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Our outcomes are enduring because they are culturally tailored and acceptable from the outset. This approach is effective whether the cultural divide is due to unfamiliarity in the international community or just between domestic regions or business sectors.

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Strategic Social brings a unique, industry-best approach to achieving success in complex environments. Our robust efforts are guided by a simple process: Understand, Empathize, Engage, and Transact.

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Sequestration: Cutting the Fat and the Muscle

Though much has been said over the last year about the benefits and dangers of sequestration, the reality of the impending automatic budget cuts is beginning to set in for many politicians who previously supported the action. At the Brookings Institution’s “Sequestration and the Nation’s Defense: Prospects and Perils” experts largely agreed with many members of Congress that the sweeping cuts threaten national security. This consensus is based in two arguments: the nation’s debt acting as a security threat in its own right, or that sharp reductions in the budget translate directly to reduced U.S. military capability.

Martin Indyk and Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings wrote that “four straight years of trillion-dollar deficits…leave the country weaker…Obama’s foreign policy successes will matter little if the economy ultimately can’t support American power.” The Bipartisan Policy Center agrees, saying “growing deficits and debt will erode our prosperity and leadership in the world.” Peter Singer calls U.S. debt “more like that of Greece than a superpower.” O’Hanlon reiterated to  the Senate Budget Committee that “federal debt and with it the possible erosion of our national economic foundations have become national security threats themselves.”

While this debt issue has led to near universal approval of budget cuts, the problem with the sequester is that it cuts directly into the military’s perceived “fat” just as much as its recognized “muscle.”

President Obama’s most recent budget will reduce the size of the Army by 72,000 troops and the Marine Corps by 20,000. If the sequester takes effect the Army, Army Reserve, and Army National Guard will lose an additional 100,000 soldiers according to Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff. The Marine Corps will lose an additional 18,000 Marines, which, according to the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, would render the Marines incapable of performing a single contingency operation. Reducing the size of the U.S. active duty military so dramatically is detrimental as it forces the country to use its National Guard for combat missions the service was never intended for, i.e. “the backdoor draft.”

As it exists now, defense projects will be cut, but not in a way that rationally saves money. Because the sequester is 15-percent, across-the-board cuts, it looks at budget numbers rather than rational areas for cuts. Furthermore, Steve Bell noted that lawsuits and damages claims can result in “more than $500 billion” in cuts. The reason being, if a contract is only partially completed and then canceled, the government has a legal obligation to compensate the contractors. Therefore, canceling large contracts does not necessarily translate into large savings. Additionally, the sequester would affect old and new defense projects equally. A new research program and a nearly-completed weapon system would both be cut 15 percent. The problem being that a 15-percent cut would likely lead to 100-percent failure of smaller programs.

Despite the national debt, the U.S. cannot afford to diminish its military readiness, making way for the rise of current and potential adversaries.  The debt must be cut and a reduced defense budget most certainly will be a part of the solution along with substantial entitlement reform and possible tax increases. Unfortunately, the sequester achieves neither financial nor military security.

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Web 3.0 and Beyond: The Semantic Web

Reposted from Strategic Technologies By Oleg Svet

“You can’t unread this sentence.”

I remember seeing that on a website once, after spending hours on the computer researching a topic, mostly through open-source search engines like Google.  Ironically, I was researching the positive sides of Web 2.0, trying to see what products the next wave in the frenzied gold rush of Web 2.0 will bring to our society.  Through applications like Facebook and YouTube, Web 2.0 has given users the ability to upload and share their own unique products (videos, music, writing, and so on) onto the Internet.  Easier access to a greater pool of information has its obvious benefits, from bringing about innovative technologies to providing users with greater varieties of entertainments.  Individuals have unquestionably been empowered by these technologies.

