Experts claim that society is at the verge of a Fourth Industrial Revolution. As noted by the World Economic Forum, and echoed by military experts T.X. Hammes, David Barno and Nora Bensahel, this revolution has the potential to completely disrupt the global economy through emerging technology, particularly artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing, autonomous systems, robotics, nanotechnology, and novel uses of data analytics. This change presents both challenges and opportunities for the Department of the Navy, where warfighting considerations are rightfully privileged. The management aspects of technology are only a secondary consideration, but may have enormous consequences if they are not addressed.
Unlike military planning, there is no formal strategic planning process for the management enterprise. Historically, public organizations have adopted to broad changes in society, such as the proliferation of the internet and personal computer, through what Yale professor Charles Lindblom labeled a disjointed incrementalistic approach in the 1950s. This theory from the public administration field suggests that an organization sets a policy goal and takes minimally incremental steps towards that goal, often proceeding in a disjointed, poorly coordinated manner. This approach is more commonly referred to as “muddling through.” While muddling through may have been sufficient for the industrial age, it increases risk in today’s rapidly changing environment.
There are two reasons this path is frequently taken in the process of modernizing our management enterprise. First, we often a lack of clear vision extending beyond the political administration currently in office. Second, we fail to connect an ideal vision of the future to current policies. One approach to changing this short-sighted paradigm, is to strategically frame the future of the organization in three time horizons, as illustrated in Figure 1.
The first horizon is the present where the current prevailing system as it continues into the future, loses "fit" over time, as its external environment changes. In the first horizon, pockets of the future are observed. The third horizon contains concepts about the future of the system which are, at best, marginal in the present, but which over time may have the potential to displace the world of the first horizon, because they represent a more effective response to the changes in the external environment. The second horizon is an intermediate space in which the first and third horizons collide. This is a space of transition which is typically unstable. It is characterized by clashes of values in which competing alternative paths to the future are proposed by actors.
Using this method, we can observe indicators of the future, present today in the fields of artificial intelligence and machine learning, additive manufacturing, autonomous systems, robotics, nanotechnology, and the data sciences. Yet we do not appreciate fully the potential these technologies offer to the DON management enterprise. We must use these indicators to create a vision for the DON 10 to 15 years into the future – our third horizon.
Issues that should be considered part of third horizon are based on the outcomes of fully adopting the emerging technology. For example:
Future of human work: Today we see indications of how the nature of work is changing in society. Humans that perform repetitive, rules-based tasks are being replaced by autonomous machines. This transition will force us to reconsider how we shape our workforce and identify what tasks should be automated and what type of work is most appropriate for our talented military and civilian workforce. In the ideal future, the DON will maximize the use of technology and our workforce by placing humans in roles that require critical thinking skills, strategic planning, and experience-based judgement.
Cognitive enhancing technology: Artificial intelligence and machine learning offer great promise to help make sense of, and create useful knowledge from, the incomprehensible amount of raw data the DON collects and produces every day. Organizations are designed around information flow and span of control. We must determine how the organization of the Department needs to adapt to this new capability. In the ideal future, the DON will create, use, and transfer knowledge with minimum loss and eliminate the need for ubiquitous data calls and studies to gain awareness of the organization.
Oversight through sensing: New technology will permit greater transparency of ongoing processes. This will permit leaders to sense both routine actions and anomalies in existing workflows. This can create a sense of shared awareness that could lead to a new model of oversight. This new capability must drive changes in cumbersome management processes, including the Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution System, the Defense Acquisition Process, and the Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System. With the human workload of these labor-intensive systems reduced, the organization, staffing models and skills sets will have to evolve to meet new demands. In the ideal future, the DON will operate in a permissive bureaucratic environment that enables rapid response to operational demands and pushes emerging capabilities forward with minimally cumbersome, but effective oversight.
Just in time manufacturing: Emerging manufacturing technology will permit us to create standard and custom-made parts on demand, thus reducing our dependence on maintaining expensive inventory. It will allow us to create custom weapon systems tailored to specific missions. This new capability must be supported by a workforce with modern skills and a robust and secure information backbone. In the ideal future, the DON will achieve the right balance of expeditionary manufacturing capabilities, with reduced cost of production and stored inventory, thus optimizing and protecting the entire supply chain.
These examples just scratch the surface of a third horizon vision for the management enterprise the DON needs for future success. Hopefully, they serve as useful thought experiments that might prompt senior leaders to consider the implications of integrating the technologies associated with the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Without a clear vision of the third horizon, it is difficult to consider what changes would need to occur in the second horizon, the most challenging phase of this method. To achieve these desired outcomes, senior leaders and their staffs must identify the policy mechanisms that provide them critical leverage. They will then have to build an effective governance structure that holds leaders accountable and ensures efforts align to a coherent vision, in order to prevent the disjointed approach of the past. A clearly articulated vision and effective governance create the unity of effort needed to chart a course through the second horizon to the future.
Finally, it is important to consider the concept of the technium, introduced by the founder of Wired Magazine, Kevin Kelly. Kelly contends that just as there is an invisible hand in economics, there is an unrecognized societal force in technology, often making the adoption of technology inevitable; the more easily a technology can be imagined by everyone, the more likely it is to be inevitable. Something that can be described in general terms, whose notions readily come to people in its basic forms: the world is ready for those things. The realization of inevitability must be recognized and if we lack strategic planning, we deliberately place ourselves at a disadvantage, as the technology eventually will have to be adopted ? but not on our terms.
As the rest of society is struggling with how emerging technology will revolutionize the way they do business; our potential adversaries are already hard at work developing their own ability to reach for a third horizon. The DON must actively shape the future of our management enterprise if we are to maintain our competitive advantage and protect our nation’s security. We cannot wait for the inevitable changes occurring in our external environment to be thrust upon us, and then incrementally respond. A well-constructed strategic planning process, with a conscious eye toward the future, is essential to prevent “muddling through” another industrial revolution and will prepare the naval services for what’s over the horizon.
Mr. Robert Kozloski is a member of the Education For Seapower (E4S) team.
The views expressed here are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense or the United States government.