Analysis from the Edge: Information Paralysis and Decision Making in Complexity
By: CPT Nicholas R. Dubaz, US Army
Throughout the last 13 years of military conflict involving US forces, commanders, planners, and civilian decision makers at all levels have demonstrated an unquenchable thirst for information. Individuals and units have had to respond to multilayered requirements for the collection of information, and dozens of new information-processing tools and systems have been deployed to capture the resulting data. The small civil affairs community alone uses at least seven different, often competing and non-interoperable, systems for civil reconnaissance and information management. The much larger intelligence community, tasked with integrating and analyzing vast amounts of data, uses hundreds of such systems. Most of these systems utilize an event-based, database-enabled ontology in which the human world operates like an engineered machine in accordance with Newtonian physics and modernist philosophy. As a result, such tools, and the people who depend on them, are ill-equipped to grapple with the complex conflicts of the twenty-first century.
Despite an ever-increasing volume of information, we are arguably less capable than ever of dealing with a world composed of complex adaptive systems characterized by their unbounded nature, diversity, and nonlinearity. Indeed, small SOF elements, like their conventional counterparts, are currently bound by processes and models that, in their attempts to provide clarity to the environment, lead only to further confusion. Thirteen years of counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan have demonstrated the peril inherent in this information overload, as well as the potential of small special operations elements to enable the military to move beyond our failed approaches and reach understanding amid complexity.1 In doing so, commanders and staff, as consumers of information and intelligence, can be freed from reductionist ways of thinking and focus instead on developing the situational awareness that will help them adapt strategies and achieve operational objectives.
In recent decades, the explosion in information technology's capabilities, and its increasing availability and application at the tactical level, have promised a revolution in command and control for every echelon of the military. Recent attempts at doctrinal innovation have largely centered on the core problems of the complexity of modern operational environments, the potential and peril of an "informatized" battlefield, and the indefinite nature of the problems our armed forces are being asked to address on a global scale. The concept of effects-based operations (EBO), in its various forms, is among the most famous of these attempts. EBO, however, became entangled with reductionist thinking and promised—through system-of-systems analysis and operational net assessment—much more than it could possibly deliver. A revolutionary capability in theory, EBO was supposed to enable information dominance and swift decision making to overwhelm and paralyze an adversary, resulting in his rapid, decisive defeat.2 Instead, its users are the ones who have found themselves paralyzed by an onslaught of mostly disordered information.
Though the concept of fog and friction in warfare has been widely known and understood among military professionals since time immemorial, its implications are best expressed by strategist Carl von Clausewitz in his nineteenth-century treatise On War.3 As he puts it, "Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult." 4 Chance events and the sheer difficulty of an endeavor so intrinsic to human nature coalesce into a fog of unpredictability that has covered every battlefield in human history. For Clausewitz, it was the commander and his experience that served as the "oil capable of diminishing this friction."5 In the twenty-first century, however, military theorists have sought to burn through the fog of war and eliminate the friction by means of information superiority and networked military organizations.
As early as 1970, before the internet and mobile technology became mainstream, futurist and sociologist Alvin Toffler described what he saw as the coming age of information overload and its dangerous implications.6 The increasing pace of change, including rapid advancements in communication technology and faster means of transportation, was producing "decision stress" and "sensory overstimulation," according to Toffler's book Future Shock.7 This perceived loss of control was resulting in cognitive withdrawal, decision paralysis, and the inability to properly use information.8 Future Shock and several other works in which Toffler and his wife Heidi Adelaide Toffler outlined their ideas about the future of society proved highly influential in the development of new thinking as military strategists attempted to address the effects of overabundant information on the battlefield. Other thinkers, both inside and outside the military, have looked for ways to channel the rapid pace of change and the increasing flow of information into military success.
Network-centric warfare, as this new form of information-enabled warfare came to be known, has many parents and nearly as many interpretations. The ideas and writings of the late Vice Admiral Arthur K. Cebrowski are particularly influential. Cebrowski, inspired by Air Force Colonel John Boyd's theories of decision making in aerial combat, postulated that it was not information superiority alone that translated into victory, but the ability to transform that information into "action and behavior options" faster and more accurately than an opponent.9 Unlike others in the network-centric warfare community who believed that technology alone would guarantee information superiority, Cebrowski understood that effectiveness was less about technology and more about information management: shared perspectives and perceptions would enable the military to better utilize the information at hand.10 In other words, "information superiority required more than simply knowing a lot. It required knowing more of the right things, accurately and in time to act."11
In the decades since Cebrowski identified the problem, modern militaries nevertheless have only moved further away from a solution. We are bombarded with more and more data but develop less and less understanding. Something is missing—something that ties the information together and renders it meaningful and accessible for those who need to use it.
