The Army way: gearing up for today’s markets
When everything changes constantly, and often out of our reach, when tech, apps, capabilities re-arrange themselves constantly, when supply chains are thrown off course, blink and the opportunity has disappeared, turn around and a new threat pops up, stop and become a sitting target…
How to practically think, picture, structure and manage in a frame that would always remain relevant, versatile, sustainable and on-track, regardless of these ever-changing conditions?
Before we start re-inventing the wheel, why not listen to an organisation that faces challenges that sound similar, why not get inspiration from the armed forces? Let’s unbox how they do it, how they picture the competitive field, profile the key enablers, define core functions, and structure an operational model to deliver.
The inspiration for this article came from the crisp and crystal clear analysis of Michael Shurkin, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, strategic think-tank, for the Texas National Security Review. The original objective was to introduce the basic tenets of Gal Guy Hubin tactical principles (“Perspective Tactiques”, Economica), but extrapolating the military doctrine into current market environment was too tantalizing.
From the solid, complete, crisp analysis laid out in the article, I will only point out the elements or principles that could trigger ideas in other fields. Now, to some of you, the debate, choices, concepts presented may seem obvious, sketchy or stretched out; take this as a bridge into another field. For others, although it may seem out of your usual scope, the above may start sounding like something much more familiar.
Now, let’s suit up!
A SHIFTING ENVIRONMENT UP-ENDS TRADITIONAL OPERATIONAL SOLUTIONS
Today, markets change constantly, re-arrange, re-combine themselves like amoebas, in a quasi-organic ways. The solution to stay relevant cannot be to match these through continuous adaptation, continuous changes of structures, to fit the new speed, reach or spread. That would simply be unsustainable, given that the only constant we can be sure of is that prices are unlikely to go up. Systems, structures, individuals would simply burn themselves out. This is very likely to last.
Within this environment, competition does continue, new threats appear in capabilities, deliveries, pricing, … At the very same time, we have already seen signs of pent-up demand, and great opportunities will come from these at the earliest available occasion. To be ready to jump on these, we have to be ready and, to grab them, we need to be fit for purpose.
This is where the practical experience as much as the theoretical background that could come from armed forces could yield some food for thoughts. They have to harness continuously new capabilities, address new threats thrown at them by new technologies, environmental conditions which are somehow very familiar. They have to literally deal continuously with mutating resources, human or technological, and evolving capabilities of both friends and foes. This has become the operational norm, with threats changing in volume, nature, reach, speed, spread and location on an ongoing basis.
Studying the operational implication of being at the sharp edge of this entropic environment is therefore logical, and where the propositions laid out by Guy Hubin offer an interesting analytical frame. The title of the original analysis by Michael Shurkin (“Kill the Homothetic Army” ) may sound cryptic, but then translate it into “A new operational model for a new market”, and dive in!
Picture and define your front-line, your market, as they are today
Historically, war meant that you could define an engagement zone; you had a front, a line of contact, a rear, flanks. Its actual location could be isolated, or at least precisely enough defined that it was an entity by itself. Today, the line of engagement, the front, is not a line anymore, nor is it effective to try and isolate it. Wars involve much more than just military assets, technologies shrink time, space, clear up uncertainty, so that even basic physical facts about engagement have to be rethought continuously. If needed, think for example that your sentinels are basically drones flown 24/7 by people, soldiers, sitting on the other side of the world and flying with what else would be a gaming joystick and a gaming monitor.
We draw here some quick equivalence between warzone, frontline and market. This parallelism is obviously limited to the fact that both share a strategic direction, tactical goals to reach, friendly, allied, neutral and enemy forces. Similarly, no industry, no market, no channel today operates in isolation, and neither does a modern military warfront. A modern warzone is organically merged, layering friendly and enemy forces intricately. The implication of this is radical on the representation of the fighting edge: there is no polarity, to it, basically it is not possible anymore to define “our” side or “their” side.
Quite similarly, it is less and less operative to try and separate tech, content, channel, and user. In both cases the question is therefore how to structure to engage optimally such a front or market.
Don’t just match, rethink the individual building blocks and adapt
A natural reflex is to match your organisation and operations to the threat/opportunity. In the case of a classical war-zone, you would then define the front, the flanks and the rear, and shape accordingly your army and resources. In a broader general environment, such as tech, food or textile industries for example, that would mean to try and mirror what the market is doing, who it is doing it and where.
