Keep trying to connect the dots, and you'll remain blind to the future

Originally appeared in Inside Knowledge Magazine 10 Sep 2008, Vol 12, Issue 1.

On 12 September, 2001, I received an e-mail from the CEO of my company (a federal contracting firm located just outside Washington DC). As F-16s continued their combat air patrols over my neighbourhood, I read, paraphrasing: ‘John, yesterday [9-11] was a failure of knowledge management. In the years to come, this will be the critical area for improvement’.

We soon heard about failures to ‘connect the dots’ regarding behaviours among flight school students, an arrest in the Midwest not shared across the FBI, and so on.

Seven years forward and US national security is changing. ‘Need to share’ is the buzzword, hoping to replace ‘need to know’. The director of National Intelligence releases a vision calling for sharing intelligence with law enforcement. The Department of Defense releases its first Information Sharing Strategy. The implication, never explicit: if only we get the right knowledge to the right person at the right time, we can know the future and learn which dots pose a threat.

When then-National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice stated “I don’t think anybody could have predicted... that they would try to use an airplane as a missile”, she was wrong. Someone in government had actually considered that scenario. There are thousands of scenarios considered daily across the national security system – some will always be seen in hindsight as predictive. While technically incorrect, Dr. Rice pointed up an underlying truth. There are thousands of scenarios considered daily and we do not know which scenario, which threat, which dot deserves our attention before the fact. And if we keep assuming there is a golden thread that, if pulled, will unravel the future – we never will.

Systems scientists, organisational theorists and business leaders are beginning to work in a world where control can be an illusion and adaptation preferred. We are starting to focus on nurturing networks and relationships;a recognition that certain systems are, by their very nature, non-linear, and they change their behaviors based on their starting points and the random events that might ensue, leading to emergent new behaviors that cannot be predicted.

Anticipation replaces prediction. While linear models are generally developed to predict the future; complexity helps us anticipate developing patterns of behavior.

In reforming the US national security system, it is vital that we question assumptions regarding the predictability of our world and instead understand that we connect not to find the haystack needle, but in order to better understand and discern patterns in the noise. The subtitle of the interim report from the Project on National Security Reform is a good beginning: ‘Ensuring Security in an Unpredictable World’. How we apply KM and complexity principles to national security reform will shape our ability to secure the nation’s future.

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