Information Paralysis or Analytical Malfeasance?
Few fields within the military manage a greater volume of raw data and information than signals intelligence. The supply of metadata, databases, tools, analytical methods, and systems available to analysts seeking every "piece of the puzzle" is virtually endless. According to a 2011 New York Times article, 1,600 percent more data has become available to all levels of the military since 11 September 2001.12 With the increases in signals intelligence technology and adaptation to modern information communication technologies, the data available to intelligence analysts increased by orders of magnitude compared with the general military forces. The outcome of this explosion in the volume and accessibility of information, however, is a flawed sense of understanding as nearly every echelon conducts its own analysis of the same databases through the filter of its own particular slant or interest.
On my first tour in Afghanistan from May 2007 to August 2008, an issue of particular interest at the division (Regional Command-East [RC-East]) and theater (International Security Assistance Force [ISAF]) levels was "foreign fighter" support to the Taliban and al Qaeda. The priority intelligence requirements of the RC-East commander, along with nearly every RC-East Joint Intelligence Support Element (JISE) analytical product, focused to some extent on the foreign fighter issue. On one occasion, the JISE used information from a particular database to produce a map of a supposed Chechen presence along the Afghan-Pakistan border in Kunar, Nuristan, and Nangarhar provinces. While there is no public evidence of post–Taliban-era Chechen fighters in Afghanistan, rumors of their existence consistently find their way into both intelligence and open source reporting.13 The reputation of Chechens as fearless fighters and capable leaders, combined with both the presence of lighter skinned, Caucasian-looking individuals on the battlefield and circular reporting by inexperienced human intelligence collectors, have contributed to such rumors, provoking an unwarranted special interest in Chechens among US military commanders and staffs.
This particular map, which indicated that there was an extensive Chechen presence across eastern Afghanistan, was briefed at a nightly commander's update. The commanding general immediately requested additional information from the brigade commander responsible for this area, and the brigade commander, caught off guard, turned to his intelligence officer demanding to know how such an extensive Chechen presence could have been missed by his own intelligence staff. Upon hearing of this incident from the Brigade S-2, I attempted to corroborate the map and analysis produced by the JISE. Using the same tools and database, I queried all references to "Chechens" in the same geographical region and produced an identical map. A deeper look at the underlying data and geographic information system software the analyst used to produce the original map, however, revealed that any connection to Chechens was completely specious. Another source was an internal Afghan National Army report, which said that American advisors had discussed the possible presence of Chechens. In most instances, the record behind the data point explicitly excluded the possibility of a Chechen presence.
In the end, not a single report associated with the map could be interpreted as evidence that Chechens were in eastern Afghanistan. But even if some of the data points had proved relevant, there remains the absurdity of accepting, without question, the existence of an extensive network of Chechens operating as a highly insular insurgent group on the Afghan-Pakistani frontier and then sharing it as intelligence in a routine commander's update.
On another occasion, a different analytical section nearly persuaded a commander to conduct a direct action operation on a public call office—a telephone in a storefront, something quite common in Afghanistan and other developing countries—because the analysts interpreted the activity of the telephone's hundreds of users to indicate that the office was a key actor in multiple insurgent networks. On the surface, these appear to be simply stories of lazy analysts who could not be bothered to follow even the most basic procedures of intelligence analysis, or of commanders seeking to micromanage their units. These are, however, just a few examples among many similar ones that arose throughout my many months of service in Afghanistan as an intelligence officer and my additional tours as a civil affairs officer.
