The fog of war
The fog of war and the confusion of constant competition. Data is transforming warfare but what are the implications for commercial organisations now engaged in a war for talent?
Major General Tom Copinger-Symes CBE – General Officer Commanding Force Troops Command.
Battles are fought through ‘the fog of war’. The phrase is attributed to Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz in the 1830s but remains applicable today. It captures the complex uncertainties facing military commanders as they engage with the enemy whilst coping with the environmental challenges of terrain, weather and darkness. The Duke of Wellington referred to the essential challenge of military command as ‘seeing the other side of the hill.’ Business leaders face similar problems.
The primary task for nations and their militaries has always been to see through the fog that obscures clear sight of their strategic objectives. Historically, one relied on the sights, the sounds, the smells and even the taste in your mouth – the raw ‘feel’ of a battle. Commanders lacked data – they were limited to the abilities of the human eyeball, then telescopes, binoculars, aerial reconnaissance and radars. And as they were fighting to get more information they were also fighting to stay alive, in close proximity to the enemy. Leaders’ senses were bombarded with inputs that prevented them from focusing on the key information they needed. This sensory overload made decision-making very difficult.
That is still the case on the front line. Elsewhere the world has moved on, and the means by which intelligence is produced has advanced. High command in war has shifted from the battlefield. Engagements now take place on a virtual plain of computers, as well as in physical battlespace, and algorithms and data analytics are as important as ballistics. Data poverty has been replaced by an embarrassment of riches. Now leaders are bombarded by excessive amounts of information that they struggle to ingest.
Although remote from the field of battle, and insulated from the sights, smells and noises, sifting the signal from the noise can be just as perplexing as seeing through the fog. Once the amount of intelligence gathered and produced bore a direct relationship to the number of people engaged in military intelligence. Today, new technologies have made accessible unfathomable volumes of data. At face value that’s hugely advantageous, but the ubiquity of those same technologies is also fast levelling the playing field, by giving our adversaries new and ever-more sophisticated capabilities. We have so much information we are at risk of decision paralysis. Sensory overload was the problem. It has now been surpassed by information overload. We risk drowning in data, asphyxiated by a lack of understanding.
“Unless your processing power equals your productive power, you end up drowned in your own data, asphyxiated by your lack of understanding.”
This is also a contest. We are all aware of the recent examples of nations engaging in information warfare to deceive, misdirect and propagandise. There’s little doubt that social media bots and fake news outlets could be just as effective at undermining a government as the best-trained and equipped troops.
For 10 years or more we’ve recognized that ‘data is the new oil’. But we have also come to realise that raw data, like crude oil, is worthless until you refine and process it. It is what you do with the data that delivers the value. At one level this comes down to ‘bytes’ – a measurement of data production, and ‘flops’ – a measurement of processing
power. Unless your processing power exceeds your productive power, you drown in the raw data.
“We know diverse teams lead to better decisionmaking so there is an active strategy to compete for a broader range of talent.”
The Information Age presages a new type of warfare. Modern militaries not only need to train battle-ready soldiers but also to recruit and develop IT (and PR) experts who can turn the unprecedented range of information to our competitive advantage. We are entering a new era where the military needs to build ever more diverse teams, incorporating different mind sets and skill sets, with artists alongside scientists, particularly in the information space. This also means we are no longer putting everyone in a uniform. It is part of a strategy called a ‘whole force approach’, blending Regular (full-time) soldiers, Reservists (part-time), civil servants and industry partners. We know diverse teams lead to better decisionmaking so there is an active strategy to compete for a broader range of talent.
“It’s a competition, but you needn’t be perfect. You just have to be better than the other guy.”
It’s not just about the obvious markers of diversity – gender, ethnicity and orientation – but also much more broadly about freshness of thought and challenge. And in a digital age there is a particular value in our ‘digital natives’, who are younger and tend to sit towards the bottom of our organisation. I grew up thinking Generals had to know all the answers. Now I am one, I find to my surprise that I’m struggling to ask the right questions, let alone find the answers. Being comfortable with getting the answers from very junior members of the organisation is part of 21st Century leadership. Fortunately the Army is blessed by extraordinarily talented young men and women, who are up for the challenge. This country has the DNA to compete superbly in the digital age, though this will require a whole-of-government, and indeed a whole-of-country approach.
This information age brings new moral dimensions too. Mr Zuckerberg and Mr Cambridge Analytica are having to think quite carefully about ethics and trust. We face the same challenge, for we are operating in the same fast-moving and contested space, which includes not only other nation states but also sub-state groups. Fake news, deception, outright lies, distraction and denial are all tools of their trade, they always have been, but modern media allows the enemy do it at an even more powerful pace and at even greater scale.
The temptation, as with all competitions, is to copy them. But while they benefit from the agility that comes with a ‘flexible relationship’ with the truth, they also take advantage of the power of autocratic government and the willful misuse of people’s personal data. My view is that we need to stay on the higher moral ground and we probably have to accept that we will often be second with the truth, when they are first with the lie. This doesn’t mean just sitting back and taking the blows; we have to be proactive about how we use data, and how we try to play catch up and overtake our competitors. Nevertheless, the UK military must strive to be transparent in all its decision-making. Plenty of parallels to our new-age digital military challenges can be found in the business world. Competition out there can doubtless feel pretty fierce, and sometimes I suspect it can feel like warfare.
But here sits the most pertinent lesson for commercial organisations engaged in the competition to attract and retain skilled talent. Military commanders have always sought to equip their troops with better technology than that available to their enemy. But that technological edge can no longer be guaranteed and increasingly it is the quality of our extraordinary soldiers that offers us the edge. The ability to integrate and employ technology is the critical factor. This remains a fundamentally human endeavour and its is the quality and motivation of our people that provide our winning advantage.