Department of Defense, a new business school?


The military organization was once a lot like Hobbes’ Leviathan. Decision making was resident on high—in the senior officer’s corps. The ordinary soldier was a limb operated at a distance—by someone else’s intelligence.

That’s changing. Militaries are now thinking about a distributed, networked intelligence that would give the ordinary soldier new agency. The American Department of Defense (DOD) has created the Office of Force Transformation, the Command and Control Research Program, and the doctrines of Network Centric Warfare (NCW) and Effects based Operations. The DOD will spend $17 billion to support NCW and transform DOD from a command and control organization into something more distributed and networked. The effect of this new approach is one of the untold stories of the war effort in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But it is not just the U.S. that has been experimenting with a dynamic military. Israel has a longer tradition.

Izhar Shay (former paratrooper in the Israeli Army and the chief executive of V-Secure Technologies), […] and other veterans say the Israeli military trains its soldiers to think quickly and act nimbly, adjusting to circumstances as they arise rather than waiting for orders. While the American military in the post-9/11 era increasingly favors those same qualities, notably in the Special Forces that it deploys deep inside enemy territory, Israel has been giving its warriors greater latitude to call their own shots ever since its founding more than half a century ago.

Today comes notice that this training is having an interesting diffusion effect.

“[a] disproportionate number of Israel veterans begin their own businesses, often in highly competitive technical fields.

This means that the Israel military is supplying a de facto business education, as Betsy Cummings suggests in the title of her excellent article in today’s Times: I got my MBA in the Israeli Army.

Right, then. Business schools have a new challenger. It’s the military. I only know the marketing departments in question, but I don’t think any one of these is supplying the kind of training in dynamism now on offer from the DOD. It’s a great big irony. As I understand it, “graduates” from the military used to flourish in the corporate world partly because they were so good at “command and control” bureaucracies. To think that their advantage is a knowledge of dynamism…well, this is a pretty remarkable shift in the order of things.

Can business schools take on their new competitors? In the language of the 8 ball: chances look slim.

We might argue that business schools are much too removed from the hurly burly of the real world to understand that dynamism is the order of the day. University professors live in protected circumstances. Their slow, still world is one of the last places of stasis. The real world does intervene very much or very often. The organs of intelligence, the Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek, mediate very nicely. The professor and the student are never “up against it” in the way that a soldier is on the battle field. Professor and student never learn to manage complexity in the face of real dynamism, to say nothing of life threatening dynamism.

Consider the “case study,” the much vaunted technology method of the business school. The only dynamism here comes from the shifting terms of the debate with which students break into the case and lay it bear. Case are anti-dynamic. The terms of the debate may change. Terms of reference never do. Teachers and students do not have to shift frame (or construct frame) to “crack the case.” Case studies are a little like Chinese puzzleboxes. The trick is to find the piece of the case that slides open and lets us in. Things don’t change as we go. Cases with a higher fidelity would reveal their secret only if we approached them, in quick succession, as a sonnet, an early VCR manual, and a Balinese symphony, thinking about our assumptions even as we think with them.

Business schools talk a lot about competition. Let’s see if they can engage in it when the competitor is not another lumbering business school but the realest of the real worlds.


Anon. Network Centric Warfare: Report to the Department of Defense

Cummings, Betsy. 2005. I got my M.B.A. in the Israeli Army. New York Times. March 3, 2005.

Alberts, David and Richard Hayes. 2003. Power to the Edge. Washington: Command and Control Research Program, DOD.

$17 billion dollar figure from John Clippinger’s website here

2 thoughts on “Department of Defense, a new business school?

  1. Brian

    “As I understand it, “graduates” from the military used to flourish in the corporate world partly because they were so good at “command and control” bureaucracies. To think that their advantage is a knowledge of dynamism…well, this is a pretty remarkable shift in the order of things.”

    Argh. You’ve comprimised our dirty little secret.

    I’m a ‘graduate’ of the US Marines, spent four years enlisted as a grunt and then another four as a computer tech. We always had the ability to improvise and adapt as needed to get the job done, consistent with commander’s intent and instructions.

    The key is ‘commander’s intent’. This can be as narrow and defined as “mount a gaurd post on the armory with established SOP” which leaves you no wiggle room as to _how_ to accomplish the job, or as free ranging as “provide connectivity to the G2 office” or “take that hill”. After that, you’re on your own to improvise, adapt and overcome.

    This can have some interesting consequences.

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