The same problems manifested at the division, ISAF Joint Command, and ISAF headquarters levels, as well as in the various special operations intelligence headquarters. Clearly, the problem was more than just an ineffective and poorly trained and led intelligence team. In fact, as an intelligence officer, I estimate that I spent well over half of my time and analytical energy preventing others from making operational mistakes based on flawed understanding gained in an environment of information paralysis. Intelligence sections at the division, Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force, and higher headquarters levels simply did what they knew best: pulling records from databases, placing dots on maps, and claiming insight. More information, paradoxically, meant shallower analysis: they had all the information in the world, but no context in which to apply it.14
Edge Organizations and Constrained Organizations
These intelligence analysis sections failed largely because they were situated in highly modernist organizations that are poorly suited to the task of effectively using all that information to which they have access. Modernism, in this sense, is a philosophy that maintains that all problems can be solved (progressivism); that all causal relationships are knowable (logical positivism); that variables can be separated (reductionism); and, finally, that data can provide evidence of truth (empiricism).15 Linearity, which assumes the proportionality, additivity, replication, and demonstrability of causes and effects, is embedded in this philosophy, and to a certain extent in human nature.16 Within this flawed modernist structure, databases continue to be the military's primary method of categorizing information and attempting to share it across echelons to capitalize on the theorized promise of information superiority.
In Afghanistan, there are dozens of databases for intelligence and operational information that sit on no less than eight discrete networks operating at multiple classification and access restriction levels. Analytical sections at each echelon within the rigid hierarchical military structure pull records from these databases and attempt to reconstruct understanding, as if the whole of knowledge could be assembled from the parts contained in the database. These event-driven, database-focused processes assume that the world operates by the linear principle of additivity—that is, the whole is equal to the sum of its parts.17 According to Thomas Czerwinski, writing in an early study of non-linearity in warfare, "This promotes and legitimizes reductionism, the practice of taking a complicated and large problem and breaking it into more manageable pieces, analyzing the constituent parts, and arriving at a conclusion."18 We know, however, that the problems our military forces are being asked to address are non-linear in nature and cannot be understood in pieces pulled from database records.
Power to the Edge, a study of new forms of military organization, command, and control for structurally complex, nonlinear, network-centric warfare, proposes a new type of organizational design known as an edge organization.19 Edge organizations are so named because they operate at the "edge" of a theoretical command-and-control space that is diametrically opposite to traditional military organizations. That edge, depicted in figures 1 and 2, is one of unconstrained interaction, devolved decision making, and broad information access and dissemination.20 Figure 1 illustrates the distinction between the information sharing and control paradigms of edge organizations, which interact freely with all actors and operate on a trust-based model, and the traditional control-based model of hierarchical military organizations. Figure 2 illustrates the shift in operational context from the well-structured problems posed by the state-on-state confrontations of the Cold War era, for which many modern militaries were designed, to the highly unstructured "wicked" problems presented by the fluid conflicts of the present. While edge organizations struggle with certain weaknesses, particularly inefficiencies in bureaucratized, familiar, routine processes, they are more agile than other types of organizations.21 Most critically, as the authors of the concept note, "Edge organizations are particularly well suited to deal with uncertainty and unfamiliarity, because they make more of their relevant knowledge, experience, and expertise available." 222324
For a military organization, power and effectiveness are "a function of the collective means and opportunity possessed by the individuals in the organization with respect to their ability to accomplish the … minimum essential capabilities required for military operations." 25 Chief among these capabilities is sensemaking, the ability to understand the fundamental nature of a problem the organization is tasked with addressing.26 Edge organizations are uniquely situated to develop understanding, with their unconstrained ability to engage all actors in a system and achieve information superiority. While no US Department of Defense organization lives up to the idealized model of an edge organization, small SOF units exhibit many of the edge characteristics. However capable these organizations may be at a tactical level, the knowledge and information processes and procedures of the US military, including SOF headquarters, nevertheless are not optimized to take advantage of special operations units' ability to develop understanding and inform adaptive decision making at the operational and strategic levels.
The 2010 report Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan, authored in part by then–ISAF chief of intelligence Major General Michael Flynn and commonly known as the "Flynn report," is an influential and oft-cited response to some of the well-documented failings of intelligence in Afghanistan. The report, from the Center for a New American Security, has many recommendations but is at its core an attempt to produce better intelligence through "select teams of analysts … empowered to move between field elements, much like journalists, to visit collectors of information at the grassroots level and carry that information back with them to the regional command level." 27 The purpose of this approach was to help deemphasize analysis that focused solely on the enemy and instead foster a holistic appraisal of the operational environment—something that was absent at all levels of analysis. Other academic approaches to information overload and poor-quality analysis recommend technical and organizational adaptations such as the "pre-processing of most physical sensor data and displaying the processed data as information in a variety of formats and media," or "assisting in the identification of source perspectives and bias." 28 Despite the fact that the Flynn report correctly identified a problem, the transformed analytical enterprise described in the report's recommendations still addresses a human problem through marginal organizational adaptations and leaves the fundamental obstacle intact: analysts using fragments of information to conduct analysis without the necessary context.
