Enterprise 2.0: Secure Social Software Would Save Lives in Combat

Blake Hall recently spoke about emerging Enterprise 2.0 technologies and their potential military applications at the 140 Conference in Washington, D.C. Here’s the transcript of his talk.

My name is Blake Hall and I am one of the co-founders of TroopSwap and a recent graduate of Harvard Business School.  Prior to grad school, I was an Army Captain, an Airborne Ranger qualified officer and I led a reconnaissance platoon of twenty-four scouts and five snipers during a deployment to Iraq from July 2006 through September 2007.  For the last two years, I have worked for European Command as a member of the Army Reserve and I just resigned my commission six days ago.  I’m looking forward to not getting a hair cut for a very long time.

I was invited here today to speak about Enterprise 2.0 and the military and I am going to lean heavily on my experiences as a platoon leader to do just that.  I was a platoon leader for thirty months, so it is as a platoon leader that I have the deepest knowledge of the challenges facing service members on the front lines and how Enterprise 2.0 can address those challenges.

Andrew McAfee, who coined the term Enterprise 2.0, defined Enterprise 2.0 as “the use of emergent social software platforms by organizations in pursuit of their goals.”  I will unpack that definition later, but the key word in that statement is emergent because it means that management does not impose structure on its employees, rather it means allowing employees to define their own structure over time.

In practice, Enterprise 2.0 means giving up control.  And giving up control is a scary proposition for military leaders.  But I am going to relate two stories that illustrate why the military needs Enterprise 2.0 platforms right now.

There is a neighborhood in central Baghdad, called Dora, that was so dangerous in 2007 that it was called Al-Qaida’s Alamo by the Washington Post.  I had never, and hopefully will never, see a place quite like it.  There was no running water in the neighborhood, no functioning markets, the sewage system had been destroyed by bombs so there was standing sewage in the street and the insurgents in the neighborhood imposed an atmosphere of fear and hopelessness that was so thick it was almost tangible.  The unit charged with establishing security didn’t have enough men to secure the neighborhood, so they asked my unit for help and we said yes.

Here is where things get problematic.  With two units operating in the same area, you basically have two separate organizations charged with a common goal – but reporting information to separate commands.  There is an urgent need for coordination in that arrangement between the two organizations.  So whenever the other unit received information or observed an attack, they were supposed to call my unit or transmit the information via a secure e-mail network and we would reciprocate.  Or so the theory went.

During the late hours of July 6th 2007, Al-Qaida militants attacked an Iraqi Army base in Dora from the rooftop of a nearby building.  The other unit received the report.  But they didn’t pass along the information to my unit.  The next afternoon, I walked up to our operations center with another platoon leader and we got a full rundown on what had happened the night before – except for the attack on the base.

The other platoon leader, my friend, needed to set up his men to observe a street in Dora and, in a stroke of very bad luck, he decided to use the same rooftop the Al-Qaida militants had used the night before.  An Iraqi Army private standing watch saw movement on the rooftop.  It was dark, he was nervous and he assumed the men on the roof were Al-Qaida insurgents returning to attack the base again.  He fired a burst from his AK-47 and an American soldier was seriously wounded.

When I was exposed to Enterprise 2.0 concepts, I immediately realized their implications for this type of scenario.  The two units could have used a secure common social software platform.  By granting users from both units access to the platform, there would have been little need for point-to-point communication unless the report left out key details.  In that case, anyone reading the report could pick up the phone, talk to the author of the report, and then edit the content on the platform appropriately.

I picture this alternative reality.  Upon logging in to our secure account, my friend and I would have received an alert from our RSS feeds notifying us of the enemy attacks in Dora that had been posted to the database since we had last checked.  We would have known about the attack and my friend could have used Google’s PageRank software to search the database to see if that building had been used by Al-Qaida for previous attacks.  Even better, if we had a secure military Twitter, we could follow platoon leaders from the other unit and maybe we would have seen, “AQI blasted the Iraqi base last night, stay clear, the IA are nervous!”

Systems that rely on point to point communication can fail to communicate the information leaders on the ground need to keep their men alive because coordination is difficult and because staff officers who don’t patrol very often might not realize how crucial a particular report is to a platoon leader who knows the neighborhood intimately.  Awash in administrative tasks, they delay the knowledge transfer and leaders go out on combat patrols ignorant of vitally important context.

Ronald Burt termed these information gaps “structural holes” in his influential book appropriately titled Structural Holes.    Burt had a flair for titles.  He defined these holes as “a separation between nonredundant contacts.”   Filling the structural hole in this case may have prevented a serious injury.

The second story deals with applications of Enterprise 2.0 that help the military capture bad guys.  I was walking out to my platoon before a patrol when I happened to pass the battalion intelligence officer.   He said, “Hey Blake, we have some intel that Al Qaida is using a mosque in Baghdad.  The mosque is serving as a kind of brokerage that matches up refugee families fleeing from the violence with abandoned homes in the Baghdad in exchange for their allegiance to Al-Qaida.  I’d appreciate it if you could check into that while you’re out.”

Three hours later, I had captured two Al-Qaida militants because of that tip.  And I can’t help but wonder how many more of those opportunities I missed because I didn’t happen to pass the battalion intelligence officer on my way out to my men.  Why is this the case?

The current reporting system is so inefficient I am tempted to term it with a few select words that have no place in a forum such as this.

After each patrol, and I led over four hundred of them in Iraq, I had to write a one to two page patrol report in Microsoft Word complete with pictures and detailed geographic locations.  I submitted these patrol reports to the intelligence section in my unit and I almost never heard anything back.  The report was deposited in a secure share drive that was nearly impossible to navigate even if I had time to do so.

