Technology and strategy
Updated: Feb 28, 2019
In 3 short days the calendar says November 11th, 2018. On Sunday, it will be 100 years since the first world war ended. Though the second world war dwarfed the first in scale and magnitude, for many, the first world war was "The Great War". Like all times of conflict, the war was marked by great changes in technology and great confusion about the implications of the same technology and it's use. More than anything, it’s the discrepancy between technology and its use that forms our perception of world war one.
Technological change in weaponry is fascinating and terrifying at the same time. Through history, advances in technology have made some weapons "undesirable" or even forbidden as the implications of them upset the order of things or was deemed inhumane.
In the early middle ages, the crossbow was such a weapon. In a time when noblemen packed in heavy armor feared only opponents of their own social status, the crossbow upset the entire social order, as a farmer could suddenly wound or kill a nobleman. From a distance even. Simply because the arrow could pierce the armor plating. Until then, a common foot soldier stood no chance against the charge of heavy cavalry lines. Thus, the use of crossbows was deemed undesirable by the Catholic Church. Over time, the use of crossbows was allowed by the church if the war was waged against "heretics", infidels and the like. Later, if the war was "just". But the crossbow was in use in every conflict – simply because it is an effective weapon.
You might want to hold on to that thought, because that's a principle you see. Effective means will always be used. No matter the implications.
APPLYING STRATEGIES AT ODDS WITH TECH IMPLICATIONS
In the period preceding WW1, the French were among the first to use the recoil mechanism to push out the grenade cannister when firing artillery guns. Having already made the transition to breech-loading guns, this technique made reloads even faster. However, the munitions tables were based on the Franco-Prussian war from 1870-71. Thus, on the brink of war, a French artillery unit firing at full speed would spend a year's supply of grenades in just 15 minutes.
With the outbreak of war, this discrepancy posed an immediate problem: How do you source the materials needed to produce grenades in great (unfathomable) numbers? How do you process enough metal? How do you transport it all (in a time when cars and trucks were very limited)? Who is going to produce it all, when all the men are off to war? All this of course, is an "industrial age" problem: Sourcing, production, logistics.
Another invention linked to WW1 is the machine-gun. Using the same principle of using the recoil mechanism – this time to load a new round – firing speed greatly increased. A 2-man team could now defend a wide field of fire against great masses of attackers.
And now for the implications. Or rather, the lack of ability to deal with implications. If you – and the enemy – can fire off endless quantities of artillery shells and spray machine gun bullets over the entire horizon, why would you then have a standard strategy of attacking over large stretches of open land providing no cover?
The result can be seen in any French village on the memorial board. Entire generations of young men wiped out by the failure to apply more befitting tactics. A national trauma. The same is true in any other country who was part of the conflict.
WE GOT IT NOW, RIGHT?
"Sure, but that was a long time ago. Everybody can see, that the tactics made NO sense". Well, they did at the time. For years on end. At the highest level of decision-making. Today, the technologies have changed, but people still have a very hard time making sense of the IMPLICATIONS of technology.
Rather than changing the whole basic, underlying line of thinking, people are prone to try to "adapt". For long periods of time. Not realizing that the only thing that is going to save them is radical change. Of mindset, skills and processes.
These days, "agile" is the new black. Design Thinking. Preto-typing. All new, you might think.
Well, not quite. As the war changed character during the middle of the 19th century, the commander could no longer be present at the battle field. He could no longer maintain a full view of events. So, responsibility had to be delegated to field commanders. But how?
The Prussian Army not only invented the staff system – since copied by every army and organization in the world – they also understood that the field commander needed extensive training. Of body and mind. Maneuvers – field training – was first conducted as complex board games. Then evolved into actual field exercise.
The Prussian army was also the first to implement a system of "open orders". In these, field commanders were given an objective and resources. He then had to – on his own, based on his judgment – provide a plan for the achievement of the goal in question. Sounds familiar?
When you make decisions, you cannot deduce all implications of your decision. Thus, the Prussian and later the German army stated that it was preferable to "make a decision fast" and execute it aggressively than to wait "too long" for a "correct" decision. At the same time stressing the need for "ongoing and constant assessment".
The working principle here of course is "short feedback loops". The center principle in all things agile. Not new. Implemented by the Prussian Army in the late 19th century.
JUST ONE MORE THING
Exponential technologies poses a whole new set of implications and challenges. That must be new, right? Well, not quite.
During the 3 wars between Prussia and its adversaries between 1864 and 1871 (leading to the proclamation of the German nation in 1871) – just 7 years – the geographic spread of the war increased by 1.500%. The number of men mobilized increased by 1.000%. But the time that could be spent for mobilizing de-creased by 400%.
The way the Prussian army dealt with these challenges has led to the foundation of everything you know today about running an effective organization. Open orders. Short feedback loops. Resource allocation. Transport. Logistics. Staff systems. Technology application. Tactics. Training.
Come Sunday, take a moment to think about WW1. The millions of casualties on all sides. The families affected. They demand our respect.
At 11 am, it will be 100 years since this greatest of conflicts ended. It laid the foundations for what we now know as state sponsored pensions – countries "fit for heroes". It played a vital role in the emancipation of women. In certain minorities obtaining new rights as they had now fought for their country. International organizations of front soldiers trying to cope. Feeling they were not being understood by their local societies, they formed organizations including their former enemies - working together in adressing common problems. The first go at forming what we now know as UN was another piece of social innovation linked to WW1.
Also, think about how all that is true about the discrepancy between technology and tactics might be true in the current (battle)field of business.