Thursday, February 26, 2009

Lessons From Virtual Warfare

I don't usually read books about war but Wired For War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century by P.W.Singer intrigued me. I heard the author interviewed on National Public Radio, and some of his stories seemed highly relevant to those of us soldiering in the virtual team space.

The focus of the book is on the emerging RMA (revolution in military affairs)driven by the introduction of increasingly sophisticated robotic systems into war zones. Most of us are familiar with images of the unmanned Predator drone flying over the landscapes of Iraq and Afghanistan. These planes are operated by pilots sitting at video-game-like consoles in distant places like Nevada. The drones are just one example of robotic systems that gather and transmit information about potential targets, and then carry out operations to destroy or nullify those targets. They are all part of the new networked and information-rich military force.

This is not the place to discuss the ethics of using such systems. All I will do in this posting is to highlight some of the lessons we can learn from the experiences of the virtual military.

1. Taming irrational exuberance - many people are seduced by the thrill of new capabilities while not comprehending the complexities they bring. Some in the military thought new networked capabilities would basically solve the problems of 'the fog of war' (the difficulty of getting good information in the midst of battle) and the 'friction of war' (actions rarely working out as planned). But, of course, they didn't. New capabilities bring new complexities - in battle and in our teams.

2. Creating Doctrine - tools are being generated at a rapid rate, and how we use them is driven largely from the 'bottom up'. We typically lack a workable plan or doctrine for making the best use of the technologies. At the start of the Second World War, the French had more tanks than the Germans, but it was the Germans who developed the doctrine of the 'lightning war' that coordinated air, artillery, and infantry into a concentrated force. This doctrine drove the Germans to build faster and more reliable tanks, and ones that could communicate and coordinate with one another via 2-way radios. In 1942, the US Army had to rip out radios from Rhode Island State Police cars for tanks being shipped out to North Africa. And so, we need to stop thinking of our new technologies as useful bits and pieces, and to start thinking of them holistically. Creating collaborative advantage depends on our ability to make the best use of our new technologies, not simply to use them. The emerging doctrine in the military is swarming, but that's for another day.

3. Sensing The Disconnect - the military is in the process of creating a new class of soldiers - 'cubicle warriors'. These warriors experience war differently. Pilots of the Predator drones might witness terrible events during their shifts, but then they drive home to their families, watch TV, coach soccer, and attend Parent-Teacher meetings. He or she is disconnected from the reality on the ground, even though the emotional intensity can be very high. All virtual team leaders need to be very conscious of their disconnection from the ground reality. They must be very careful of not projecting their own reality onto those of others on the virtual team - the ground realities (e.g., cultural orientations) can be very different from location to location. Just because you have an abundance of information doesn't mean you fully understand the context - realities that lie outside of your information-gathering systems.

4. Working Hard To Build Cohesion - cubicle warriors will carry out operations together, but might never actually meet. As one air force lieutenant colonel says, "Make no mistake, this war is being fought on chat." The impact of relative anonymity on cohesion can be enormous. Virtual space is isolating, and it is much harder work to build trust and connection. Without trust, units "just become chess pieces on a board." "Ninety percent of the time, you don't know who you are talking to," says one cubicle warrior and in virtual chat everyone thinks they have a vote. Military chat rooms, therefore, would often become free-for-all contests. This raised the need for chat-room etiquette - no e-mailing in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, no explanations!!!!!!!!, and no emoticons. These rules helped a smoother flow of information, but problems remain - you lose the emotions, the sense of urgency, the seriousness.

5. Doing What Adds Value - the new systems have also given rise to others classes - 'tactical generals' and 'strategic corporals'. Strategic corporals are the younger, junior troops who now have the ability to call in airstrikes, for example - something a 40 year old colonel would have done in the past. Empowerment on the ground carries a lot of responsibility, and it is the role of the distant leader to provide the parameters and guidelines for decision making. Too often on virtual teams, confusion abounds because of unclear roles and responsibilities and vague decision criteria. What about the 'tactical general'? As generals become more virtual and distant from the actual battlefield, the power of the technologies also gives them greater power to micromanage troops on the ground. As Singer says, ". . . unmanned systems are blurring the line between timely supervision and micromanagement." Because of the abundance of information, generals often overestimate how much they really know about what is happening on the ground. As one Major said, "You get too focused on what you can see, and neglect what you can't see." Generals want to get involved in the battle details and direct the action. The result is often delay and inappropriate decisions. Ground units may also get caught up in power struggles between 'tactical generals' in different locations. One ground commander talks about receiving three sets of conflicting orders for one operation. The need is for generals to practice 'enlightened control' - set the right goals, objectives,and strategy, and resist the seductive urge to intervene tactically at the micro level.

6. Focusing - it is difficult to keep virtual warriors focused and in 'battle rhythm'. A commander, therefore, must continually reinforce the criticality of the mission. One colonel talks of helping his troops have the mental and emotional sense that they are in the battle space they are looking at. He tells them that when they step into their place of work, they are stepping into Iraq or Afghanistan. As virtual team leaders, we need to think about the virtual project space we are creating, and how to keep our people focused and high engaged in that space.

7. Humanizing The Workspace - there's no doubt virtual communication can feel highly impersonal. In one study of drone pilots, two Artificial Intelligence (AI) programs were given different personalities. The one had a humanlike voice and mannerisms, and would say things to the pilot like "Hey [Joe] we did an awesome job -great working with you!" or it would even tell a joke. The other would say "Hello" in a monotone voice. During the mission, the personable AI would advise and inspire. The other would just say, "Pay attention, high priority." The personable AI team finished tasks faster.

Learn whatever you can from wherever you can even if the source gives you nightmares.

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