Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Rathergate: Decision Making 2.0?

Trent Telenko of Winds of Change has an interesting post on what he calls 'the group effect', or 'Swarm' as Hugh Hewitt refers to it: the rewarding of content over the position of the speaker, something the blogosphere is famous for. Pajamabloggers or not, little attention is paid to status of the author (in fact, in many cases this is not even known), whether on the subject or otherwise, and authors need to defend against any and every comment thrown their way. The beauty is that the commenters are commenting on each other's comments as well, preventing that an author needs to fend off literally every comment made. It's not a new thing, either, although the blogosphere, internet proliferation have put it in the spotlight:

I have seen it operate repeatedly before.

I first saw it on the old GENIE Military Affairs Round Table over 14 years ago in the run up to and aftermath of the first Iraqi-American war. Then much later and repeatedly over on on a number of issues, but most spectacularly in a long thread analyzing the Columbia Disaster (Note the link is to 3000 graphically intensive posts -- broadband only use is highly recommended) that reached the same conclusion NASA did months later on the causes of the shuttle break up.

This is a radically egalitarian cultural development that is highly subversive of elitist hierarchies everywhere.
We are seeing the precursors perhaps to a new type of decision-making process, which could find its way into large corporations, the intelligence community and other large organizations which benefit of having a lot of employees or stakeholders ('commenters') and leaders who need to make sure that they take the best decision, and often fast.

Imagine a private network, linking friendly intelligence agencies throughout the world, giving access to all agents above a certain classification level on 'threads', or decisions on intel or threat assessment. Because of the nature of intelligence, and the (warranted or not) famous unwillingness of sharing between agencies, its purpose could probably be best served in the lower levels, the political or country analysts. Assessments on a political crisis somewhere in the world could be brought by an 'author', the analyst ordered to prepare the report, to the group, open for comment by the group, forcing him to adjust, change and adopt comments brought to him, filtered by other members of the group. Rather than depending on the document prepared by one analyst or group of analysts within the same agency, and vetted by one or multiple superiors, also within the same agency, a document on which decisions could be based prepared in effect by hundreds if not thousands of analysts within the same agency and other agencies could be used to base decisions on.

The same could apply to a large corporation, with offices around the world. If a director at the corporate level would need to make a decision on a particular investment, instead of asking his usual circle of board advisors would post the proposed investment on an internal website, asking anyone from the mail clerk and his secretary to his director of finance and shareholders to shoot at it (and be shot at), then odds are that a very good decision will be reached, at a fraction of the time needed in the old decision making process.

Two comments on this, first is that the mail clerk who is taking a business course at night, will be very eager to profess his skills, and will be given the chance to compete head on with his boss's boss, and be noted, thus good for his career. Because he will be burnt down in real-time if he makes a dumb remark (and not, like in the old ways, 'because he is the mail clerk'), he will make sure that what he says, sticks. This will be the incentive for the bottom layers to take part and show what they're worth. Another incentive is that once a decision has been reached this way, no grudges can be held against anyone if the decision does not pan out. It was a group decision, and everyone had a chance to contribute to it.

The second comment is the one that will put us back with our feet on the ground again, and that is culture. Knowledge is Power, and is inheritently connected to humans in general, and decision makers in particular. See Dan Rather. If Pajama Bloggers are able to utterly destroy a newscast, then what's the value of the newscast? So if I share, what's in it for me? True enough. To return to the corporate setting again, the role of a decision maker like a corporate director would change under this regime, but not entirely. Rather than being decision makers, the focus would turn to decision 'thinking' for lack of a better word. The investment decision in the example above did come up because of an opportunity, a threat or whatever. A group is good at vetting decisions, but lacks in strenght to formulate a direction without leadership. So future decision makers, be it in corporations, the military or the intelligence community, might not so much be in charge of making the decisions, as they are in charge of thinking of decisions to be made.