The information flowed one way.  Up.  At each level, an analyst or commander made a decision to kill the report, to distill a small part of it into a powerpoint bullet, or to filter out anything that might reflect negatively on the commander.

For an organization charged with defending freedom, there is very little democracy in the information collection, analysis and distribution process.

I can’t articulate how frustrating and helpless I felt after I spent an hour writing a report following an exhausting patrol in 100 plus degree heat when those reports did little to directly benefit me or my peers.  Furthermore, there is no online coordination of the offline world.  That is, it was so difficult to access my peer’s reports, that I didn’t do so using technology.  I might catch them eating dinner at the base cafeteria and glean some insights there.

But information sharing was fragmented and ad-hoc.

An incredible amount of knowledge was lost every day.   And when units rotate home at least once every year an incredible amount of institutional memory and history locked in the brains of the men and women in that unit leaves with them.  We know from the data that units suffer their heaviest casualties during the first two weeks of their combat deployment.  What a shame.  What a shame that we haven’t created a platform to store and to distribute this life-saving information.

How can Enterprise 2.0 change this paradigm?  Imagine that an Iraqi informant told me the name of the Al-Qaida commander for central Baghdad let’s call him Abu Ali.  Instead of a word document, I could access a secure blog and search for the keywords Abu Ali and Al-Qaida.  After hitting search, three other patrol reports written by authors – and not just platoon leaders mind you – from outside my unit turn up different informants that name Abu Ali as the Al-Qaida commander for central Baghdad.  I could read their reports, gain additional context, link to their content in my report, use a Google Maps mashup as well as digital pictures to illustrate the location of the source and the Al Qaida target, tag the report with Al Qaida, Source, Baghdad and Abu Ali and upload the report for posterity, use an RSS feed to notify the intelligence section and the appropriate leaders, who could then supplement my report with analyst cables and signal intercept reports on a more secure database, and then, if I wanted too, I could e-mail one of the other patrol report authors and meet them offline to plan a raid to capture the Al-Qaida target.  Now that, that would be awesome.

I’ve worked with the best special forces operators in the world so I can tell you unequivocally that tactical proficiency will only take you so far.  Information is king on today’s battlefield.  Enterprise 2.0 has the potential to save American lives on the battlefield and it has the potential to allow us to capture more Al-Qaida targets.

The military’s bottom line is measured in lives, not in dollars.  That is why the “Apps for the Army” effort that Peter Corbett is leading along with Lieutenant General Sorenson in order to get applications that perform functions like these, fielded to American servicemen and women is so important.  Please take a moment and join me in a round of applause for Peter’s efforts.  I would also like to sincerely thank Laurel Ruma, editor at O’Reilly media, for her support over the last few months.

I will leave you with a final thought.  General Petraeus, speaking about strategic leadership and his role as the commander of Allied forces in Iraq, said, “What I could do was establish the big ideas… but at a certain point that can only be an azimuth to the lieutenant, to the captain, to the sergeant, to the battalion commander… at the end of the day, they’re the ones who have to translate that into activity.”

That sounds like emergent leadership to me.  With Apps for the Army, the military is headed in the right direction.  Thank you so much for your time, it is an honor to speak in such distinguished company.

Posted on 22 Jun 2010.

cross posted at http://blog.troopswap.com/
photo: flickr/drbeachvacation

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9 thoughts on “Enterprise 2.0: Secure Social Software Would Save Lives in Combat

  1. hello, It must be noted, more often than not, Enterprise 2.0 technologies are not …. the file properties that will make them more discoverable and more secure!

  2. Eric says:

    I strongly agree that “information is king”. GIGO. Right decisions require right information. The post also piqued my interest as a former 96B, S-2 type. I wonder if your S-2 could have rigged a database, perhaps on a hardrive/laptop in the shop and not networked, so at least the PLs could have reviewed the updated info? Keys: security, reliability, and usability.

  3. Blake says:

    Hey Eric, The S-2 did have a secure computer where I could log on and see different information but, different information is relevant to different parts of the war, and a lot of the big picture stuff the S-2 was doing was not necessarily the stuff I needed as a front line leader. Closing access is class Web 1.0 stuff where systems and not users are at the center of the information. For all intensive purposes, the TOC should aggregate all of the updated info and display it in the OPs center, but, with point-to-point comms, there will be inevitable breakdowns. So I suppose the point here is that even with a hardrive/laptop in the shop, we still could not have reviewed the updated info, since it wasn't reported to my unit.

  4. Blake says:

    Could you expand on this? I'm not sure what you mean because of the ellipse after technologies. If the point is about security, our intelligence community uses Enterprise 2.0 technologies – Intelink to name one – in order to do some of the things I talked about in the article. The “we can't secure it” argument is a red herring. If the NSA, the FBI and the CIA can do this with our most sensitive strategic secrets, then certainly the military can do it with tactical secrets. To my mind, the biggest concern is one of infrastructure and bandwidth for units in remote areas.

  5. Jason says:

    LT! It's me, Corley (former SSgt, the Air Force “asset” guy.) I served in your platoon 2006-2007 in Iraq. Nice article, man. A lot of good stuff in there to turn the corner with. I heard you went to Harvard after ya'll returned. Good for you. I got out too, last November and am now working as a contractor. At any rate, I was surprised to see your name and picture on here. Hope all is well.

  6. Blake says:

    YES DUDE! Drop me a line brother, blake@troopswap.com We'll get you on the Lightning listserv. How are things going as a contractor?

  7. […] interested in learning more about Enterprise 2.0 for the military you can read Blake Hall’s speech, or check out Peter Corbett’s Apps for the […]

  8. Mac Attack says:

    Sir is that you? that's good stuff

  9. […] message was “Enterprise 2.0 has the potential to save American lives on the battlefield …” A transcript of Blake’s talk is available. Read the transcript and learn how a secure common social software […]

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