Imagine a military regiment holding a position of key tactical importance, let’s say a bridge. Situational awareness is crucial. The success of the operation depends on access to information that can inform situational awareness, and provide tactical & strategic advantage. In other words, a situation where information is nothing short of vital.
Such a regiment would have access to a large-scale technological intelligence network: aircraft spotters, satellite-mounted motion sensors, heat detectors, and communication eavesdroppers. Commanders with high-bandwidth taps into the supporting intelligence network should have access to vital information to enable decision-making while in the field.
Now let’s imagine that an opposing force seven times the size of this regiment began approaching from three directions. Such a force should not be difficult to detect given the field intelligence available; yet that’s exactly what happened according to David Talbot’s story published in 2004’s MIT Technology Review about the U.S. Army’s 69th Armor Regiment holding a key bridge on the Euphrates River in 2003.
This story perfectly illustrates the problem of vertical vs horizontal knowledge.
The problem was, front-line troops had terrible situational awareness because the flow of information was inhibited by a vertical command-and-control structure (rather than a horizontal flow).
Information had to travel up the chain of command so that major commanders in the rear could interpret it, and then send their decisions back down the line. This resulted in huge latency; the information was there, it just wasn’t getting to the people who needed it when it mattered most.
Talbot’s story goes on to contrast the organizational structure of SPEC-OPS forces organized into small teams of two-dozen; rather than being linked to a single central command, the teams were networked to each other with a designated individual per team responsible for managing flow of information (between their team and the others’).
In these special forces units, flow of information was “flat”, or horizontal; leadership contributions & decision making involved every team member, not just the official designated leader.
In this Process Street article, we’ll be looking at how you can implement horizontal knowledge management in your organization.