Replicating this line of contact is a concept called “homothetic”, hence the title of the article “homothetic force”, describing a force organisation that mirrors the front (i.e. “being homothetic”). We saw in the previous paragraph that matching is inoperative, with no relevant specific left/right, up/down or us/them; any equilibrium in such a view of frontline can only be momentary.
This means that, to grab efficiently any potential opportunity, as, where and when they arise, you have to totally rethink the building blocks of your operational model…
Let’s take a step back here: when we talk about “legacy”, either organisations, systems or doctrines, I think that we can all agree that the armed forces should definitely know something about it! If they re-engineered their engagement models, any solution that would work for them seems more than relevant to me.
Many have seen that something has fundamentally changed in the competitive field, and defined an entirely new approach to it: to a large extent, that would be disruptions. However, what I have often seen is the application of new techs, new business models, jumping on or creating new behaviours, thus new market opportunities. However, I am not certain that has fundamentally impacted the way we operate these businesses.
Systemic Entropy: operating in an environment that won’t ever reach equilibrium
As underlined by Michael Shurkin, a critical specificity of this doctrine is not to get bogged down in individual technological impacts, specific technologies, media, organisations, systems or apps; we must assume that the constant transformation of the nature of resources and capabilities is a given. Regardless of what these tech enablers may do, an operational structure must be able to adapt, ingest and transcend it.
For example, it would be inoperative to conceive a system simply out of the specific impact of the GPS technology in the 1990s, cryptocurrencies in 2010 or AI in 2030. A sustainable system must be able to include them immediately and seamlessly. In a war-zone, these would combine, merge, split, and create new opportunities, however long they remain relevant.
Thinking broader than the direct military application, you would not wrap your entire structure around any of these specifically, without that structure being temporary by its very design. Think of an entire operation relying on one piece of software only, which will anyway be structurally obsolete within 5 years? To keep the momentum and relevance, any ideal structure would try and organically optimise the usage of all and any of these new enabling opportunities.
For the Army, exactly as in business, systemic entropy is a given. A sustainable solution for either would therefore change traditionally fixed dimensions such as authority, drive, time, space, into a much more agile set of variables.
This would up-end the very topography of markets; the legacy solution of mirroring the playing field cannot be sustainable. That is where this military doctrine adds some intriguing and inspiring ideas.
FROM MILITARY CONCEPTS TO ACTIONABLE IDEAS FOR GENERAL MARKETS
The armed forces have initially tried in the 90s to come up with new articulations of roles and organisational principles. For example, for the US, it was the question to “Break the Phalanx”. As far as I can see, these doctrines were essentially trying to find a practical way to re-combine existing components (that may be a very quick statement, but explain why it would require some added dimensions). Alternatively, we could think beyond an updated definition of the frontline (or market), and define core new functionalities, opened up by technology, the new functional allocations required to optimise them, and a practical articulation of these.
That would be the objective of Gal Guy Hubin.
Here is what I took from it, adding comments, translations or inserts when thought it was relevant.
1: the competitive field today
-you have fully transparent, mostly real-time control of your own teams resources. You know exactly when, where, what, how many you have, what they are doing and where. You can even know “how”, using extensive and ubiquitous networks of communications
-the front (or market) is not linear, not polarised; there is no “here” vs “over there”, all forces are intermingling (i.e. third parties are part and parcel of the frame)
-the distance to engagement (proximity) is continuously redefined, which impacts both resource management (example: remote work…), as well as how to define your mission (may depend on opportunity, industry, individual)
-at this point, let me add a dimension that will probably be tomorrow’s challenge: the war-zone/marketplace itself is and will become ever more transparent. For general markets, this means that market exclusivity of the opportunity, of the solution, or of the price position cannot be assumed anymore to be in itself unique, less we move into quasi monopolistic markets as a standard.
2: what are the key enablers
As laid out, we should not delve into tech specifics, but it is also necessary to clarify what are the key dimensions of changes, and how they practically impact both frontlines and markets. Disruptive solutions over the past 20 years have forced monolithic industries into breaking up, rethink their own business models, bringing in new mode of operations; this series of novel approaches share similar qualities that could be summarised. For an easier extrapolation, I translated purely military terms or capabilities into what could possibly be more universal concepts:
3: defining the individual functional layers
With these key two backgrounds as a base, Guy Hubin goes on to define independent functional layers to cover any opportunity or threat in the warzone:
–Concept: the concept or design layer defines the mission parameters (what to achieve)
–Execution: the execution layer, the one in actual contact with the goal or target, is best able to scope the opportunity and define the resources required to achieve it
–Enablement: the enablement, or logistical function, provides the resources required by the execution layer to operate and achieve the mission
This fundamental differentiation is extremely interesting and operative: it gives a very strong theoretical backbone to any structure operating within the current disrupted, disruptive or agile environments. I have however never seen anything so radical put in action, and there could be some mileage here just to try and dig deeper into it.
