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Asked what they do, most public servants will talk in terms of positions in the hierarchy, or perhaps reflecting, broadly, the words in their position description.

But work (perhaps I should capitalise it: Work) is a much misunderstood concept, particularly—but not exclusively—in the Australian Public Service. Much work is hidden from formal view, and sometimes from the ‘public face’ of the organisation or sub-organisational group.

We can think of work in in two dimensions, transparency and formality, as set out below. Formal, open work is that described in position statements. Formal, behind-the-scenes work—such as team-building and collaboration—may be acknowledged in position statements.Work and reform

Informal work includes the ‘articulation work’ needed to adjust in the face of shifting, often unexpected circumstances, to work around problems and roadblocks, to deal with the consequences of distributed teams and changing understandings, and to get back on track (Star and Strauss 1999). Articulation work is likely to be non-discretionary—it’s needed to get the job done—but unrecognised.

When there is a misfit between the formal, overt expression of work and the actual work needed, articulation work increases. And as technology changes and cultural norms within the workplace evolve, articulation work increases.

The difficulty for anyone experiencing a reform program is that such reform teams often only acknowledge the formal, overt expression of work—position descriptions, in public service terms. They may acknowledge, even encourage collaboration, but show no awareness of the articulation work needed to support successful change, collaboration, and the constant adjustment of the workplace.

A focus on position descriptions increases the likelihood of misfit, hence greater informal work, especially articulation work.

Granularising work into individual positions perpetuates the production line mentality that tends to prevail in the public service, particularly in the rigid hierarchies of Defence.

It encourages reform efforts to see work as a linear, stepwise production line in which individual components can made more efficient and streamlined—the fallacy of likening work to tyre changes in a pitstop. It focusses on outputs, not outcomes.

Such views of reform completely miss the point. Defence will remain broken until it sheds such rigid, brittle, antiquated strait jackets of thought. That includes the notion prevalent particularly in the military that so long as the process is right, good things automatically follow.

Work is an intensely social activity. It bears all the attributes of any social activity: it is intensely non-linear, involving trial and error, the testing of ideas, artefacts and relations against the expectations of superiors, colleagues, peers and norms, a mix of exploration, confluence and opportunism.

And work is highly contextual: the work—and its convergence of purpose, intensity, support, technologies, skills, experience, personalities, rewards—needed to change a tyre in a pitstop are just that, suited to change a tyre in a pitstop. They don’t easily transfer out of that context.

In contrast to that 60 or six seconds in a pitstop, policy advising and intelligence analysis are—or should be—rigorous, rounded, inquisitive, judgmental and creative. Aside from sitting uncomfortably within bureaucracies, these are attributes are not suited to a production-line, efficiency-oriented, output-focussed mentality.

How should such reform efforts proceed, then? First, the heads of reform programs would be well advised to seek a better understanding of work, of the different types of work and their contexts at a individual, a group and an organisational level. Second, they should avoid the rigidity of position descriptions, and encourage more freedom for teams to devise their own work behaviours. Third, recognition of the existence of articulation work—but not formalising it, as that detracts from adaptability—would help reform program and managers ensure teams and teams members at all levels are better supported.


Star, Susan Leigh and Strauss, Anselm (1999), ‘Layers of Silence, Arenas of Voice: The Ecology of Visible and Invisible Work’, Computer Supported Co-operative Work, 8, 9-30.

Three pieces recently caught my attention:

They’re short pieces, so I recommend reading each.  But together they point to more deeper systemic change—and here I’m pushing further some of the points raised by Tom Mahnken in particular.  I’ll make a start here on some of those issues, and add to them over the next few days.

First, like the printing press, present-day information technologies have weakened traditional state structures and processes.  Take the military itself.  That sacrosanct element of the modern, western conventional armed forces, the command structure, is being challenged by its senior-most echelons.  True, senior officers could always reach down to direct junior underlings.  But now information technologies have much enhanced the ability of senior commanders to reach down, real-time, around the slower chain of command to the point of attention.  Consider comments by the-then CDF, Peter Cosgrove, in 2003:

For me, the first two hours of a relatively long day were spent poring over the website reading the various reports, following up on them by email, by telephone and face-to-face.


Our Special forces could send us data including images from enemy territory. We could send them, from any level of command, anything from military orders to the rugby scores.

That reach-down can have an erosive effect on confidence within the chain of command.    Because they can, every issue–most often tactical matters–becomes worthy of the attention of the chief of service or defence force.

