Effective Competitive Advantage: Strategy, Technology and Information
Thomas A. Drohan
In 1983, Project Socrates began as an initiative within the Reagan administration to develop technology-driven competitive advantage. By 1990, the effort had been canceled by the Bush-41 administration because it looked like industrial policy. In fact Project Socrates was not an industrial policy but rather an information-age long-term strategy for technology-based planning. Physicist Michael Sekora, the founder of Project Socrates, resigned after political appointees blocked his work. As pointed out by Stefan Banuch in Small Wars Journal and by Bonnie Gerard in The Diplomat, the change instituted a policy of finance-based planning.
In 2019, we are immersed in competitions that require persistent advantages to prevail against long-view opponents. Victory is relative and temporary, and our operations need to be influential lest they become irrelevant. This strategic challenge is acute in complex warfare, where operations are waged across domains (land, sea, air, space, cyber, electro-magnetic) using diverse means (diplomatic, informational, military, economic, social—DIMES) to produce synergistic effects (preventive and causative, psychological and physical, cooperative and confrontational).
To win such wars, we need competitive advantages translated into strategic effects. That is, more than tactical victories. How can we create effective competitive advantage?
This paper answers the question in two steps. First, we explore the effects created by strategy, technology and information. Second, we advocate a broad technology-based strategy to gain competitive advantage in an all-encompassing and uncertain information environment. Project Socrates’ emphasis on technology is foundational to both steps.
Assumptions Lag Technology
Underpinning our discussion is a new assumption about war that partially rejects one of three tendencies described in and propagated by Carl von Clausewitz’s “wondrous trinity” (Book 1, Chapter 1, 28). In a context of 19th century Napoleonic warfare, Clausewitz wrote of war’s enduring nature in terms of: primordial violence, hatred and animosity; the play of chance and probability; and subordination as an instrument of policy, subject to reason.
Today we must assume that complex wars are not necessarily violent. Passions such as hatred and enmity can manifest themselves as effective non-violent instruments of policy, with chance and probability still at play. Why?
Change in the Nature of War - So What?
Due to the impact of the information revolution, the nature of war has expanded from the use of armed force to include other instruments of power. Lethality remains important, from low-tech to precision munitions to weapons of mass destruction, and for an ancient reason. Deadly weapons also produce information effects, and information is what influences future behavior.
The “so what” of non-violent instruments of power achieving effects (but not quite the status) of combat arms is Darwinian. If we fail to change our strategies quickly enough—as if they were inheritable traits—we will be ill-suited to the contemporary security environment. To the extent that we disregard new modes of war, we are at a survival disadvantage in terms of achieving our ends. This point becomes clear as we consider three changing characteristics of war: information; technology; and strategy.
Digitized information provides unprecedented ways and means to achieve desired ends. Instant communication, electronic intrusion, cyber dependence, and social manipulation provide ample venues of influence beyond the use of violence.
As a result, war involves at least DIMES-wide instruments of power. Clausewitz highlighted this adaptive aspect of war in his observation that “war is “not only chameleon-like in character” (28) and “war is a continuation of policy with other means.”
To repeat, today’s information-related capabilities and effects have changed the nature of Clausewitz’s concept of warfare in this important respect: armed force can be replaced or accompanied by other instruments of power.
Some Strategies Adapt
As technology enables information to be weaponized on a grand scale, our strategies need to create actions that influence global-range opponents. It follows that influential operations need to have some sort of competitive advantage. That advantage may derive from any type of operation, not just military actions. Influence in war can arise from cooperation, confrontation, competition, and conflict. Assuming that operations fall along a single spectrum of conflict, which is what US joint military doctrine does (Chapter V), misses this diversity of complex warfare.
Operations that employ DIMES-wide instruments of power are better understood in terms of their diverse combinations of effects—that is, what the operations actually do in the environment. Whether the operations are peaceful or warlike affects permissions and authorities, while focusing on complex effects helps discern competitive advantage. Taken together, whether “persuasion” (a cooperative, psychological causative effect) or “coercion” (a confrontational, physical causative effect) is deemed to be peaceful or warlike affects the permissions and authorities granted to persuade or coerce using different technologies.
As leaders cling to politically palatable assumptions that cooperation is associated with peace, and conflict is associated with war, our adversaries make no such distinction. Strategies of coop-frontation, such as longstanding North Korean efforts to develop nuclear weapons, well exploit our apparent idealism. What can we do?
