Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Developing strategy from a solid foundation 10: a case study example of the consequences of a priori underlying assumptions 9

Posted in macroeconomics, strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on May 18, 2015

This is my tenth installment to a series on strategy as it is developed in practice, and on where it is developed from (see Business Strategy and Operations – 3, postings 490 and loosely following for Parts 1-9.) And this is also Part 9 to an historical narrative-based case study that I have been developing here, drawn from the public sector and more specifically from United States policy and practice in maintaining troop levels in their military. My goal for this case study is to illustrate how policy and practice evolve and how both strategy and strategic goals are shaped by and can be changed by ongoing experience – and if not always for overall long-term goals than for how operational processes and their performance are measured in reaching towards them, which in practice can constitute functional shift in what constitutes those overall goals themselves.

I began discussing a set of three issues in Part 9 of this series, that strike to the heart of how public opinion of government policy and its implementation are shaped, and how that is changing.

• The role of news and of the public press, historically, in shaping public opinion on military action,
• How direct access to raw news and events observations have become progressively more and more possible, and even publically expected and certainly since the dawn of on-scene television reporting,
• And about how the rise of the internet and particularly of the interactive internet and social media have made all of us reporters as well as consumers of news and events reporting – thus disintermediating the news and reporting process and removing editorial filtering from that, and certainly as a requisite part of the news process.

I focused on the first of these points in Part 9, and then stated that I would continue on here to at least begin addressing the next two of these points. And I begin with the second of them by noting a detail in it that some readers might find questionable: my citing television reporting there, rather than radio reporting as proliferated for war news coverage starting in World War II.

I accept that some might disagree with my acknowledged transition point there, adding that sight plus sound, coupled with greater capability to bring broadcast reporters to the front and for them to report live and direct from there, brought conflicts so covered more directly and impactfully into people’s homes and across the country than earlier radio broadcasts could. We are a visually oriented species so adding image and the reporting dimension of seeing conflict and its aftermath makes reporting that much more viscerally involving. So I chose television reporting, and in the context of this series news reporting of the Vietnam War as a turning point.

And from a government response perspective, television news coverage of that Vietnam War and with both still photo and televised coverage from in-country to that conflict both shaped public perception of that war and built public resistance to it in the United States. And this news coverage and its overt impact on shaping public opinion of this war also became the principle source of lessons learned by the US government and its military as they redesigned and redefined news coverage from the front with their now-followed system of embedded war reporting (which first appeared in 2003 in managing news coverage of the War on Terror invasion of Iraq.)

The public now expects and even demands live and even real-time coverage of the news and of war news as an important case in point. The US military and other military forces as well, and the governments they serve seek to manage and control that coverage and both for what is shown and told, and for who gets to report these news stories too.

And this brings me to the third of the above discussion points, and news coverage in an always online and connected, interactive context. I write in that bullet point of the man and woman on the street as reporter, and of ordinary people taking on that role whenever and wherever they use their smart phones or tablet computers to capture and share what they are seeing, hearing and living through. News reporting is the widespread dissemination and sharing of organized and (hopefully) vetted and accurate local events information to a much wider and even global audience, making it that much more widely visible and at least potentially that much more widely important. And news reporting at the same time takes what would in most cases be the entirely ephemeral and gives it at least a potential for having a long-term presence and impact too. Ubiquitous connectivity and the interactive online at least potentially make reporters of all of us – and news editors too, as we have to decide ourselves what we report and how we do so and where online.

• Embedded journalism as noted above seeks to maintain a tight centrally managed and controlled filter on what reporters – select and vetted reporters can see and hear, and on what they can report of that and when and how.
• That was a lesson hard-learned from the Vietnam War and from the impact that more open reporting had on eroding public support for it.
• But more and more, and as smart phones and other reporting hardware and software proliferate, and as wirelessly connected internet channels that they can report through proliferate too, any such controlled access systems become that much more porous from widely available capacity to bypass them.

And with this I come to the end of the narrative case study I have been developing here, at least for the historical narrative part of it, itself. And I step back from that to survey this admittedly overly brief and selective historical accounting with a fundamental question, which I preface with some orienting comment points.