And it has a further consequence.  Modern technologies allow generals to relive their days as lieutenants and captains in the field without the attendant dangers.  They risk falling into the trap of addressing the problem they felt they could solve—as they had before—rather than those they should attempt to solve (Dörner 1996).  And it reinforces the focus of attention on the tactical over the operational, let alone strategic.

The issues aren’t confined to the military, but affect governance and accountability.  In a certain worlds, focussing purely on the tactical, once setting the direction, can suffice to achieve good outcomes.  But that’s not the world we live in.  Our strategic environment is fluid, changing, and as it shifts and changes our interests, goals and the best means to achieve them also change.  We need a constant dialogue between the strategic, the operational and the tactical, and a much more adaptable approach.  That’s hard to achieve in a system that inherently assumes stasis and stability, promotes dated benchmarks, and seeks to enforce certainty through tightly coupling capability to a parsimonious strategic vision.

Software development, of course, brings its own challenges.  Software development is an inherently creative process, not conducive to Taylorist approaches or waterfall models of project management (Brooks, 1995).

One of the relationships that is changing as a result of technology is that between civilian oversight and the military, worthy of a point of its own.   One of Mahnken’s colleagues, Peter Feaver, along with Damon Coletta, wrote on the effect of information technologies on civil-military relations in 2006 (Coletta and Feaver 2006).  They describe how in Kosovo and Bosnia, General Clark was able to operate under the radar of civilian monitoring, facilitated by information technologies:

  • first, the coordination of multiple assets in different planning domains, not all of which were visible to the civilian establishment; and
  • second, shifting targeting away from fixed assets, on which civilians had focussed and to mobile, ground assets, exploiting the advantages of battlefield command and control technologies and the notion of the sphere of professionalism: ‘…Clark was able to import elements of [his] tactical philosophy to the strategic campaign.’ (p118)  That in turn resulted in the loosening of civilian oversight of some aspects of the campaign while tightening others.

So while in principle information technologies should enable improved oversight and monitoring of the military domain by civilians, they by no means guarantee such an outcome (Coletta and Feaver 2006, p120-1).  Instead, information technologies generate a dynamism that permit military agents to exploit the very flexibility civilian principles require in pursuing political ends–decision-makers cannot be absolutely rigid in their statements of objectives, but must leave room for manouevre, compromise and even opportunism.

Coletta and Feaver acknowledge a concern expressed by Singer: the intrusive nature of information technologies could erode military autonomy and so professionalism (p110).  But it need not take civilians to generate such an effect: arguably we are seeing it already as generals seek to second guess the tactical judgments and overrule the commands of their more junior officers in the field, as noted above.

The second effect is more insidious: the fluidity and bandwidth generated by information technologies effectively loosens civilian control.  It’s harder for civilian decision-makers to ensure the distance between themselves and the military, provide certainty as to aims and objectives, and to specify and enforce constraints.  And it’s hard for civilian advisers to gain sufficient familiarity with military systems in fast-moving environments to assist with that oversight.  More than ever it is up to the military to help ensure civilian knowledge and control of themselves and their mission.


Brooks, F. P. (1995). The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering. Reading, MA, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Coletta, D. and P. D. Feaver (2006). “Civilian Monitoring of US Military Operations in the Information Age.” Armed Forces & Society 33(1): 106-126.

Dörner, D. (1996). The Logic of Failure. New York, Basic Books.

The evolution of the house cat. (Scientific American)

Twitter is less a peer-to-peer social networking tool and more a uni-directional, one-to-many publishing tool. (Harvard Business)

Ray Kurzweil reminding us of the continuing exponential growth in information technologies, and announcing the launch of Singularity University. (TED)

Thinking of lessons learned: Confessions of a Car Czar. (Free Exchange)

The internet is a wonderful thing: there are so many people smarter than you, and you can build on their ideas.

Kevin Kelly—unbeknownst to him—has started filling in some of the gaps on the social side of the transition.  In the latest Wired, Kelly argues that technology is driving digital culture towards what he calls the ‘new socialism’.  This new socialism, possibly ‘the newest American invention’, is the outcome of the evolution from sharing to cooperation to collaboration to collectivism, at least of a sort that seems to work and work well. 