The concept layer seems self-explanatory but defining how it would practically work out will be crucial (cf conclusion later on). No need to expand on this at this point.
For the armed forces, the execution layer would be small organic specialised cells: for example an artillery unit, an engineer squad, etc … these would combine ad hoc in volume and capabilities as the target requires. In a broader environment, these teams would be your contact line, either the contact points or touch-points: any department that is in contact with your customers or your stakeholders, in a company, maybe the voters, residents or citizens, in a public department. Again, this requires more precise definitions.
But the most intriguing layer here, in the way it is designed as how its operation is described, is the layer of enablement, or logistics, that would fuel the execution layers. For the Armed Forces, earlier concepts and doctrines designing agile forces, such as special ops groups, expert teams, for example the Marines, would be designed primarily for self-reliance to boost versatility and survivability. Here, technology, taken in its fundamental role as defined by the doctrine, makes obsolete the need to concentrate within a team some level of functions and capabilities. The logistical layer is restructured as a neutral pool of resources for the execution layer, neither pre-allocated to lines nor functions. This de-coupling of resource allocation from both the concept group as well as the execution group, flexibly adapting to the missions as they pop up and are defined by your execution team, creates a rather radical change, not only in the actual logistical management, or food, ammunition and information, but redefines the rules traditionally defining access to the resources.
In a broader environment than military management, in companies or services, the isolation and reorganisation of the structure around the 3 layers would mean for example that resources have to be pre-organised, i.e. pre-budgeted, prior to the challenge being met by the execution layer: the entire team, but also company dynamic is potentially impacted. As having flexible ad hoc resource allocations could be clearly a competitive advantage to execution teams in highly agile and disrupted environment, rethinking the very nature of teams themselves could end up reshaping the very way we look at traditional company structures.
4: operating in COOPERATION instead of INTEGRATION
By design, the individual execution layer teams cannot achieve most missions by themselves, hence it is important to understand how they would operate between each other, similarly at resource or concept layers, and the system itself relies on continuous interaction between concept, execution and resources. The article presents how it should work in the doctrine as proposed:
-the basic injunction is to cooperate: neither of the three layers are not joined in a hierarchical, fixed operational organisation. The individual teams within each layer (concept, execution, logistics) combine as the task or target requires. Fixing the structure would nullify the ability to react and adapt optimally to the encounter. That is why, for the military, the main change here was the move from integrating resources, which used to be the way to create adaptability, to structural cooperation. The main target of the entire doctrine is to create an opportunistic structure, that could catch any form of opportunity by being given the means to adapt to it.
-the overall mission is defined by the concept layer
-the team from the execution layer will define the tactical mission, with the parameters spotted at the point of contact, assemble the number of individual execution teams required, define and mobilise necessary resources within its own layer.
-the enabler layer, the logistical layer, covers not a series of teams, but a zone, within which is mission is to support the execution teams. Again, avoiding individual or hierarchical allocation, this is the seed of agility required by contemporary warfare
That is the doctrine in a nutshell, the way I understood it from this excellent article. I hope that you can suss some of what it could be used for.
So, to recap: why is a new way to define the WHERE and the HOW interesting?
Guy Hubin defined a handful of basic principles to better apprehend and address today’s battlefields with today’s tools and capabilities. I sounds very much military issues, but there is something potentially broader here, both from the theory as well as the experience that underpins it. Companies, services operate in markets and structures that have at least some level of comparability with the zones of engagements, technological disruptions and resource challenges faced by the military for which this doctrine was designed.
From tempting thoughts, let’s give it a slightly broader significance, and port concepts across from the military to industries, markets or channels, as well as set which and what would need to be added:.