But Web 2.0 has also had its costs.  I do not mean this in the sense that Web 2.0 applications can be as easily used by nefarious actors as anyone else (although that is also a problem.)  I’m talking about the cognitive costs imposed by these new applications: a user researching a topic on-line runs into the potential problem of cognitive overload.  Much (if not most) of the information that users come across is useless, which brings me back to the first line in this blog:  “You can’t unread this sentence.”  All of that information that consumers read and digest on-line stays in their brain.  We sit for hours at our desk, taking in countless bytes of information from countless sources, and store it in our brain.  The cognitive burdens of this process lead us to develop mechanisms by which we don’t miss any of the headlines, so that we do not stay out of the loop or miss something really important.  The unfortunate consequence is that we don’t necessarily get any depth, and we develop attention deficit disorder.  Because of the cognitive overload imposed by the Internet on our brain, our attention has been reduced to 140 characters on a Twitter feed.

This is not something inherent in the internet itself.  It is, rather, a product of Web 2.0’s relative youth.  Today we are witnessing the frantic gold rush of Web 2.0, but with time, the Web will mature.  My guess is that Web 3.0, and whatever the next phase in the evolution of the web is (some call it “The Semantic Web”), will narrow down all of that information so that the user does not have to face today’s cognitive overload.  Information will be narrowed down and simplified.  Web 3.0 will smooth out the rough edges of Web 2.0.

Web 3.0

EPN, a Dutch think tank that studies the impact of information technologies on society, released an interesting video on the evolution of Web 1.0, Web 2.0, and Web 3.0.  According to EPN,  in the next step in the evolution of the web, technologies will become invisibly present in every day appliances; for example, as you will be travelling in your car, different bits of information — traveling times, GPS locations, multiple itineraries, restaurant sites, and weather information—will all be synchronized in real time.  Those appliances will communicate with each other through the web to meet our individual needs (they will not form an all knowing, omniscient computer that surpasses human intelligence.)  In some ways, this version of Web 3.0 is already happening, although in the next step of the Web development, less human direction will supposedly be needed.  For example, I recently purchased an iMac, and with it got a wireless printer.  The printer is completely disconnected from my computer (as is my wireless key board and my wireless mouse.)  However, any document I create on my computer can be sent wirelessly to my printer.  Both my iMac and my work laptop can send documents to be printed out on it.  In the world of Web 3.0, there will be more appliances like that, and they will probably be able to communicate and recognize each other more easily.  The web will become more present in every day appliances, augmenting our reality, but it will also be less visibly present.

Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, delivered an interesting response when asked what Web 3.0 means.  Schmidt couldn’t define precisely what it will be, but he gave the following characteristics of what he thinks Web 3.0 will look like: applications will be pieced together; applications will be small; data will be stored in the cloud; applications will run on any device (PC or mobile phones); applications will be fast, and customizable; and applications will be able to be distributed virally (sent from person to person).  Perhaps we will start trading products on-line (e.g. Kindle users will be able to “loan” on-line books to friends.)

Professor Abraham Bernstein, a professor at the University of Zurich who explores natural language processing through the web, delivered a Google TechTalk in which he described how these new technologies can be used to make web technologies more accessible.  His vision of the Semantic Web is a place where semi-structured information can be processed in a machine way, using inductive and deductive reasoning to get somewhere.  Bernstein’s notion of the Semantic Web is simple yet complex: rather than putting out pages of information (as you did on Web 2.0), on Web 3.0 you will be putting out different assertions or statements, and complex algorithms will piece those assertions together to create a cognitively simple and factually correct product.

Many technologists call the step after Web 3.0 the Semantic Web, predicting the year 2020 as the year in which the web took the next step in its evolution.

The Semantic Web

First off, what is meant by “Semantic”?  As a short and useful YouTube video on Semantic Web points out, syntax is how you say something, whereas semantic is the meaning of what you say.   Both are parts of communication.  For example, the statements “I love technology” and “I Heart technology” have different syntax, but similar semantics.  Though said differently, they share the same meaning.  Reading both statements on a Twitter post, a human will be able to recognize that both mean the same thing.  However, we have not gotten to the point where a computer can pick up the semantics of statements.