The following, from Kelly’s article, shows the elements of change:

The Old Socialism 

The New Socialism

Authority centralized among elite officials

Power distributed among ad hoc participants

Limited resources dispensed by the state

Unlimited, free cloud computing

Forced labor in government factories

Volunteer group work a la Wikipedia

Property owned in common

Sharing protected by Creative Commons

Government- controlled information

Real-time Twitter and RSS feeds

Harsh penalties for criticizing leaders

Passionate opinions on the Huffington Post

Source: (Kelly 2009)

Personally I prefer Virginia Postrel’s formulation of statists and dynamists.  Certainly, there is a strong libertarian flavour to Kelly’s new socialists. 

And I think a number of these elements or trends will evolve further.  For example, what lies beyond Creative Commons? Cory Doctorow’s DIY digital licensing? 

What does the new socialism means for security?  Here’s a few suggestions:

  • The further fraying of the traditional state, as individuals work, collaborate and play without reference to states and state institutions
  • Online vigilantes and counter vigilantes—the rebirth of the citizen army, but one founded on community of ideas, even (worryingly) romantic ideas of the state, place, tribe or belonging, with all the possibilities allowed by cyber-mobilisation (Kurth Cronin 2006) through to Armies of Davids (Reynolds 2006)
  • Increased transparency, as information is uploaded, mashed and blogged yielding deeper analysis and insight
  • An increasing amount of misinformation, as information is uploaded, mashed and blogged with specific, often hidden, intent
  • Trust and reputation become increasingly important for strategic analysis, with policy-makers, advisers and commentators looking to ‘brands’ for synthesis and insight
  • Emerging bipolarity in strategic analysis and policy: a deep conservatism—stick with what you know—risking sclerotic paralysis; and a nervous tick, reacting to every item in the 24 hour new cycle and risking incoherence
  • Community emergency response, as per Ushahidi, competing with dedicated, formal command and control hierarchies 
  • A nation-state counter-reformation, as nation-states seek to re-exert control over activity, work, information and taxable assets and incomes

And possibilities?  How about online red-teaming of the next Defence White Paper, UK Strategic Defence Review or US Quadrennial Defense Review?


Kelly, K. (2009). The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society Is Coming Online. Wired

Kurth Cronin, A. (2006). “Cyber-mobilization: the New Levée en Masse.” Parameters: 76-87.

Postrel, V. (1998). The Future and Its Enemies. New York, Touchstone.

Reynolds, G. H. (2006). An Army of Davids, Nelson Current.

Kenneth Payne argues that unconventional, asymmetric and hybrid wars aren’t new, but that Western militaries have evolved away from that such warfare.  The challenges to the Western way of warfare have arisen have done so because of trends in society and changes to the nation-state.   

In particular, Payne argues that the post-modern Western military has arisen from the changing relationship between the citizen, states and soldiers.  So that now, 

western society and western militaries have discovered that they must fight foes who use ‘conventional capabilities, irregular tactics and formations, terrorist acts including indiscriminate violence and coercion, and criminal disorder’. And, being postmodern, their approach will necessarily differ from the colonial and imperial approaches of earlier times.

I wonder if there’s more to it.  If I recall correctly–I haven’t the book or my notes to hand, and so may have to correct myself later–Charles Tilly argued the modern state emerged because it offered the best means, through the concentration of capital and labour, to exert force.  

So perhaps there’s another dynamic at play.  Perhaps it’s possible that through globalisation, technological and societal change, and the ability to exert force in different ways, new stable and sustainable forms of organisation are emerging–have emerged–and are offering alternative, viable means to use force to greatest effect.   After all, there’s no reason why the nation-state should be the end point of evolution in human organisation.  If so, we are entering a time of considerable, and probably bloody, dynamism, as not simply states and non-state groups but organisational forms compete.

Tilly also noted that, confronted with something that didn’t look like a state, Western nations did their best to make sure that the entity became a state, that it was bought into the fold–or destroyed.   Certainly that has reflected conventional approaches.  In the past Western empires and states bought off and eradicated tribes and colonised voraciously.  We now seek to ‘reconstruct’ weak and broken states to look like us.  We seek to eliminate al Qaeda not simply because of the threat it poses to lives, but through its use of force it threatens directly the nation-state as dominant organising principle.  And at least one international relations scholar has suggested that the Caliphate should be restored so that nation-states can deal with an entity they recognise.  But if alternative organisational forms are strengthening, it will become harder to apply ‘conventional’ methods.  


Bell, C. (2007). The End of the Vasco de Gama Era: The Next Landscape of World Politics. Lowy Institute Paper. Sydney, Lowy Institute.

Tilly, C. (1990). Coercion, Capital and the European States AD990-1990. Cambridge, MA, Basil Blackwell.

June 2017
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