Monthly Archives: April 2011

Revisiting Lessons from a CIA Heretic

Events in Middle East have led me to reflect on the talk I gave in September of last year at the Business Innovation Factory. (You can read the prepared text here or see the video of my speech here)  I was noting how the world is changing and how that in turn requires a different sensemaking method. The key paragraphs:

If you think that the world is driven mostly by the secret deals and aspirations of powerful people—the Hitlers, the Communist Party of the Soviet Unon, Mao Tse Tung, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, I’m desperately trying to think of a likely woman here—then you will conclude that you need some kind of capability to figure out what these people are doing, to ferret out their secrets. To protect our nation from some very nasty ideas these individuals cook up. And you may also want an organization that can impede their plans, cross your fingers.

But if you think that most of the forces the US will need to navigate are not specifically man-made, or at least not specifically made by one man or a small group of them–then you need a different kind of organization. If what matters is that the US understand the trends in the world, like globalization or the emergence of new economies such as India and China and Brazil (which clearly no one is like trying to keep a big secret) than spending a lot of time digging out secrets seems not as important, and what you really want is to have your hand on the pulse of the world, to be out there sensing and in many ways just being part of the whole big ride.

(A little later in the talk.)  

Making sense of the world is so hard and so important that it demands collaboration with as broad a network as possible. It was around this time that this thought entered my mind: The CIA will end up being the last secret organization in the world. And being the last of anything is never a good thing.

And so back to the question. I actually think the answer to it is very complicated. But I do believe that more of what will be important to US prosperity in the future will lie in the second dynamic and our success will depend on how well we understand these large shift changes underway and are able to engage them. Here’s where the imbalance of the Intelligence Community really can hurt us. To deal with the first circumstance it’s important to be a closed network. But to understand and prosper in the second dynamic it’s best to be an open network.  What we have here is a real innovator’s dilemma.

That’s why one of my passions now that I’ve retired from the Agency is to do what little I can to help Americans think about connecting, about working in open networks, about transparency. I believe as a successful multicultural society the US is poised to be innovative in this new world, and this time perhaps all out of proportion to our size. I love all social networks and in particular Twitter because of its power to spread ideas faster than the speed of light. Just think of it. One thought can reach a thousand people much faster than a single beam of light could physically touch those same individuals.


A Political Statement, of Sorts

This morning I wrote back to a friend who had asked me what I was up to these days. This particular friend, whom I haven’t seen in 20 years probably, is very interested in politics of the conservative spectrum and so I wrote a rather long paragraph that connected my interest in social media to my political views, such as they are. After rereading, I’m resposting here. Parentheticals represent text I added here but were not part of my original email response.

“…I have over the years developed a very small brand as a senior government executive who really believes in social media and the need to reconceptualize the concept of work. And let me tell you…I really believe in the transformative power of what these technologies achieve, which is effective connectivity between people, effective enough to let people self-organize to do important things together without the need for government or some other artificial authority. When I was in college 35 years ago it struck me that government was essentially “middleware” in human society–that conviction has never left me–so in that sense I am definitely not a liberal (at least not as it is understood today.) (The idea that government is something humans created to deal with transactions they could not otherwise handle themselves did actually invade my head at some point during my undergraduate years at Catholic University, where I majored in Comparative Government. I couldn’t at all imagine how humans could or what would allow us to thrive without government, but I developed the conviction that we would in fact evolve to this point. In the work context, managers fill that government role, and I similarly think social work, social business, networked work–pick the term you think least inadequate, will change the role of managers. Instead of controlling the work of individuals, they will transition to monitoring the health of the business network.)

(Although this view would seem to place me at the conservative end of the political spectrum), I am extremely turned off by the ethnoracist/xenophobic beliefs of some “conservatives”–not all. Some of the anti-intellectual bent is also a turn-off; I don’t care what they say, Ayn Rand was not the acme of intellectual achievement in the 20th century. I think perhaps I might vote for Carl Reiner, P.G. Wodehouse, or Preston Sturges! I am almost equally turned off by the elitist views of many liberals–not all. So I find myself not really represented by any political party, which would bother me more if it weren’t for the case that I think there are much more important things to spend energy on than partisan politics. My essential political/philosophical conviction is belief/faith/trust that human society still has a lot of upside potential–so in that respect I call myself progressive. I tire very quickly of individuals who have a kneejerk reaction against any new idea. My bias definitely is to be much more tolerant of individuals who are enthusiastic about the new.”

Sex and Money

A couple of weeks ago I began wondering whether same sex marriage was about much more than sexual identity. Was it, instead, one of the early moves in a long process that will gradually reconceptualize human society?

What a crazy thought, I thought! But I parked the idea, on yellow sticky notes, thinking I needed to get back to it and unpack it even more. (At this point I interrupted this blog post to tweet: New ideas squirmy little creatures, difficult to pin down. You’re not even sure you like ’em. You need to catch them to get closer look.)

Three tweets were actually involved in my first feeble attempt to capture the idea:

Wondering if same-sex marriage is about more than just sexual preference. Thinking it could be first step in reconstructing society.

How does human society change if sexual drives and acquisitive desires no longer the key motivational constructs for our lives?

Most religions seek to control sexual drives and acquisitive desires for common good. Sex and greed tend to drive violence.

Then a friend and follower commented, re religion:

Largely by treating women as something akin to evil.

Perhaps a bit harsh, but can’t deny the historical record.

The daunting girth of the idea and the need to find other treatments of it, because I imagine these must exist, also delayed any attempt by me to address it.  And then I realized this morning (or maybe just reconciled myself to accepting as a convenient excuse) that it was highly unlikely I could ever, through my own research or words, do the topic justice.  So what follow are comments I know in fact are incomplete and insufficient.

The Catholic Church, with which I am most familiar, argued last century that agreeing to contraception would eventually lead to a cascading series of social changes that were bad. And they have been proven correct in their causality chain if not their value judgment. Contraception has “led” to abortion, which in turn has led to what Pope John Paul II called the culture of death. People disagree as to whether society today is better or not than it was 100 years ago and more to the point about what “better” is. But the original point the Church was making, that seemingly minor acts of legislation or social change can have major downstream effects, seems unassailable.

The heterosexual family unit has been the building block of most Western societies for some time now. (But interestingly enough not the main building block of many (most?) mammalian social structures, many of which organize themselves into same-sex groups, except during the mating season.) Changes in the composition of that building block unit have already altered society, and same-sex marriage and parental teams seem likely to continue this trend. But what’s most intriguing to me is what a society less organized around concepts of male-female sexual relations would look like. I don’t know and I won’t live to see it, but it intrigues. (It’s not clear to me, by the way, whether same-sex relationships are really that much different from heterosexual ones. Concerning that latter point, this piece three years ago in Time Magazine is thoughtful.)

Are there some early indicators of this shift? The declining birth and marriage rates in most of the West seem to point to something. A few weeks ago the media was amused by the stories of Japanese men’s declining interest in sex, although my Google search shows this story appeared at least seven years ago in USA Today. Finally much is written about the different, more tolerant attitudes of Millenials toward a range of social issues, although I tend to be skeptical about how enduring generational change really is. We “want-to-teach-the-world-to-sing” baby boomers certainly didn’t take a back seat to anyone on acquiring material wealth.

Sex and money–powerful drivers of the modern world. Capitalism is the ultimate expression of a society that organizes itself around money. And yet today, now that a decent interval has passed since the collapse of communism, people are writing seriously again, even in the Harvard Business Review, about whether there is a better set of organizing principles for modern economies. If we can rethink our attitudes around money, can sex be far behind?