A few years ago, the History Channel had a program that covered great military disasters. One was the on the French Maginot Line. This was a line of supposedly impregnable forts that were put in place to prevent invasion by Germany after World War I.
This solution was monumental in cost and it failed miserably because the analysis that created it was critically flawed. The Germans simply went around the forts to invade France in World War II. This incredibly expensive effort is now viewed as one of the most monumentally stupid moves in history.
In watching the 911 commission on TV, I think we have clearly shown we can do France one better. After nearly three years and billions of dollars spent, we haven’t really done much of anything to address the real problems that caused our own disaster.
What is particularly upsetting is that much of the technology we have spent millions on in the years after September 11, 2001, has had little to do with preventing the problem from reoccurring. We can build all of the “forts” we want, but terrorists are very flexible. They can go around much of what we build. In the end, apparently, all we have succeeded in doing is looking very busy, making air travel both uncomfortable and unprofitable, and creating an even greater drag on our economy.
This is just as common in business as it is in local and federal government. Companies lead with a product or technology and then wonder why the deployment fails to address their needs. To be successful with the application of any technology, you first have to define what the problem is you are trying to fix, not just the symptoms of the problem, but the actual problem.
In the case of 911, the disasters were not the problem, they were the symptoms. The problem was the lack of timely reliable intelligence. We can’t possibly secure all of the bridges, buildings, airplanes, schools and other likely targets in a nation the size of the United States. We need an approach that will actually work.
We’ve certainly seen this kind of a problem in business: The executive or department that looks furiously busy but actually doesn’t really accomplish much. They are putting in long hours but are dreadfully short on results.
What is frightening is the constant list of great ideas on how to fix the various problems. Just replacing the president without fixing the quality of information the guy gets just gives us another clueless top executive. I don’t care who you are; if you are given bad information you are going to make bad decisions.
What we need to do is figure out what has to be done. This is the time to work smart, not just work hard. I don’t know about you, but I get the distinct impression that our politicians, after 911, said to themselves they needed to look really busy so the next time something like this happened they could showcase how hard they worked.
I’d rather we didn’t have another 911 instead. Running around with little direction just isn’t the way out of this mess.
We are now faced with actually trying to find a solution that addresses what appears to be a massive intelligence gathering, analysis, distribution and coordination problem. Much of the discussion, recently, seems to be centered on GE and the company’s Six Sigma IT program, which is believed to be one of the best IT organizations in the industry. Six Sigma is a quality-assurance process used broadly in the technology industry; it can be applied to almost any process.
However, GE’s IT organization was designed to make GE a more effective manufacturer and it has little, if anything, to do with the core problems faced by the U.S. government. t is the Six Sigma quality-assurance elements in GEs organization that should be emulated, not GE’s entire IT program.
If you want to look at industry for an example of excellence in information gathering and distribution, you should probably look to pharmaceuticals rather than GE’s quality-assurance program. For example, in the tech industry, the counterpart to the CIA is the Competitive Intelligence organization’s Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals.
In this society, it is generally recognized that the pharmaceutical companies have done the best job with respect to collection, analysis and distribution of competitive intelligence information. The automotive industry also has gone through a problem similar to what the U.S. government is currently experiencing.
General Motors was caught napping in the 1970s by a faster-moving and more capable Japanese auto industry because their their competitive-analysis units, which, at the time were the best-funded in that industry, were out of step and out of date. What they went through to address that problem might be a good lesson that could be applied here as well.
The Other Major Problem: Iraq
Stepping back and thinking about what we could do more effectively in Iraq, I frankly don’t understand why we have so many people needlessly at risk there. If we can put a robot on Mars, why can’t we remote control many — if not most — of the vehicles likely to be targeted in Iraq?
We don’t really need the vehicles to be self-aware. Remote controls are relatively inexpensive and would allow the drivers to operate in comfort and safety from remote locations. We continue to have folks out of work and manufacturing plants that are underused. Rather than shipping more potential hostages to Iraq, why don’t we put them to work here building things that make the folks already over there safer and more effective?
A few weeks ago, I had a chance to sit down with an analyst who had worked for the Department of Defense on nonlethal weapons. He described a new set of military nonlethal liquids based on Teflon. These liquids could be dropped from above on an area and would make it nearly impossible for insurgents to stand or move about. He also described other liquids that behave like super-glue and are designed to have a similar effect on combatants.
Both military liquids supposedly do their jobs without killing anyone, let alone innocent bystanders. They also have the side benefit of making the attackers look rather silly. This seems to be an area we should be more heavily funding if we are to be fighting in cities in which there are combatants and noncombatants intermingled. Our smart weapons simply are not that smart. By using lethal force, we do seem to be making things worse for ourselves and not better.
The Right Answers?
These might not be the right answers, but it seems strange that new technologies and strategies aren’t even being considered.
What concerns me the most is that we seem to be jumping ahead continually to answer a question that needs substantial analysis before we can address it. We have a massive portfolio of technology. Let’s put aside pork-barrel politics for a moment, analyze the problems and put the most capable nation on the planet to work effectively identifying and dealing with these core problems.
Let’s work together to avoid another one of these after-the-fact, finger-pointing sessions that make the decision-makers look like idiots.
Rob Enderle, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.