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Published: July 30, 2003

 
 

How to Win the Information Battle — Lessons from a Modern War

Lessons from the Military
New accounting practices and financial disclosure mandates compound the problem of free-flowing information. Companies and executives are under pressure to be transparent in all of their dealings. In the U.S., the Securities and Exchange Commission demands that material events be reported immediately and widely. Managers, no longer able to control the flow of information, can only react to it. As they gather their wits, markets are already responding. An erroneous report — or, indeed, an accurate report — on an obscure business television channel can affect a company’s stock price immediately.

The military appears to be more keenly aware of these trends than is the corporate world. The Iraq conflict was the first fully IT-enabled war. Instant firepower was matched by instant communications and instant interpretation. The business lessons from this military experience will be absorbed over the coming years. Some are already clear.

First, the military has accepted the inevitable and invited reporters into its vehicles and tents. Information can’t be suppressed, and attempts to suppress it reflect badly on the organization involved. The lesson for companies: You can’t resist the pressure to be open, so don’t try. People — whether analysts, journalists, investors, employees, or members of the public — have high standards and increasingly consider the ability to know everything, as quickly as possible, to be their right, an entitlement rather than a luxury.

“You can’t resist the pressure to be open, so don’t try. Analysts, investors, and employees consider knowing everything an entitlement.”
Second, the Pentagon used daily briefings, broadcast live, to put the scattered pieces of embedded-journalist reporting into context. Even though that context could be disputed, it was still the earliest, most robust, and best-integrated message available. Corporations, too, must learn to manage understanding and expectations, to paint the bigger picture, with similar confidence.

Third, the U.S. government managed its communications effort from the very top. It appointed Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, one of its brightest officers, to deal with daily briefings at Central Command headquarters in Qatar. In Washington, the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff held almost daily meetings with the press. Inside companies, corporate communications and other public relations functions — focused internally and externally — are gaining influence and stature.

A New Strategic Weapon
The elevation and influence of communications professionals in corporations must go even further than it has so far: Chief communications officers ought to be part of their companies’ leadership teams, and senior executives must become skilled communicators. And throughout companies, employees need to become more aware of and prepared for handling the threats and opportunities of working in a world where information is so transparent.

Perhaps the most important lesson from the Iraq war is that managing real-time communications is as important as managing real-time processes. Communication is moving from being a peripheral, specialist responsibility to being an essential and integral element of corporate leadership. No matter the organization — government, business, nonprofit — the roles of professional communicators who lead communications functions are being reinvented and reinvigorated. As the Iraq conflict proved, they hold the power to wield crucial offensive and defensive strategic weapons for converting information into understanding.


Authors
David Newkirk, newkirk_david@bah.com
David Newkirk is a senior vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton based in London, where he specializes in strategy and organizational issues for multinational clients. Mr. Newkirk has worked with industry leaders on all aspects of strategy, organization, marketing, technology, and operations.

Stuart Crainer, stuart.crainer@suntopmedia.com
Stuart Crainer is a U.K.-based business journalist and a contributing editor to strategy+business. Mr. Crainer is author and editor of numerous management books, including the Financial Times Handbook of Management (Financial Times Prentice Hall, 2001) and The Management Century: A Critical Review of 20th Century Thought and Practice (Jossey-Bass, 2000).
 
 
 
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Resources

  1. “The Co-Creation Connection,” by C.K. Prahalad and Venkatram Ramaswamy, s+b, 2Q 2002. Click here.
  2. “Corporate Governance: Hard Facts about Soft Behaviors,” by Paul F. Kocourek, Christian Burger, and Bill Birchard, s+b, Spring 2003. Click here.
  3. “Enterprise Resilience: Managing Risk in the Networked Economy,” by Randy Starr, Jim Newfrock, and Michael Delurey s+b, Spring 2003. Click here.