The four fundamental principles of the agile, "edge-based" organization are situational awareness, skills, values, and decision rights.
For instance, special forces teams are able to deal effectively with the most complex and dynamic situations because they have been designed to be able to be extremely agile. In other words, these troops are able to dynamically adjust to their predicaments so well because they share information broadly, train their people how to use that data appropriately, imbue them with the right values so that they act with integrity, and allow for them to take action – by giving the rights to make decisions to the very skin of the organization. The idea is to deal effectively with an asymmetric and dynamic set of opponents. This thinking has been articulately documented in many places including the excellent book Power to the Edge by David Alberts & Richard Hayes.
Unfortunately, despite the fact that both our governmental and commercial organizations are also facing a more dynamic and volatile environment, in the main our approach has been to create more monolithic, centralized institutions – whether it is the Department of Homeland Security as a response to 9/11 or the new, super-powerful Federal Reserve as a response to the global financial crisis. Faced with dynamism, we have answered with bigger bureaucracies.
I believe it is time to rethink our networked world. What we need is a modular, self-synchronizing system to deal with crises at the edges – as they happen. It needs to be more like the internet and less like the old Bell system.
As is, our economy and government are extremely rigid and easily disrupted because we have a largely centralized "hub and spoke" approach. We are the heirs to the perfection of Fordism – specialization and hierarchy. These type of systems are extremely easy to disrupt because all you need to do it take out a few of the hubs, or the top of the pyramid. (Watch the pattern of reported cyber-attacks on the US – such as the attempts to hack into the electrical grid – and I think you will begin to see some indicators that America's enemies are already executing a strategy that goes after our fragilities. )
Think about the recent H1N1 virus. Its effect was bad enough, but if it had been as virulent as the flu of 1918, we would have had a much bigger problem even than we did then – today's world is vastly more interdependent and interconnected. A flu as powerful as the one my grandmother lived through would have created significant problems with food, water, power, and communications. These systems are largely centralized, and there is no provision that I know of for restarting these capabilities on a local level.
Due to our ruthless quest for efficiency we have squished out many of the buffers that could help blunt the propagation of bad effects on food, assets, and other supplies. We don't notice if we have gone too far until we really need those buffers. Remember how hard it was to get basic food and communications in New Orleans after Katrina? What would happen if we had 10 "Katrinas" at once? We are doubly fragile.
But what, exactly, should we do differently? Well, for one thing, if I were running Homeland Security, I would create a fleet of local, mobile vehicles that had power-generating, water-purifying and mesh network capabilities (a mesh network allows each node to communicate to many others, creating a robust, "mesh" of communications capacity), able to transport some local food supplies (which I think we do already have). These mobile "nodes" could be created for the price of a fancy pickup truck or less. With such a Lego-like approach it would be possible to roll a new modular infrastructure into a needy community – with communications, power, and some water – in minutes or hours.
More importantly, I would create a governance mechanism which would allow towns and cities to take over local authority for these core capabilities – quickly and seamlessly – the way the special forces does when they are in battle. This means that we first need to start with an edge-based approach, then train and equip for such a decentralized solution, and most of all, reinforce the values of communal spirit and concern.
My worry is that in our exurban-super-individualistic-iPod-listening-video-game-playing culture, we have lost the local fabric of self-synchronization, and although the spirit may be there to help each other, the mechanisms to make that spirit effective in practice are lacking. The private sector has not done any better.
We need to reinvent what it means to put power to the edge both for our communities and our companies – before the next major disruption hits.