Analysis from the Edge in Afghanistan
The 2014 presidential elections in Afghanistan were to be the ultimate test of the capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) following the transition of security responsibilities from ISAF. ISAF was present in fewer locations across Afghanistan than at any time since the early days of the conflict. No longer would US military power be on call to support the ANSF in combat, and no longer would Afghan government ministries have access to coalition funds or equipment for tasks they could—or should—accomplish on their own. The decisive nature of the elections and the highly risk-averse tendencies of coalition military commanders meant, however, that ISAF forces would not allow the ANSF to fail if the Afghans had exhausted—or believed they had exhausted—all internal means to deal with problems. This, in turn, required the establishment of an elaborate system for identifying potential failures and responding rapidly to shortfalls.
The data demands of the various echelons of the ISAF hierarchy and the US State Department were immense, covering nearly every aspect of the election process down to the polling station level. In just the small province of Khost, information was to be gathered and processed by Afghanistan's independent election commission at 729 polling stations before the election and in real time during both the polling itself and the ballot recovery process. Dozens of spreadsheets were to be completed, and multiple reports had to be submitted on a weekly or event-driven basis. ISAF headquarters required unnecessarily detailed information on security force disposition, as well as ballot recovery routes and methods, while the State Department had an insatiable thirst for every piece of information related to female voters, female candidates, and election observers. The security transition, combined with pervasive risk-aversion and force reductions, meant, however, that these operations had to be conducted in a highly constrained environment where getting access to the required information was more difficult than ever. Neither US nor coalition military forces would directly observe the election, or have access to the government facilities where the election administrators were located, as they had in previous elections. It was necessary, therefore, to find new means to develop situational understanding during the election.
A standard organization, operating in a traditional, highly constrained command and control environment, would find itself unable to deal with such obstacles. My civil affairs team, however, were able to leverage our position as an edge organization to overcome the constraints. Working horizontally, we immersed ourselves in the Afghan National Army unit we were tasked to advise and, in conjunction with our Afghan counterparts, began to build networks of trust among the provincial and district governments through careful joint planning, rehearsals, and informal relationship building in the months approaching the election. We also developed close relationships with several highly connected non-governmental organizations across the province by offering to share information, coordinate efforts, and address their concerns while drawing on their local experience and knowledge. Most critically, we directly engaged with many highly respected leaders in the province, holding regular meetings with the chairmen of influential religious scholars', peace, and veterans' councils. Vertically, we connected with relevant individuals within the State Department and advisors in the ministries in Kabul, as well as non-governmental and international organizations across the regions, thus maintaining open communication outside the traditional hierarchies.
Outside of these formal networks, we developed extensive social media contacts and closely followed both the formal and social electronic media environment within and around the province. The extensive cellular network that extended even into areas of near-total Haqqani or Taliban control, along with the region's growing internet penetration, gave us access to previously denied areas of the province and allowed us to gather near real-time information from a significant new portion of the population.
Our success was made possible because we understood our status as an edge organization and were able to aggregate information and experience through extended, flattened networks of trust. Although we operated, technically speaking, within a traditional hierarchy as a team attached to a military organization, our position as the only element dedicated to engaging the civil component of the operational environment allowed us to expand our approach to the problem. We were able, moreover, to assist our Afghan counterparts in operating as an edge organization themselves. Already situated in their own country and comfortable within the shared culture and language, they had far more ability than we ever would to develop situational understanding and networks of trust beyond the walls of their bases.
In the days leading up to the election and on election day itself, our network offered real-time access to information across the province, and our experience informed decision making at multiple levels through a credible understanding of the environment. While we could not know everything, we also knew that we didn't need to; our network and experience enabled us to discern exactly what information was important and what was not. Time after time, we refuted erroneous reports from higher echelons and external reporting agencies, thereby preventing unnecessary and potentially dangerous coalition intervention in what had to be a purely Afghan process. Most importantly, we conducted analysis from the edge, combining our experience with the combined knowledge of our trust network to provide reliable information, analyzed in context, to decision makers as they needed it.