-the area of competition cannot be defined anymore by set dimensions and directions; it is a fluid and merged competitive reality, with no elements truly operating in isolation
-technology makes the market, the competition, more transparent, instant and accurate. This in turn not only enables, but also forces a complete rethink of individual team, functions and department scope, resourcing as well as interaction
-to achieve strategic goals within this environment, identifying 3 layers, as introduced by this military doctrine, is an intriguing proposition as it seems indeed to allow for a fluid articulation of goals, targets and resources
-finally, to make all of this work, we need to consider the principle of cooperation instead of integration
This naturally means a lot of work to translate into a broader environment, but I think the potential speaks for itself, to justify further digging. It is very likely that the entire process, articulation and resourcing of forces has already been defined in more intricate details by the original author as much as researchers, but the goal today was just to lay out some tantalising ideas, not (yet) to write a tome!
Early comments on the findings
Still, however interesting, could it work at all for non-military environments? What does it bring beyond a refreshing look, another lens? Some remarks immediately surface, based on my personal experience.
One of the key tenets of this model, possibly the most actionable or intriguing to me, is that resource allocations are done at the point of contact, the touch point in commercial terms. In an ideal system such as a theoretical one, there is no friction in resources, no real competition outside of the factual, measurable ones. Deploying in the business or administrative world, I suspect that one of the key topics will certainly be, and necessarily so, how to optimise the resources? After all, these are by nature always finite, and graded in criticality.
With the contemporary systems and capabilities as they stand today, this leads very directly to the issue of threat of micro-management, multiplied exponentially by latest technologies and software suites. After all, it is today a fact that speed and quantity of available information are more an issue to tackle than acquiring either of them, last century’s challenge.
For example, as much body- and helmet-cameras change how the military or law enforcement front-line engages, businesses have as well the literal ability to look over the shoulder of your commercial line, through conveniently ported smartphones apps…. Virtually anyone from the structure could jump in on the action, indirectly or directly. Transparency, speed, clarity is not wishful thinking, but a matter of much of it you need and want. The challenge has moved from there to precise boundaries of legitimacy and relevance of each functional layer to avoid piling in. In military terms, you could call that potential systemic overkill… From my personal experience, depending on the stakes, this is much easier said than done.
The military environment should be considered to deal with micro-management institutionally, but the second thought coming up from this new doctrine is how does the validation of priorities work out? In the initial design of Hubin as I understood it, the contact point itself, acts as spotters, the actual result delivery being brought in by a second tactical layer of indirect support experts, or dedicated resources (indirect fire). In my main experience, in business, there are many genuine but conflicting priorities, so the risk of spreading resources is very real, and a lot of efforts go into prioritisation and optimisation.
Arbitration of priorities seems a legitimate concern here. The key relative “value” of the target to the entire organisation would need to be defined on the fly. In a military environment, it is possible that there is a neutral and absolute quantification of threat or valuation of the opportunity. It seems less certain in a business environment, so there may be some tweaking needed. Maybe it requires a further functional layer of information acquisition and dissemination, dealing primarily with the valuations of opportunities.
The entire system relies on an optimum articulation of resources and responsibilities, not based nor related to ownership or dissemination of information, which is still, within a broader scope, a basic reality. Even further than the need for a dedicated and neutral information functional layer, an exact assessment of the target value may be a tall order with accepting that information is instant, complete, accurate and transparent. Yet again, the basic doctrine assumption that technology transfers information neutrally would need some work.
Finally, as a closing remark, to port this into a broader sphere, we miss a “why” to power the system. The military may not require a reward system for results, but to shoot this doctrine into a broader solution, there should be some thought around the recognition and reward, as much as profit and benefit, for each of the functional layers (concept/support/execution). That would be crucial for a non-military only solution.
WHAT TO DO WITH THIS? WHAT’s NEXT
We touched on some potential analytical layers to add, required clarifications on valuation, information sharing, prioritisation, additional clarification and research needed…
What is certain is that stasis is unconscionable.
Fixed and set operational solutions stutter or become obsolete even before being fully deployed. Market realities are going in a spin. Speed is not set to decrease, so simply mirroring markets cant be a solution. Because of this, Hubin’s doctrine resonates beyond a purely military debate.
So here is hoping that it sparked some new ideas, or confirmed some of your hunches!
PS (Parting Shot…): if you are interested by the debate, beyond the article and doctrine itself, to get a feel as to what the current operational reality is, I would recommend to have a look-see at the battle of Mosul to get a feel for the practical issues faced by an army in a digital battlefield, and possibly translate it more accurately to your exact circumstances/market.