The internet gave a medium for computers to communicate with each other, but computers merely mimic human communication.  Computers were not designed to teach human beings what the information means, only provide them with a tool to share that information.  The Web created a storage and withdrawal database for us to quickly retrieve information, using HTML as the syntax.

So how are the Internet, the Web, and HTML related to the Semantic Web?  Wikipedia defines the Semantic Web as “a group of methods and technologies to allow machines to understand the meaning – or ‘semantics’ – of information on the World Wide Web.”  So the Internet allowed us to communicate with each other, the web lets us store and retrieve any document, and search engines created a way to retrieve that data.  Computers don’t understand the meaning, they only understand the syntax.   The semantic web will, in theory, make our lives easier by helping computers get us what we want by developing complex algorithms that account for human factors.

Accounting for human factors will undoubtedly make our lives easier, much in the same way as ergonomics has enabled the development of car seats that are better for our back.  The semantic web will never fully account for human differences, but it will simplify the process of storing, sharing, and using information from the Web, making our lives easier.

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Countering Taliban PSYOPS and Interdicting Insurgent Propaganda Networks

Reposted from Social Technologies (10/4/10)

Taliban’s Narrative

Journalist Ernesto Londono wrote an interesting article in the Washington Post on October 1, 2010 entitled “U.S. struggles to counter Taliban propaganda.” [1] The article delineates how the Taliban is striving to defeat NATO psychologically by delivering messages that highlight NATO as close to being defeated.

U.S. officials and Afghan analysts say the Taliban has become adept at portraying the West as being on the brink of defeat, at exploiting rifts between Washington and Kabul and at disparaging the administration of President Hamid Karzai as a “puppet” state with little reach outside the capital. The group is also attempting to assure Afghans that it has a strategy for governing the country again, presenting a platform of stamping out corruption and even protecting women’s rights.

Arguably the most interesting development in Taliban messaging is the change in tone towards the “rights of all people in the country, including women.” In an apparent attempt to counter negative press around its treatment of women, Taliban leader Mohammad Omar recently said that a new Taliban regime would respect the rights of women.

Last month, Taliban leader Mohammad Omar issued a statement that heralded the imminent defeat of NATO forces in Afghanistan and outlined how the Taliban would govern when it returned to power. … Omar also promised the new regime would respect the rights of “all people in the country, including women,” an apparent effort to dispel the widely held belief that the return of the Taliban would be dismal for women’s rights.

Taliban’s Methods of Information Dissemination

As this blog mentioned before, the Taliban’s propaganda efforts rely on local, traditional means of information dissemination: leaflets with threats or please, religious sermons, and radio stations.

The Taliban continues to rely heavily on decentralized, conventional propaganda efforts, which U.S. military officials say is the crucial battleground. These include the distribution of leaflets with threats or pleas, sermons in mosques and clandestine radio stations.

Like good lobbyists, the Taliban has also begun to build relationship with Afghan journalists to influence the information environment:

U.S. officials say the Taliban has built relationships with Afghan journalists that help the group shape the storyline.

The Taliban’s multimillion-dollar propaganda campaign, headquartered in Pakistan, has also apparently started to use Twitter and Facebook:

As the radical Islamist movement steps up conventional grass-roots propaganda efforts and polishes its online presence - going so as far as to provide Facebook and Twitter icons online that allow readers to disseminate press releases - the U.S.-led coalition finds itself on the defensive in the media war.

Interdicting Insurgent Propaganda Networks

The Taliban’s relationship with journalists has recently sparked a row between Karzai and the U.S., which detained two al-Jazeera cameramen who allegedly distributed Taliban propaganda. In an attempt to justify the arrests, NATO issued a statement saying that “Coalition and Afghan forces have a responsibility to interdict the activities of these insurgent propaganda networks.” Karzai criticized the arrest and pressed for the release of the journalists, who denied that they were distributing Taliban propaganda. The journalists were ultimately released, but NATO maintained that intelligence sources “indicated a level of complicity” between the journalists and insurgents.

