Firstly, I should define the contemporary environment. For the purpose of this article, the contemporary operating environment is the operational/tactical environment where decisions are implemented. The most obvious example of rapidly changing and challenging contemporary operational contexts are the recent military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Although I have mentioned military contexts, to explore the problem of effective decision-making in the contemporary operating environment, we will need to look into the business world where many of the same issues exist and are accompanied by increased pressure and volatility of the interconnected global economy.
Complexity and volatility pressurises decision making
With the development of communications (often facilitated through advances in technology), the temptation is to consolidate decision making within the higher levels of the organisation. This phenomenon, affectionately known in the military as, “the long screwdriver”, has huge temptations for commanders, yet it can also prove to be the Achilles heal in an operation. With the development and utilisation of technology, the amount of real-time information has dramatically increased providing a level of detail that can fog the critical elements of the operation, making decisions difficult because too much irrelevant information is available and presented to the chain of command. By the time the decision maker has deciphered the amount of information and built a level of understanding (situational awareness), the reality of the context has moved onto centralised decision making which is inherently inefficient as decisions are made and implemented on old understanding. The greater the complexity and more volatile the situation becomes, the more obsolete centralised decision-making becomes.
Getting decision making at the lowest level
Recent military operations have seen troops engaged in a wider spectrum of concurrent operations, ranging from high intensity war fighting through to peace keeping operations within the same geographical location. To meet the increased complexity of the operational context, decisions need to be formulated and implemented in a real-time local context. This involves empowering front line commanders to make decisions without referring back to a higher authority. This process of empowerment, combined with the dispersed nature of military critical mass (ground holding operations typifies this problem), have forced the military to push executive powers further down the chain of command than previously. The requirement for real-time decisions in challenging operational environments have been exasperated through the utilisation of local media content generation. Images taken on a mobile phone can be sufficient from broadcast material, picked up by a broadcaster or self-published on social media channels such as YouTube.
The role of strategic corporal and the three-block war
The three-block war is a key concept that is utilised within the military to describe the current operational context. The idea is that within three blocks, a soldier can move from high intensity conflict to relatively benign and peaceful environments. This understanding has shaped the military response and witnessed the rise of units that are equipped with a very wide range of equipment and capability. The individual soldier is then forced to make decisions within this context. The decisions that are taken can, and often do, have strategic significance. Troops’ actions are broadcast all over the world and millions of people make decisions and formulate opinions based on what they see – often out of context. The term “the strategic corporal” means an individual with relatively junior rank can have significant strategic impact.
Innovation through empowerment
The military has embraced decentralised decision making as a source of competitive advantage. Soldiers understand the wider context and are trained and empowered to make decisions based on the emerging context. This engagement with the implementation process enables the military to be guided by “doing the right thing” which can become a justifiable position even when the decision (often evaluated with the benefit of hindsight) is challenged. Could business learn from this approach?