Leaders can provide the strategic flexibility to loosen or tighten political-legal constraints on persuasion or coercion, depending on what they judge to be legitimate effects. Options include diplomatic pressure, information blackouts, precision military strikes, financial sanctions, and social disruptions. These actions should be considered holistically, as they interact among one another. We could thereby characterize operations according to their diverse effects in order to evaluate effectiveness. This process should include ethical considerations of moral character (doing the right things) and performance character (doing things right).
While strategy, technology and information become more complex, war includes violent and non-violent ends, ways and means. As we grasp the broadening nature of war (passion, uncertainty, rationality), we need to influence targets to achieve our desired effects. The targets of our activities may be individuals, groups, and systems.
Influencing Individuals and Groups
The literature on influencing people by affecting their will and capability is immense. From a practical standpoint, analysts use human factor analysis to identify key variables that affect an individual or group so that planners can design influential operations. Drawing from psychology, all strategists and operators would be well advised to consider two sets of general factors: biographic details; and leadership, reasoning and decision making styles.
At the individual and group levels of analysis we might consider group dynamics, bureaucratic interests, organizational routines, and rational choices. The latter, rationality, is uncertain and relative, but it can be understood if we recognize different preferences. Preferences can indicate priorities from which to infer assumptions and the logic of reasoning.
Reasoning Through So Many Factors
Studying and applying these factors better than competitors is a way to develop influential strategies. In designing strategies and operations, how can we use reason to influence will and capability?
First, we can recognize that people reason in different ways. People have different preference structures, cultures, and historical experiences. Therefore what is rational to one person or group may be irrational to another. Consider differences such as those between liberty and equality, individual and collective rights, risk aversion and acceptance, stasis and change, tradition and modernity, fairness of opportunity and fairness of results.
Second, we can account for intuitional thinking as distinct from deliberative reasoning. Both types of reasoning should be anticipated and weighed according to circumstances in the information environment. Daniel Kahnemann describes these two types of thinking as System 1 and System 2.
Third, we can prepare to evaluate the will or intent of a person or group by considering many related factors. Expecting complexity not simplicity can lead to otherwise overlooked causes. Wayne Hall distills the power of will into 14 related factors: life-force; strength of motive; capabilities; determination; perseverance; sacrifice; passion; advantage; disadvantage; imposition; action; assessment; and adaptation.
Based on the three observations above, where does that take us in terms of influencing people?
Information Intelligence and Assessment
Ideally, we develop subject matter experts who acquire the information intelligence to intuit as well as deliberate, and provide decision makers with alternatives. For instance if we define information intelligence as the integrity of contextualized data and processed information, we can contest data and information rather than concede that initiative to opponents. Proactive commanders engage in this artful science of influencing others to achieve desired effects.
Assessment is critical to making informed decisions. Measures of performance (where tasks done to required standards?) and measures of effect (did the task achieve desired effects?) assist this effort, as well as a host of other factors. These other factors may include risk, impact, cost, uncertainty, advantages and disadvantages, and follow-on effects.
Armed with such frameworks intended to provide both analytical power and holistic context, we can develop better judgment as we adaptively execute activities to achieve desired effects.
We want to be proactive in influencing will and capability, but uncertainty can dishearten all but the boldest commanders. Uncertain results occur due to the presence of so many potentially important factors. Best practices tend to comprise trial and error processes in which we that seek to falsify hypotheses. That is, we should look for (and “wargame”) circumstances that do not “cause” our desired effects. If we make the mistake of seeking to “prove” that our activities cause what we want to see, we will fail to adapt to new situations and fail to anticipate new behavior.
Influencing systems is even more complex as we consider larger numbers of weighted factors, interconnections, and interactions.
We can analyze a system traditionally terms of functions, connections among nodes, applying concepts such as centers of gravity. When considering the incentives of particular systems, we might compare rules and norms. There are differences between individual rights-based capitalism and group responsibility-based socialism, unitary and federal power structures, presidential and parliamentary systems, hierarchical and flat authorities, formal and informal networks.
We could also analyze systems of systems this way, and understand them as neural networks that learn in distributed ways we want to understand. Influencing the relationships between nodes is often more feasible than actioning a node itself since the latter often is hidden.
Can we apply the preceding approaches to biological systems to artificial intelligence (AI) systems?