Recommendations

To counter Taliban propaganda, I would offer the same three recommendations that my article in Small Wars Journal offered. [2] The U.S.-led Coalition should:

(1) use more traditional and accessible methods of communication;

(2) incorporate ethnographic data into its messages;

(3) focus the overall narrative on the country’s tribal and socio-cultural legacies rather than religious aspects.

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Social Networking can be an Antidote for Siloed Organizations

Is anyone else old enough to remember that classic TV advertisement Cher did for Jack LaLanne Fitness Centers?  The provocatively clad Cher remarks, “If it came in a bottle, everyone would have a great body.”

Jack LaLanne Health Spa Commercial with CHER

It’s interesting to note that Jack LaLanne is no longer around but Cher sure is.  She’s still out there working it at sixty-four!

The point of the ad—anything worth having takes effort—is appropriate to many common challenges in the more mundane world of business.  Recently I’ve been thinking about the pervasiveness of siloed or stove-piped organizations and how challenging it is to get teams of people working across functional lines and outside of established frameworks.  Of course, many see the benefits of this but breaking old habits is hard work and takes committed, concerted effort.

Social Networking and the tools that enable it can be an effective solution to the problem of siloed organizations.    Information and resource siloes occur for many reasons but the principle reason is they are just plain easier to manage.  Functional heads act as gatekeepers of information, employees are instructed to “stay in their lane”, information flows up and down the line or is made accessible on a “need to know” basis.  For organizations that are geographically dispersed, the effect is more pronounced and the flow of information or the availability of shared resources poses an even greater challenge. More often than not the effort of cross-functional teamwork just doesn’t happen, because it is just “too hard.”

So, yes, matrix-style,  non-siloed organizations can be more difficult to manage and introduce new layers of complexity and perhaps a certain measure of uncertainty and risk.  But in my experience there are a few steps companies can take to “ease the pain” of breaking down established organizational hierarchies and tap into the creative power of the organization at large:

1)     Organize key initiatives around cross-functional project teams.  Most big projects require the efforts of staff across the entire organization, but too often, results are tracked and evaluated within the functional framework and priorities.  But when project teams are established, with goals and milestones clearly understood, collaboration and problem solving can happen more seamlessly.

2)     Reward employees thinking and working outside of information silos. Breaking the habit of siloed thinking requires a cultural shift in some companies.  Everyone throughout the organization needs to see that cross-functional effort is valued and rewarded.  Lessons learned—both positive and negative need to be captured and shared.

3)     Set boundaries & define roles.  A matrixed organization is not a license for anarchy.   Team members still need to have clearly defined roles everyone needs to know who is in the role of decision-maker, and who is mainly in the assist role.  If everyone thinks they are merely contributing to the project, but not ultimately accountable for anything, chaos can ensue.

4)     If there is friction, or if toes get stepped on, try not to sweat it.  Business can be a contact sport and there is bound to be a little body-checking from time-to-time.  Things can get heated at times but learn to accept that this is part of progress.

5)     Cross-train as many people in your organization as possible.   I am a huge proponent of cross-training.  It can have the profound effect of breaking people out of siloed thinking.  It broadens employees skill sets, creates a more resilient organization and promotes a more stimulating work environment.  It’s hard, and even disruptive, but it pays big dividends.

6)     Make sure your organization has the right tools to enable Social Networking and cross-functional  teamwork.    Here at Strategic Social, we understand the importance of technology for streamlining and enabling a cross-functional culture. For example, MediaMAS is a robust web-accessible, permission-based database is essential for getting far-flung teams “on the same page.”  Likewise the Strategic Social Platform is communication and collaboration portal, designed to facilitate information dissemination, and speed-up decision-making. It features a customizable dashboard that provides access to shared files, discussion boards, and feeds to external sources such as RSS, Flicker, Twitter and YouTube.

