Making Information Technology Friend Rather Than Foe

By Sinnreich, Richard Hart | Army, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Making Information Technology Friend Rather Than Foe


Sinnreich, Richard Hart, Army


Imagine the following scenario: U.S. troops engaged in an urban fight are having trouble distinguishing the enemy from noncombatants among whom they've hidden. Monitoring unit icons on his situation display, however, an alert operations officer notices that one friendly platoon seems to be making progress despite the difficulty.

A query to the unit reveals that the platoon is preceding each movement by firing a harmless smoke projectile at every visible gaggle of civilians. As they scatter, armed enemy soldiers among them are revealed just long enough for pre-positioned snipers to take them down. In minutes, the technique is disseminated by e-mail to every other unit engaged in the fight, and soon they also are moving forward.

The incident and the technique are fictitious. The use of information isn't. A report on retail giant Wal-Mart in a recent TIME magazine offers a graphic description of one way-maybe one of the more useful ways-new information technologies can advantage a military force in combat.

Wal-Mart often has been cited as a model of the effective marriage of centralized direction with decentralized execution. While no one doubts that policy emanates from the company's Arkansas headquarters, store managers traditionally have been given considerable latitude in how they run their operations, reflecting Sam Walton's conviction that effective merchandizing acknowledges the uniqueness of each locality's customer base.

But that doesn't mean the boys and girls in Bentonville aren't minding the store, as witness what happened the busy shopping day after Thanksgiving two years ago, when folks at headquarters monitoring nation-wide sales noticed that an attractively priced computer-printer combo wasn't moving.

Except at one store. A call to the store revealed that its manager had broken open one combo carton on the floor to reveal the paired components to shoppers. The information quickly was disseminated throughout the Wal-Mart system and sales soared.

Consider the related sequence of events: (1) Headquarters assembled the combo and priced it reasonably, but failed to anticipate that customers might not recognize they were being offered a two-fer (In war, we would call that "friction"); (2) A store manager diagnosed the problem and used his own initiative to solve it; (3) Alert monitoring supported by real-time information detected the result; (4) The information prompted, not directive guidance, but rather a query to the manager in question; (5) Quick dissemination of his successful initiative enabled the entire Wal-Mart system to exploit it without delay. …

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