Framing the Information Age

March 31, 2022

Colonel John Richard Boyd (retired) was a United States Air Force pilot, and later a combat instructor and military strategist during the second half of the 20th century. He is perhaps best known for his articulation of the OODA loop, a decision-making framework he trained fighter pilots to use during aerial combat. OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide and Act, and during the complexity and confusion of an air battle, those pilots who could move through the stages of the OODA loop more quickly than an opponent most often prevailed.

But the OODA loop was not merely a linear, static condition of phases, it was a dynamic offensive and defensive construct.

New information was constantly incoming and not all that information was straightforward or relevant. In fact, disrupting your opponent’s OODA loop with misinformation while simultaneously developing knowledge of how your opponent acted and reacted was often the point at which battles were won and lost. It still is.

Since the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, Boyd’s OODA loop has been applied in all forms of competition including sports, business, and politics. At its very core, the OODA loop describes a process by which we gather, sort, and prioritize information and convert it into meaningful intelligence that gives us an advantage.

Not surprisingly, it is often evoked as a necessary paradigm for making sense of life in the Information Age.

In 2009, just a couple of years after Apple’s first iPhone was released, the journal Risk Management published a cover story by American writer Clay Shirky entitled: “Newspapers and thinking the Unthinkable”. In this piece, Shirky attempts to chart the internet-driven demise of the newspaper industry. In retrospect, the industry has managed to hang-on but we can all agree that print media is a shadow of its former self. In contrast, the world’s demand for content has exploded, but our reliance on the newspaper industry as the trusted intermediary of this content is a nostalgic memory for most publishers.

There is one paragraph in Shirky’s piece that provides helpful context to this moment in which we find ourselves.  He zeroes in on the invention of the printing press. The arrival of the printing press, and with it, the proliferation of literature is often looked upon by scholars as the moment when the world transformed from the Dark Ages into Renaissance, but in truth it was a span of about 50 or 60 years. Shirky notes that while much has been studied about the world prior to the arrival of the printing press, and after it had revolutionised much of the western world, there is very little in the way of research that looks into what that 50-to-60-year span of transition looked like. “Chaotic, as it turns out,” writes Shirky.

“That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.”

Bestselling authors and futurists Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler published the book The Future Is Faster Than You Think in January of 2020. They argue that in the next decade, the converging forces of technology will transform “every part of our lives—transportation, retail, advertising, education, health, entertainment, food, and finance—taking humanity into uncharted territories and reimagining the world as we know it.”

Only two years into that predicted decade of exponential change, we are (hopefully) emerging from a global pandemic and it already feels as though our world is fundamentally different than it was in January 2020.

It is both terrifying and tremendously exciting, but whether we ride the wave or get washed up on shore depends a lot on how Canada and its business leaders respond right now. I propose we consider the OODA loop.

Observe  – within Boyd’s model, fighter pilots were taught not only to pay attention to what was going on around them but to frequently test the environment and opponents, and then incorporate what they learned through these experiments. Not every test will be successful, and sometimes it will be difficult to separate out the good and failed experiments but every move we make is a learning moment from here on in. Standing still and waiting for things to pass is a sure way to get passed by.

Orient  – where are you and your business relative to what you are observing in the marketplace? Are you where you need to be? Do you have the people, capacity, and tools you need? For a long time now, many of us could afford to view Human Resources and digital infrastructure as necessary supports to our business. We’ve tweaked our websites and jumped on board social media and e-commerce platforms. We’ve developed talent management plans, reviewed our compensation packages, and revised our remote work policy. I propose, however, that now is the moment to move these functions up to the front. These are our strategic levers enabling us to direct people, capacities and skills in ways that optimize our ability to anticipate and pivot quickly.

Decide – Despite all the glorified stories of leaders who “led from their gut”, most success comes from making the right decisions at the right time. Data lies at the heart of this ability. What data do you have? Are you making the most of it? What are you missing? Are your data sources sufficiently diverse? Does someone out there have the data you need? Is your data secure? And how quickly and skillfully are you able to convert data into meaningful intelligence?  Most organizations I know are sitting on vast quantities of unmined information and if you don’t figure out how to use it to your advantage, chances are someone else will… or already has.

Act – These times call for trading perfection in favour of good enough, but good enough only works when you have a business model that embraces continual improvement. This is where your leadership will be most critical in shaping an organizational culture that balances experimentation, flexibility, diversity of thought and accountability to the whole. Moreover, when thinking about how might we harness the power and potential of something like Artificial Intelligence, what value-based guardrails might we require, if any?

And finally, returning for a moment to Clay Shirky’s, “Thinking the Unthinkable” piece, leaders will be called upon to consider what the marketplace needs beyond existing structures. For example, society needs journalism.  What many newspaper publishers simply could not fathom in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s was that digital transformation eliminated the newspaper’s business model as a gatekeeper to journalism. The same transitions have happened in charitable giving, taxi driving and the music industry, just to name a few disrupted industries.

Diamandis and Kotler assert that “every major industry on our planet is about to be completely reimagined.”

“If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” Shirky asks.

We are all figuring that out right now.