The aim of achieving information superiority in warfare is to both find clarity within a complex operational environment and enable commanders to guide the disparate elements that must work in concert to achieve operational objectives. Current military processes do not provide commanders and staffs with the tools and conceptual frameworks they need to operate effectively in a complex and dynamic world. To the contrary, standard information processing, analysis, and "sensemaking" arise from modernist and linear thinking, which not only lead us further from clarity but promise to reveal causal relationships that are in fact unknowable.
At the conclusion of Book 1 of On War, Clausewitz compares the value of experience to the human eye in a dark room: as it "dilates its pupil, draws in the little light there is, by degrees imperfectly distinguishes objects and at last sees them quite accurately, so it is in war with the experienced soldier, while the novice only encounters pitch-dark night." 29 Analysis from the edge, like the pupil of the eye, can aid military forces to see through the darkness of a complex and non-linear era of competition and conflict. There will be many eyes on the battlefields of the present and future, in the form of small special operations units. The persistent challenge is to develop effective processes and systems that can capture these units' understanding of ambiguous operational environments and use it to inform operational and strategic decision making. ²
About the Author(s):
CPT Nicholas R. Dubaz is a US Army civil affairs officer currently studying at the US Naval Postgraduate School.
This is a work of the US federal government and is not subject to copyright protection in the United States. Foreign copyrights may apply.
- David S. Alberts and Richard E. Hayes, Power to the Edge: Command, Control in the Information Age, Information Age Transformation Series (Washington, D.C.: Command and Control Research Project Publication Series, 2003), 5: http://www.dodccrp.org/files/Alberts_Power.pdf
- Harlan Ullman and James P. Wade, Shock & Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance (Philadelphia: Pavilion Press, 2003), 114–15.
- Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, ed. Caleb Carr and Ralph Peters, trans. O. J. Matthijs Jolles (New York: The Modern Library, 2003).
- Ibid., 53.
- Ibid., 59.
- Alvin Toffler, Future Shock (New York: Random House, 1970), 1.
- Ibid., 350, 355.
- Cynthia R. Farina, "False Comfort and Impossible Promises: Uncertainty, Information Overload & the Unitary Executive," University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law 12, no. 2 (2010): 363: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1548014
- James R. Blaker, Transforming Military Force: The Legacy of Arthur Cebrowski and Network Centric Warfare (Westport, Conn.: Praeger Security International, 2007), 45.
- Ibid., 47.
- Ibid., 48.
- Thom Shanker and Matt Richtel, "In New Military, Data Overload Can Be Deadly," New York Times, 16 January 2011: http://www.umsl.edu/~sauterv/DSS4BI/links/17brain.pdf
- Christian Bleuer, "Chechens, Cubans and Other Mythical Beasts of Afghanistan," Ghosts of Alexander (blog), 19 May 2011: http://easterncampaign.com/2011/05/19/chechens-cubans-and-other-mythical-beasts-of-afghanistan/
- Michael D. Moskal, Moises Sudit, and Kedar Sambhoos, "The Role of Information Fusion in Providing Analytical Rigor for Intelligence Analysis" (paper, 14th International Conference on Information Fusion [FUSION], Chicago, Ill., 5–8 July 2011): 1.
- Chris Paparone, The Sociology of Military Science: Prospects for Postinstitutional Military Design (New York: Bloomsbury, 2012), 2.
- Thomas J. Czerwinski, Coping with the Bounds: Speculations on Nonlinearity in Military Affairs (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University, 1998), 9.
- Ibid., 171. See also Alberts and Hayes, Power to the Edge.
- David S. Alberts and Richard E. Hayes, Understanding Command and Control (Washington, D.C.: Command and Control Research Project, 2006), 75.
- Alberts and Hayes, Power to the Edge, 217.
- Alberts and Hayes, Understanding Command and Control, 75.
- Ibid., 77.
- Alberts and Hayes, Power to the Edge, 214.
- Alberts and Hayes, Understanding Command and Control, 63.
- Michael T. Flynn, Matt Pottinger, and Paul D. Batchelor, Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan, Voices from the Field (Washington, D.C.: Center for New American Security, January 2010), 4.
- Moskal, Sudit, and Sambhoos, "The Role of Information Fusion," 1.
- Clausewitz, On War, 56.