A related issue is this generation’s well-known ability to multitask. Few parents of millennials can fail to marvel at their almost superhuman ability to do homework, instant-message friends, play a video game, and track the latest episode of The Simpsons all at once. On the other hand, some worry that this uncanny facility for doing several things at one time is accompanied by a superficial approach to analysis and problem solving and an inability to think deeply about complex matters. (Some observers have argued that the most successful multitasking is actually a form of attention deficit disorder.)
It’s still unclear how military and business leaders can adapt their traditional command-and-control operating models to make millennials feel comfortable. The U.S. military, and many corporations, rely on effective chains of command — on leaders who give orders and people in the field who execute them. It will be neither easy nor entirely desirable to make a transition away from that.
To be sure, the reasons for making such a transition continue to increase. Modern military adversaries — and, in the business world, commercial competitors — increasingly use nontraditional structures. Al Qaeda, for example, is not a top-down hierarchy. It is a flexible, decentralized network. As numerous experts have pointed out (for example, University of Pennsylvania professor Marc Sageman in his 2004 book, Understanding Terror Networks, and former U.S. Treasury Department analyst Jonathan Schanzer in his 2004 book, Al-Qaeda’s Armies), this network relies on shared ideologies, common hatreds, and distributed technical know-how, rather than on centralized command, regimented training, and tightly organized supply lines. Will it take a Gen Y military to learn how to effectively counter such virulent franchises?
A recent bestseller, The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom (Portfolio, 2006), argues that networked organizations — including al Qaeda, Alcoholics Anonymous, the Wikipedia Foundation, and open source consortia like those forming around Linux — have certain built-in advantages over more traditional command-and-control hierarchies like the U.S. military. Although perhaps true in theory, this argument is less than fair to current U.S. military practice.
The thinking of the Pentagon hierarchy can be linear at times, but the behavior of U.S. and allied troops in the field is, by necessity, much less so. Field units are trained and empowered to make quick decisions and to act on them. In fact, U.S. military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan rely heavily on the use of Special Forces specifically designed and trained to function autonomously. Military leaders understand that the way to combat enemy networks is with networks of their own.
Moreover, most networked organizations have a way of morphing into bureaucracies. Once a decentralized terrorist network achieves certain goals — gaining control over territory and property, for example — it is bound to adopt more familiar, centralized structures to consolidate, protect, and administer those gains. As with French and Russian revolutionaries in 1789 and 1917, with Castro’s Cuba, and with countless other regimes that began as shadowy insurgencies, a seemingly invisible enemy eventually acquires a face, along with the burdens of administering its conquests. In other words, the more successful an unseen enemy becomes, the sooner it discards the cloak of decentralized invisibility.
For that reason, it is important for any organization — civilian or military — to build its capabilities to make the best of both worlds: to combine the best aspects of networks with the best aspects of command-and-control operations. Interestingly, such efforts are already under way within the U.S. intelligence community, which is preparing to launch an internal communications tool called “A-Space”: a social-networking site for its own members, modeled on Facebook and MySpace. Similarly, the U.S. military must improve its ability to outmaneuver enemies, not just in the deserts and mountains of countries like Iraq and Afghanistan but also through the blogs, Web sites, and other electronic communications vehicles that its adversaries use.