Re-grading the Army’s #Human Dimension White Paper

Recently, in a review complete with dunce cap graphic, Foreign Policy’s Tom Ricks said the following of the U.S. Army’s new Human Dimension White Paper:

My conclusion: I give the paper an F, with a note to the Army’s leaders that this paper is a roadmap for disaster. As a taxpayer, I wonder if my hard-earned money has been wasted by many officers working on this for weeks, perhaps even months. Finally, I sentence the authors to a mandatory reading of George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.”

That’s a pretty serious charge of professional malfeasance and incompetence against the “Intellectual Center of the Army” by a high profile defense commentator. So let’s take another look at it, evaluate the fairness of Ricks’ critiques (which are admittedly shared by others), regrade it, and let the dunce caps fall where they may. But first, let’s be clear about what this White Paper is really about.

Why the Human Dimension White Paper, and Why Now?

In the first riposte to Ricks, the indomitable Doctrine Man! has already given us the break down on the Human Dimension White Paper’s genesis and purpose, but I’ll put it in the simplest possible terms I can for the critics yearning for simplicity (my words, not the Army’s):
It’s about deliberately preparing human beings and organizations to become faster learners and adapters in order to successfully cope with—and even to thrive in—the conditions of complexity and uncertainty we are facing now and will face in the future. It’s a conversation starter, not the final report:

“I am confident that the framework established in this white paper will generate robust discussion. In the coming months, we will use this discussion to drive the development of a unified human dimension strategy that will become an integral part of the Force 2025 and Beyond Integration and Synchronization plan.”
 — LTG Robert B. Brown, Commanding General, Combined Arms Center Forward to the Human Dimension White Paper

So let’s address Ricks’ most significant downgrades, keeping in mind that others also share his sentiments.

Main Objection #1: Style and jargon

“It is just badly done. It is poorly written…They are repetitive. And they appear at times to be punch-drunk on jargon.”

It’s probably impossible to write a short document that applies to a force of over a half a million people strong, not even counting the Total Force, without using a couple of buzzwords and bumper stickers. But when used, are they valid? Here’s my own “Jargon survey” of the Human Dimension White Paper, separated into three categories: Jargon red alert, Jargon caution, and “Jargon to those not up to speed.”

Jargon Red Alerts:

Physically supreme & Cognitive dominance: Describe a theoretical ideal, not an achievable or measurable goal in practical terms. They probably should have just gone with “superiority” or “advantage.”

Rapidly build ethical maturity and strengthen character: Not sure if this is measurable and achievable in real terms given the current science on nature and nurture, or how this could be done—needs much more explanation.

Jargon Cautions:

Decisive edge: a bumper sticker almost as unavoidable as victory, but people don’t get fired up when you say “sufficient to get the effects we want within a range of acceptable outcomes conforming to the aims of policy.”

New paradigm & strategic inflection point: we’ll talk about these later.

Ubiquitous Global Surveillance: our surveillance may not be ubiquitous, but the information environment certainly is.

Maximize talent utilization: they need to explain how they plan to measure and execute this.

Exquisite technology: need to define this, and show it has specific community of practice implications.

Rapid curricular responsiveness: this is the one that by his own report made Ricks’ head explode. They need to define what they mean buy it, but I’m pretty sure this doesn’t mean they’re abandoning the core lessons that have endured since the days of Eisenhower and Marshall.

Internal, web-based market mechanisms: this needs further definition and clarification if it means more than “Runs on Windows.”

Jargon to those not up to speed:

Optimizing human performance, Holistic health and total fitness, Precision talent management, Human dimension, building resilient Soldiers, Agile and Adaptive leaders, Cognitive edge, human enhancement technology, Overmatch and situational ambiguity, amorphous and ambiguous environments, multiplicity of actors, Megacities, Institutional agility, living doctrine, unified training enterprise.

All of these terms are either taken from ongoing professional discussions, were defined in parent documents and guidance referenced in the White Paper, or were adequately explained in the White Paper itself.