• The United States government, like most governments has seen need to maintain a credible military force throughout its history, as a deterrent against aggression and as a resource that can be turned to in order to address threats actively faced. And this has always required maintaining a sufficient level of trained manpower in this military force so as to be able to carry out its mission and for any realistically anticipatable level and scope of mission that might arise.
• Certainly in a democratic society, meeting that goal calls for ongoing public support if sufficient numbers are to agree to so serve. This holds true whether enlistment is primarily voluntary, or involuntary and draft-based. If the general public comes to resent and object against what the military does in sufficient numbers, it becomes progressively more and more difficult and then impossible to sustain that action, and the troop levels needed, and certainly for willing participants.
• Considering enlistment in times of war and open conflict here, a key to understanding that point can be found in the concept of a just war. World War II was seen as a just and even essential war by many in the United States, and certainly in the immediate aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and when Nazi Germany declaring war on the United States in immediate follow-up to that, in fulfillment of their treaty obligations to Japan. But where perception of justice has rested has not always been so easy to discern. There are reasons why only about one third of the American colonists who faced the prospects of war with Britain in 1776 wanted to break away from that country and form an independent nation, with one third wishing to remain British subjects and one third simply wishing to be left alone. Different colonial groups and different individual colonists saw justice and good differently, and in large numbers. And they enlisted or avoided doing so accordingly. And the US Civil War and the Vietnam War both saw active supporters both also saw very active war resistors too. And both of those conflicts bring up a new if closely related point.
• Not only does a conflict need to appear to be just if fighting it is to gain and hold large-scale and long-term support. The processes and systems used to bring people into the military to carry out this action have to be and have to appear to be just and equitable too. I cited the US Civil War and the Vietnam War above because as I discussed in earlier installments in this series, both came to be seen as poor man’s wars, that the more wealthy and enfranchised could in effect buy their way out of serving in.
• And public support, bottom line, informs all of this, and that shapes both what troop levels policies are put in place and how they are enacted, and how well they can work and at what societal cost. I have been making note at the top of these series installments that “both strategy and strategic goals are shaped by and can be changed by ongoing experience – and if not always for overall long-term goals than for how operational processes and their performance are measured in reaching towards them, which in practice can constitute functional shift in what constitutes those overall goals themselves.” Public support, or loss of that is ultimately the key experiential factor that drives this, as government policy has changed and changed and changed again, always seeking to learn the lessons from the last conflict going into a next one.
• Looking forward in this context, I would ask what next-conflict changes might be considered in light of the rampant overuse of stop loss to keep the same once-volunteers in active service, one tour of service after another until it has to be assumed that every returning US soldier from our current and recent War on Terror conflicts suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And perhaps more to the point, I would ask why those lessons are not being more fully learned from and acted upon now? But that is the subject of a separate discussion.

I am going to turn back to my first installment in this series in my next one, and to the more general strategy and planning issues that I began raising there in Developing Strategy from a Solid Foundation 1: start with your underlying assumptions.

Case studies are all too often presented as simple and straightforward and as if the systems and events they report on were somehow innately directed in how they developed in the real world, towards realizing the conclusions they are written about for. Granted, case studies per se are written up and used for didactic purposes so they tend to be selective accounts, but the realities they seek to report on always contain large amounts of more messy and even conflicting details. I have tried to reflect something of this less tidy reality in my case study narrative as I have been developing here in this series. My goal for the next installment to this will be to at least start a discussion of more general strategy and planning, and operational execution principles that might, among other things be discerned in this type of narrative example. In anticipation of that I add here that I will be discussing a suite of issues, including assumptions and goals, stakeholders and identifying and working with them, buy-in and the sometimes give and take dynamics of reaching that and achieving consensus support, and change. I very intentionally chose a long timeframe case study example here because it extends over a long enough period of history that change has repeatedly transformed it for all of its key factors and considerations, and in ways that could not be anticipated far in advance. So recognizing and dynamically adapting to change and its challenges and opportunities is very important there, and I add that this holds for both government and business strategy contexts. I will at least begin to discuss this complex of interconnected issues in my next series installment.

Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Business Strategy and Operations – 3 and also at Page 1 and Page 2 of that directory. Also see Macroeconomics and Business and its Page 2 continuation.

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