Internalizing out-of-the-box thinking. What the Italian military should learn from Google (X).

Recently, a journalist has been allowed to enter Google semi-secret labs, known as Google X. Differently from Google Research division, Google X does not focus on projects that have a direct impact on Google business, but on those that might bring about revolutionary changes. As such, they often fail, requiring a great deal of patience by the company managers who try to maximize share value and worrying about the products that could create epochal change but have no short term marketability.  

As other organizations, Google struggles with finding a balance between “exploitation” and “exploration”, that is between the need to achieve advancements in the short term while not missing the possibility to grasp, direct, and fully exploit potentially radical transformations in a more distant future. Organizational theory has shown in fact how trade-offs between the short and long run exist, and how incremental changes, though “tactically” useful, can sometimes inhibit larger “strategic” transformation. Equilibrium is hard to find, also because often scarce resources compel to look at advancing interests in the short run. Indeed, it is difficult to convince someone to pay now for something that might not even happen many years from now.

And still, thinking seriously about possible futures, “exploring” unlikely but still possible, contributes both to create the foundations for long term success and to strengthen resilience in case standard assumptions fail. This is particularly true for organizations such as armed forces, whose procurement cycles are very long and as such entail decisions that bring with themselves quite rigid legacies. The question, in other words is a quite familiar one: how many programs that are being paid now have been devised when the world was a different one, and might then not respond perfectly to current requirements? To an extent, this is inevitable, but it does not mean that complex organizations can’t do better if they internalize the analysis of “multiple futures” and their impact on planning and procurement.

How does that connect with transformation of Italian armed forces, and with the White Book that should do about it?  Rivista Italiana di Difesa recently published an op-ed on the requirements for the new Libro Bianco listing a convincing set of legal/constitutional and operational issues that should be addressed. We might want to add another one, based on the idea that we have to take long term planning and force transformation into more consideration. In particular, “force transformation” has been taken seriously by Italian armed forces, but it was generally referred as related to the impact of information technology on Command, Control, Computer and Communication (C4) and ISTAR. A similar approach has been adopted by the Army, which instituted a force transformation in 2006 to coordinate activities related to Net-Centric Warfare.

What would be needed is an entity that devises future scenarios and makes proposals accordingly. The relatively limited doctrinal production of Italy, compared to other European countries, shows the lack of an institutionalized habit to link future planning to an open debate on what future requirements might be. The Italian armed forces can do better, as they have already started to do in related fields such as “lessons learned”.  There is no compelling reason to prefer a specific setup over others, and this entity might be either brand new, the result of restructuring of ones that currently exist, or even a “relay” among them (for instance, linking more closely research and education centers with doctrine and force transformation offices). Similar experiences already exist, and they are various in nature. It is not just the famous DoD’ Office of Net Assessment, that exists since 1973 and currently under fire, but also NATO’s Allied Command Transformation, or the French Délégation aux Affaires Stratégiques within the MoD, that promote several initiatives according to this line of reasoning. The whole process of writing a White Book in other countries is sensitive to suggestions that come from out-of-the-box thinking, be this coming from internalized or external structures.

Let’s think about creating such an internal structure that deals with net assessment in the medium and long run and comes up with innovative and sometimes provocative solutions. Most of them might not have immediate impact on very important issues such as saving money or deciding the timing and modes of withdrawal from Afghanistan. But they should spark internal debate by creating ideas and coalitions that suggest thinking about transformations that might be emerge in the longer run. Important decisions made now must be based on a clear view of what will be needed in the future (also because they decisively contribute to shape it). This includes preparing for “black swans” as well as basing key investments decisions on a clearer (and more transparent) assessment of what requirements they should serve in the future. When the environment is very uncertain – as it is the case for the global and regional security environments – the benefits of such a choice would be high. And the good thing is that its financial burden (contrarily to those needed to operate Google X) would be instead almost inexistent.

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