None of these steps is a guarantee for success.  There are organizations out there that succeed at some level with the same structured, siloed habits they’ve had for decades.  But they will find it increasingly difficult to compete with matrix organizations that are learning and refining the art of working across clearly defined verticals.  It can be hard work.  Not everyone is going to do it.  But the organizations that perfect the skills will be better equipped for the long-haul.

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Persistent Knowledge

Failure to learn from history dooms us to repeat our mistakes and failing to capitalize on our successes.  Over my years in business I have had both failures and successes.   Learning from my mistakes has been valuable.  Learning from the mistakes of those who have gone before me has been even more valuable.  In the past year I have logged enough frequent flier miles to make an airline executive blush.  My travels have been to Iraq, Afghanistan and many other locations considered strategically important to the United States.  During these travels, I have heard a similar refrain: we have fought eight one-year wars rather than one eight-year war.  The challenge is that troops rotate in and out of assignments, preventing the development of persistent knowledge.  At the tactical level, leaders have attempted to mitigate this issue by passing lessons learned from one company or field grade leader to the next.  However, at the operational and strategic level it is more complex.  In the area of Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy, Strategic Social has been hard at work using technology to capture knowledge and make it persistent.  Key advances in the area of data accessibility, analysis and portals have enabled a more intelligent ability to retain and utilize persistent knowledge.

The software tools available today enable a new level of information accessibility.  Accessibility is facilitated by the internet, specialized search tools and structured acquisition tools.  With most of the world’s news and media available online, it is possible to acquire data relevant to user needs with unprecedented ease and automation.  Users can also take advantage of tools to simplify the acquisition of internal reporting and data collection efforts.  The use of web forms rather than MS Word documents allows users to easily ingest information into a common database with open source information.  The use of web forms decreases the manual labor associated with emailing MS Word documents and facilitates analysis.

On the analysis side, key developments over the past decade, such as data portability, ubiquitous APIs and the ability to blend open source information with proprietary data, present new and powerful analytical opportunities.  Data portability is the ability to use one or more data sets in different application settings.  With data portability users can acquire data from a variety of sources and run analysis, taking advantage of a data set that combines key internal data with relevant external data.  The automated nature of this process decreases the amount of time that analysts must spend manually assembling data, increasing the amount of time they can spend analyzing the data.  Ubiquitous Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) enable applications to exchange data to create new functionality and more powerful analysis.  For instance, by using an API to permit CIDNE to interface with other applications, CENTCOM can generate new and powerful analysis to provide leaders with better information for use in decision making.  APIs allow users to blend open source information with proprietary data sets.  As a result, users would be able to compare internally acquired data from polling or focus groups with information available from local, regional or global media reports.

Portals allow users to have a repository for information that is relevant to them.  Examples of portals range from MyYahoo and iGoogle to enterprise portals, such as the one offered by Strategic Social.  Portals provide an aggregation point for information from other applications.  For instance, users of our MediaMAS media monitoring application are able to access MediaMAS through the Strategic Social Platform (SSP).  Using this platform coupled with MediaMAS, analysts are able to access media monitoring data for the past five years and compare it to relevant external data.  The result is superior analysis and high impact customer deliverables.  Multiple applications can run on a platform, with each application having the ability to access data from other applications.  The value of having multiple applications riding on one platform is that users can interact through the platform to provide comments, share analysis with other users and generate novel insights.  Imagine a world in which power point slides can be updated in real time when a leader asks for a slight tweak in the variables used to generate the analysis.

While the use of technology does not offer a 100% solution to the persistent knowledge challenges faced by US and coalition involvement in Afghanistan, it would be a step in the right direction.  By ingesting media monitoring data, demographic data and other related information leaders from ISAF and the Department of State would have superior access to the information they need to make decisions.  Information access will enable leaders to more rapidly capitalize on success and avoid making the mistakes of the past.

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