons to be learned from the challenges that our major corporations have faced over the years when confronted with swarms of smaller, more nimble competitors, or companies that have a better mastery of the network form.

Take Wal-Mart. Cross-docking has been reportedly nothing short of a transformational strategic logistics methodology for Wal-Mart - a distribution network form that has proven extremely difficult to compete with. Clearly the "winner" is not likely to be the massive wholly-centralized bureaucracy, nor the wholly-decentralized organization (which can have severe coordination issues when coordination is truly necessary), but the organization that can find the best and most effective integration of centralized and decentralized operations.

And although business collaboration and business modularity tends to be mostly about transaction cost economics, in defense it's about refining the network form for superiority in intelligence, analysis, decision, and action. Broadly decentralized intelligence, semi-decentralized analysis, and centralized decision-making. And action that leverages the best of centralization (massive use of force) combined with the best of decentralization (on-the-ground dynamically tasked special forces). Furthermore, the same technologies used to support cross-enterprise collaboration can also be leveraged to span formerly-stovepiped organizations in government - bridging secure networks, or even working across unsecure networks. Joint forces, coalition forces, intelligence, national and local law enforcement, the national guard and coast guard, INS, and even NGO's.

Of course, in the business world things do tend to move more quickly. And in the hyper-competitive commercial sector, funding naturally flows to organizations that demonstrate the right survival skills: if you make serious mistakes, your access to capital and survival are in jeopardy. In the public sector - even in an environment of heightened urgency - different funding dynamics prevail. As a countervailing force, strong leadership is necessary - leadership that understands network-centric government, network-centric organizational dynamics, network-centric warfare.

And although clearly not a panacea, technology is also a key piece in the puzzle. Organizations for years have studied social networks, for example, in order to best understand the nature of the firm. Technology has enabled FedEx to transform package logistics, thus changing the shape its customers' organizations. Technology such as EDI have changed the shape of inter-organizational networks; Web Services will be changing the shape of many more. Technologies such as the telegraph, telephone, FAX, eMail, Groove, IM, NetMeeting, and others are key to interpersonal communications and online collaboration, and have reshaped how organizations do their business - both within, and without.

These same technologies, of course, can and will also be mastered by others. Tomorrow or the next day, another terrorist organization will exploit our open systems - whether through packet-switched viruses transported through MAE East, or packet-switched shipping containers through Long Beach containing nukes, or packet-switched human containers through O'Hare containing smallpox. No matter what its original intent, the sign of a mature and robust technology is that it can be used for both good and for evil.

But let there be no doubt that advantage can be gained if one leverages a given technology well in advance of an opponent: technology marches on, time counts.  Technologists can make a difference, by working to ensure that a receptive government has at minimum a temporal advantage, if not strategic mastery.

Al-Qaeda tragically demonstrated the capabilities of the decentralized organizational form. But centcom's response, our rapid recovery, the resilience of our markets and society, and our uncoordinated yet continuing mutual resolve has clearly demonstrated the power of striking the right balance between centralization and decentralization. Our government's organizational form surely wasn't designed to be efficient, but perhaps that's precisely what makes it so effective.

They successfully overcame centralized tyranny just as we must now overcome decentralized terror. Let's pause and thank our forefathers for this adaptive and resilient network form that we call the US of A.

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Last update: 9/10/2002; 6:54:14 AM.