Monday, April 06, 2009

COIN and the new media

What happens when you pit a nimble and fluid communications organization against one that is slow and deliberate? In today's climate, with today's technology, nimble wins -- even with missteps.
Active duty military bloggers get frustrated because the management of their organizations wants to use the tools of social media, but don't grasp the principles of the space. Bloggers by and large know what they are doing—but the “echelons above reality”—the policy makers—don't listen much to us, because we aren’t a part of senior management. It's a familiar story: Management has heard of the new tools, isn't really sure what they do or how to use them—but, well, because it seems the whole world has this Twitter thing, and we need one, too. Those young people know about this stuff, but we're not completely comfortable letting them run with it. We'll get them to set it up, and then we'll control it from there.

Senior leadership that is new to the social media space is almost universally staggered by the notion that to use the space effectively, they cannot attempt to throttle the message. This comes from the long-standing misguided notion that they have ever controlled the message. In fact, they haven't. (FYI, I have yet to run into anyone over the rank of Major who is not a blogger and has heard of Blackfive. I know they are out there, I just don’t personally know any that I haven’t been the one who introduced them to it. No offense Matt, there is just a lot more clueless senior leaders in the Army than I thought.)

I think one of the biggest fears senior military leadership has about blogging in the military is not that someone will do something overtly stupid like release sensitive, even secret, information. I think the biggest fear senior leadership has with using the new media is twofold—a loss of editorial control and the idea that someone wearing a uniform will not toe the line and actually disparage policy openly. A simple fact of the matter is that you can’t divorce the uniform from the commentary; a military blogger represents the military, regardless of any disclaimer they post on their site. The more detached from understanding the military a reader is, the more they will view what you say as the either the policy of the military, or at least the popular sentiment of all service members.

The point is, new media isn't suddenly allowing service members to publicly disagree with senior leaders. They've always been able to do that. It just makes it more visible, and much faster. So you have two choices: You can clam up and say nothing; or you can voice your opinion in a way that appeals to more people, so fewer thinking people will be tempted to mashup what you say. Note here that controlling people so they don't publicly disagree with you is not an available option.

The second gargantuan stumbling block for management unaccustomed to social media is the labor-intensive nature of the space. This is not a "set it and forget it" world. It's an ongoing conversation, 27/7, and many service members can, and do, play. If you want to be a part of the conversation, not only must your content be relevant, it must also be fresh. And frequently "fresh," in this space, means minutes. This is a far cry from the months most organizations are used to having to respond to a shift in the politics, or in public opinion. Because there's so much to keep up with, and so much to respond to, social media is a difficult place for the top-down, micro-management inclined. There's no time for a committee to debate and tweak every Tweet -- because by the time that's done, the Tweet is irrelevant. The world has moved on. We speak of having an agile force, ready to rapidly meet any threat out there—and yet we get a huge “FAIL!” when it comes to information operations. (In military parlance, we are a “U” on our QTB analysis for information operations.”)

A perfect example here is “TroopTube.” The military set up a place to post our own videos—an ACU-cloned YouTube. The problem of course, is that they also decided that all submissions would be screened for appropriateness and content. You also can’t post anonymously. So…TroopTube is a huge failure. It has plenty of command messages, and a few videos worth watching, but the vast majority of it is simply the party line. No room for discourse, just top-down information flow.

An understanding of the space is necessary before any organization can effectively employ the tools of the space. Buying a new set of golf clubs doesn't make you Tiger Woods. The tools are just tools -- but the space is made up of people, all of whom have opinions you hope to sway. They've created the space, and they have rules for it. If you're not willing to play by the prevailing, and constantly changing, rules of the space, you're going to lose very quickly. The people who know the rules of the space best are the people who live in the space. In most long-established organizations, those people are the youngest people in the place. They're almost never in upper management. Seriously, apply the COIN manual to this. Information Operations is what dominates the COIN battlespace—why can’t we see that new media is the same thing; an information operations battlespace where our silence, or worse, our ineptitude, hurts us at home and abroad?

Another thought goes along this thread to illustrate the colossal undertaking that is adapting to new media. The Army’s CENTCOM Public Affairs office has a pretty decent website, a host of bloggers who receive their dispatches and good-news stories. Unfortunately, they don’t often tell the bad news stories, or respond to them. In a world where silence is consent, taking the “high road” of not responding is simply not a viable course of action.

To illustrate the challenges we face, can you imagine the current senior staffer, who can call a multi-hundred page operations order a “five paragraph OPORDER” trying to cram a coherent idea into a 140-word tweet?

Social media favors nimble organizations that are not afraid to share opinions that brew from the bottom of the organization up. Which isn't the picture of a typical old-school policymaker, and certainly isn't the picture most people have of the Pentagon.

Adapted from this piece I found on Hugh Hewitt.


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