There are undoubtedly more, and each person’s response will be different. By my count, I had four “Jargon Red Alerts,” eight “Jargon Cautions” in need more explanation, and 16 “jargony” terms that you should be familiar with if you’ve been following along in the conversations. Not an A paper, but certainly not deserving of an F so far. But before we discuss the dunce caps, let’s talk about what’s really important—the substantive objections.

Main Objection #2: The False Dilemma of Centralization vs Decentralization

Ricks’ first substantive objection:

“The paper’s solution, instead, is to centralize “all TRADOC education programs under Army University…to build a holistic approach.” This runs directly contrary to one of the key trends of the new century, which is decentralization of information, and so of decision-making.”

Ricks is referring to Mission Command, the Army Concept that became a joint one under General Dempsey’s Chairmanship. But he is misapplying it—decentralization of decisionmaking is indeed the favored method of execution, but only after commander’s intent has been issued, and after the structural and organizational aspects of the force have been determined, giving the subordinate commanders the limits within which they will execute in a decentralized manner. What the Army is trying to do with the “Army University” is to design a coherent organizational plan that spans its human domain enterprises—part of their problem with organizational adaptation thus far has been that their “inkspots of brilliance” have NOT been connected, and brilliant people have been innovating within “cylinders of excellence” (a problem not exclusive to the Army). The approach in the White Paper takes that challenge on, and it’s not about creating local interference during tactical execution. As systems theorist Jamshid Gharajedaghi described it in Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity,

“…it’s the sharing of decision criteria, not abdication of power, that results in empowerment and makes centralization and decentralization happen at the same time. Achieving a higher order of decentralized decisionmaking requires a higher order of centralized agreement on decision criteria.”

Thus, centralized command can be consistent with decentralized control. An organic analogy is the human neuromuscular system, in which the brain commands the body’s movements, but a relatively small set of neurons direct the actions of the cells in any particular muscle.

In its most basic essence, the Human Dimension White Paper—like the Army Operating Concept it supports—is accepting the challenge of dealing with complexity and uncertainty head on, making the statement that our legacy understandings of “the human dimension” are not up to the task.

Main objection #3: Ricks to U.S. ArmyKeep it Simple, Stupid

Ricks’ most significant objection to the White Paper seems to be founded on a philosophical difference with the authors’ basic view of the world. Accusing LTG Brown of making an “unexamined assumption” in his assertion that the rate of change in the world accelerating, Ricks opines:

“I don’t think the assertion of unprecedented or accelerating change is correct. Rather, I suspect the rate of change in the 19th century was far greater. Everything changed then — industrialization changed how wealth was created, and led to urbanization with a huge population shift from country to city. Information moved many magnitudes faster as the telegraph replaced the sailboat as the means of getting information overseas. (The Internet is just a faster, more colorful telegraph.) Goods and people moved faster as the railroad replaced the horse as the means of movement on land.”

When you suggest the world is getting increasing complex and unpredictable, the gut reaction of many—especially enthusiastic students of history—is usually this:

“The world has ALWAYS been complexlike the author(s) of Ecclesiastes wrote, there’s ‘nothing new under the sun.’”

As I discussed in my previous Bridge post on the Army Operating Concept, the term complexity can both describe the intangible personal experience of observing adaptive systems, and also provide a quantifiable relative comparison between them. So, in terms of the human experience, the objectors are at least partially right. But this position ignores the perspective of network theory, which can show quantitatively undeniable increases in variables and connections that impact policy and security in the modern world. Thus, the current debate over the U.S. Army’s Human Dimension White Paper is really the continuation of a debate that has been ongoing as long as written history: how can we reconcile the belief that basic human nature remains relatively constant with the fact that new technologies are driving rapid social changes?

Or, as Colin Gray might describe it, how do we simultaneously resolve the constant nature of war with the ever changing character of war?

Or, as Tom Ricks might put it, how do you know when you have your shit together?

