OK. So perhaps the title is a little bit of literary license, because I doubt if General McChrystal has heard of or given much thought to the concept of knowledge strategy.
But that’s really a bit of speculation because I know very little about McChrystal. I know he retired in July 2010, and that he was often in the news but for all I know, perhaps he is a leader who thinks a lot about knowledge development and knowledge sharing, what we like to call “KD/KS.”
Now, in interview in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, General McChrystal offers a wide variety of interesting disclosures on several subjects. And for those of us working in the knowledge domain, one story in particular is of special interest. We can sit up and take notice as he describes how the U.S. Special Forces framework was re-shaped over recent years.
Indeed, what he puts forward is a good description of how knowledge management (KM) and knowledge services can be used to structure an effective performance network regardless of the work situation in which they are applied.
Prior to 9/11, McChrystal notes, the counterterrorist effort was “narrowly focused and centralized; you only did occasional operations with a high degree of intelligence and a tremendous amount of secrecy.”
After 9/11, the enemy changed its way of working, with Al Qaeda and “associated movements” shaping themselves into “an enemy network that you couldn’t just react to but actually had to dismantle, [including] a very complex battlefield – not just terrorism but also social problems, an insurgency, and sectarian violence.”
How to deal with the “new” enemy? And the new challenges?
Learn to understand the problem, McChrystal says, and he offers a valuable framework of his own: “…we had to become a network ourselves – to be connected across all parts of the battlefield, so that every time something occurred and we gathered intelligence or experience from it, information flowed very, very quickly.”
It’s a terrific story General McChrystal tells, and Generation Kill: A Conversation with Stanley McChrystal is an eye-opening interview, coming on the publication of his book, My Share of the Task: A Memoir, released by Penguin Group (USA) in January.
Did the new special operations effort succeed?
It took time, and it meant finding the knowledge-sharing and collaborative solutions that worked, to enable a network that would “operate at a speed that was not even considered before, not in our wildest dreams.”
Was there a secret to the success? I think so.
Here’s what I think was the key “piece,” the critical element to this new way of operating: “It had to have decentralized decision-making,” McChrystal said, “…you can’t centralize ten raids a night. You have to understand them all, but you have to allow your subordinate elements to operate very quickly.”
And does General McChrystal take the credit?
Not at all.
Hear how he concludes this story:
“So that was the revolution. I didn’t do it. The organization I was part of became this learning organization. If I take any credit, it is for loosening the reins and yelling ‘Giddyup!’ a lot. I allowed, encouraged, required the team to push forward. And they just rose to the occasion.”
Perhaps that’s what knowledge strategy is all about: Allow. Encourage. Require the team to push forward. Let them rise to the occasion.
[Note: You must register or have a subscription to read the Foreign Affairs article – better yet, access it in the library you use.]
Obviously an humble man, General McChrystal’s leadership and vision fostered strategic learning in the organization by empowering its people with a decentralized decision-making process. And yet he allowed it to happen. Thanks Guy for this article.