In its most basic essence, the Human Dimension White Paper—like the Army Operating Concept it supports – is accepting the challenge of dealing with complexity and uncertainty head on, making the statement that our legacy understandings of “the human dimension” are not up to the task. The central tension between LTG Brown’s and Tom Ricks’ views on change is probably best described by Clay Shirky in his book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations:

“We are living in the middle of the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race. More people can communicate more things to more people than has ever been possible in the past, and the size and the speed of this increase, from under one million participants to over one billion in a generation, makes the change unprecedented, even considered against the background of previous revolutions in communications tools…Philosophers sometimes make a distinction between a difference in degree (more of the same) and a difference in kind (something new). What we are witnessing today is a difference in the degree of sharing so large that it becomes a difference in kind.” (pp.106, 149)

Where Brown agrees with Shirky that we’re experiencing a “difference in kind,” Ricks asserts we’re only experiencing a “difference in degree” when he asserts the Internet is “just a faster, more colorful telegraph.” That is an extraordinary thing to state without qualification, especially in a world where much of the computer science we teach our college freshmen is already obsolete by the time those same students become juniors. Let’s follow his logic backwards, using his own example:

If his telegraph assertion were true, people in the past would have carried around their telegraphs on their person at all times, and communicated on them in the middle of work, church, commutes, sporting events, meals, etc. There would have been telegraph wires strung everywhere, because they would have had their telegraph machines connected to everyone else who also had a telegraph, including friends—and people posing as friends—whom they had never actually met except through telegraph communications. You would have kept a paper copy of every telegraph message you ever sent, and every one you ever received, along with you wherever you went, and other people would have had copies of them too.

If you had pulled on those telegraph wires hard enough, you could have pulled your friend’s tintype photos directly from your house to wherever you wanted, but not only that—if someone from another country were a particularly skilled telegraph line puller, they could have opened the vault at your local bank without even entering the building, and pulled your money straight from the bank vault into their own banks and houses from all the way across the ocean. On the bright side, you could have yanked milk, hay, seed, lamp oil, etc straight from the stores directly to your door, and you wouldn’t even have had to send a telegraph message to them with your preferences—they would have had ALL of your past orders stored in big filing cabinets, which they would have shared with each other, and also sold exact copies of them to any passersby who pay them enough money.

But some people wouldn’t have paid—they’d have been out in the street, tapping into your telegraph wires, and storing copies of every telegraph that you had ever sent to anyone. They’d have sent telegraph messages with your personal information to your enemies, and they’d have intercepted some of your telegraphs so they’d never have gotten to their destination. And perverts from other towns would have been able to send telegraphs to your kids without your knowledge, and yank their innocence right out of your house without your even knowing about it…

Based on this thought exercise, there are perhaps more than a few “unexamined assumptions” in Ricks’ assertion. If there’s truly “nothing new under the sun,” then it’s also true there’s a lot less shade to hide in these days, as Crispin Burke once cleverly stated. You’d better have a strategy to deal with this new connectedness, or your digital shores will soon be visited by the modern Vikings and Conquistadors, and you’ll be lucky if your money is all that they take.

But here is the real change that makes the information age different in kind from the past: there’s the new requirement for policymakers to respond quickly to news that is breaking over the world, with little time to understand those problems. Perception is reality in the information age, and if the public decides something is news, the politicians have to respond and do so quickly, or they’ll be seen to be “indecisive” or “waffling.” Despite the speed and rapidity of events, and the inherent unknowableness of the increasingly digital world we’ve built for ourselves, we still maintain that our leaders project the myths of relative omniscience and confidence in order to keep their positions of power. When they apply hastily-made decisions to complex systems using inadequately-framed problem statements, it’s not usually hilarity that ensues. Instead, we experience far-reaching, unintended consequences that sap our nation’s precious blood, treasure, and prestige, with little to show for it in terms of increased advantage. And, more often than not, it’s the U.S. military—and the U.S. Army specifically—that is asked to pay those bills.

U.S. Army to Ricks: Sometimes Keeping it Simple = Stupid

Debating the relative degrees of complexity between the past and the present is counterproductive when the relevant issue to debate is this—what are we going to do about the complexity we’re experiencing now, and how do we avoid getting completely swamped in the future? Embracing the need to improve the Army’s organizational and individual agility, resilience, and adaptiveness isn’t a matter of semantics; it is a matter of life or death in a very real sense. And what the Army is trying to do is actually well-supported by histories like the ones Mr. Ricks recommends—see these statements taken from the conclusions of several notable historical case studies on military adaptation and innovation:

“Change has always been a constant in human affairs; today, indeed, it is one of the determining characteristics of our civilization…More important for our immediate purpose, America is fundamentally an industrial society in a time of tremendous technological development. We are thus constantly presented with new devices or new forms of power that, in their refinement and extension, continually bombard the fixed structure of our habits of mind and behavior. Under such conditions, our salvation, or at least our peace of mind, appears to depend upon how successfully we can in the future become what has been called in an excellent phrase a completely “adaptive society.” 
— Elting Morison in Men, Machines, and Modern Times, 1968
“Again, as Michael Howard has pointed out on a number of occasions, military organizations inevitably get the next war wrong. Their business is then to adapt as quickly as possible and at the least cost in their soldiers’ lives to the actual conditions that they confront.” 
— Williamson Murray in Military Adaptation in War (With Fear of Change), 2011

And stepping away from the case studies, here’s a personal testimonial from a flag officer who is considered to be one of our most strategic thinkers by many in the defense community:

“I think first is that there is no such thing as having a predetermined, absolute goal that you’re going to achieve. Life is full of accidents, and that’s where the title of [The Accidental Admiral] comes from. The key is being flexible and being able to adapt and also to know you’re going to make mistakes and you’ll have failures and how do you come back from those things.” 
— ADM James Staviridis discussing his new autobiography, The Accidental Admiral:

Elegance should always be our goal, but we should not confuse it with simplicity—simple approaches applied to symptoms of ill-formed problems cause even more problems than they solve.

Sounds a lot like what the Army is trying to do with the Human Dimension White Paper to me. Maybe they’re not such dunces after all…

Elegance should always be our goal, but we should not confuse it with simplicity—simple approaches applied to symptoms of ill-formed problems cause even more problems than they solve. In a world where our opponents are playing chess and go, our solution is not to go back to studying the fundamentals of checkers. Neither is the solution to use simpler words that lack the specificity and resolution we need to define problems and seize opportunities in the information age.

The only way we can get our minds around the very real increases in complexity and uncertainty is to raise our intellectual game, and thereby improve the collective cognitive performance of our organizations. History will always be a most valuable resource for learning how to thrive in social systems, since human nature stays constant—we can always learn something useful about the present from the past. But history is not sufficient in and of itself to understand and anticipate the changes we’re facing—we need new conceptual frameworks that will help us glean more insights from that same history book, and we need organizational constructs that will help us balance the interactions between humans and our machines when it comes to sensemaking, decisionmaking, and execution. Getting that right will be one of the key challenges for humanity in the coming century. Because if we get it wrong, the cascading effects could threaten not only our security, but our basic way of life.

Conclusion and Regrade

Is the Human Domain White Paper perfect? Absolutely not. But having this discussion is why the White Paper was designed—at some point, you just have to plant a stake in the ground that will prompt rich and evidenced-based discussions, one that gets the larger organization ready for the changes that must come. The authors of the White Paper have correctly identified that our critical challenges in the next few decades will be human issues at their core, not technological ones. As we embrace the social implications of the Information age, the U.S. Army may finally have to cede a point to their traditional doctrinal adversary, the Italian Airman Giulio Douhet:

“Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the changes in the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after the changes occur.”

And for all of these reasons, I give the Human Dimension White Paper: No grade. This isn’t the graded event anyway, it’s only the scene setter.

And I’m not handing out dunce hats either—let’s leave that to the readers, not the critics.

Dave “Sugar” Lyle is a strategist in the U.S. Air Force. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent the view of the U.S. Air Force or the Department of Defense.

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