Will varies among human and non-human beings. For AI, the potential to learn must allow for the possibility to develop will in terms of intentions. Non-biological intent may accrue from ingested training data, analyzed patterns and trends, and synthesized data that produces new information.
As AI nodes connect to other nodes in layered networks of networks, they may develop incentives from their algorithms. Algorithms consist of rules and structures. As those incentives become more complex, we humans need to be in charge of ultimate purposes. Purposes or goals give meaning to, and essentially control, AI reasoning.
Controlling AI or any machine requires asking purposeful questions—querying the database and related software. As in human individuals and systems, we can productively ask, what do we want the desired behavior or thought to be? What are the threats to our desired behavior? If we specify our desired effects in terms of what we want to cause and what we want to prevent, does that comprise all possible purposes? In other words, are we dealing with a closed system, as in a mechanical device, or are there other dimensions of interaction, as in a cloud?
Asking these questions is a way to begin creating strategies and technologies of competitive advantage.
Strategy and Technology as Competitive Advantage
In contrast to the ambiguous multitude of factors that can influence individual and group behavior, technological advantage can be specified in terms of capabilities. Such specificity is useful because we will be linking capabilities to effects, and effects are notoriously uncertain. How can we squeeze advantages out of this blend of ambiguity and specificity?
Strategic advantage must accompany technological advantage to account for uncertain data and information. Will, for instance, remains a highly unpredictable variable. So let’s illustrate how to design a better strategy in terms of: (a) superior results; and (b) superior technology to achieve those results.
A Business Example
Let’s say that your start-up, Zamazon, is interested in what reading material your age group will buy on Black Thursday and beyond.
First, you acquire information about the topics of prior purchases, using micro-targeting based on “filter bubbles”, locations of the purchases, and spending patterns correlated with pay days, holidays and local weather. Next, you weight these factors and test them against other historical data. Then, using your algorithm, you probabilistically predict the optimal content to advertise among different individuals in various locations and at various times. Let’s assume at this point that Zamazon’s overall goal is simply to increase cash flow. That’s your desired competitive advantage.
Now consider a superior strategy in terms of a superior combination of effects. Say that you want to dissuade purchases from rival Amazon and well as induce Zamazon purchases at the same time. The combined effect has the potential to produce a gain at the expense of Amazon.
In order to dissuade purchases of Amazon products, you want to assure customer will, and enhance customer capability, to purchase Zamazon products and services. To out-compete Amazon’s considerable technological capabilities and execution, you will need a more agile architecture and more timely purchase-to-delivery execution.
So, what technology could assure customers that Zamazon’s architecture is more trustworthy and more flexibly precise with respect to individual needs than Amazon? Also, what technology could enhance timeliness?
First, you could develop an app that networks online sales specializing in the demography of local markets. Second, you could create an app that networks local delivery, better than say, Uber or Lyft. Sales and delivery hires would be paid by the degree to which they beat Amazon’s sales and deliveries.
Your apps would need to be more detailed than Amazon’s in terms of who buys what and when. Alliances with other startups that tailor networking and logistics apps may give an edge. Amazon, of course, will be keen to out-surveil, out-reconnoiter and out-bid your clever efforts.
Not easy, but our point is that there is intense competition of two types. First, there is a struggle for the best technology of strategy. This fight is a struggle to create a better combined effect than the competitor. That would be, to dissuade and induce, rather than to induce.
The second competition for the best strategy of technology. This fight is over tools that influence will and capability to achieve a combined effect. That would be influencing customer will and capability better than Amazon. Having better apps may hone a temporary edge at best, so integrating technology in ways that a larger business cannot is crucial to Zamazon’s competitive advantage.
Both technology and strategy are needed to create specific, enduring competitive advantages.
For a business, a competitive advantage in an influential technology, coupled with a superior combined-effects strategy, may yield superior results in a dynamic environment. There is no rest. Preparing for yesterday ensures you will be irrelevant tomorrow. Compared to more tools and more cash flow, more competitive tools will create more advantages including cash flow, return on investment, market share, and so forth. What about national security?
National Security Examples
In a previous SWJ article, we detailed various historical dilemmas that China’s combined effects strategy has posed to rivals since 1950. There were 17 cases of Chinese strategy in small wars that included warfare waged beyond the use of force. Inducement showed up as a major effect in 11 of these cases and coercion in thirteen. Inducement and coercion were typically combined with other effects. The combination of both inducement and coercion was present in only 5 cases. These statistics are interesting, but what we really want to do is compare competing combined effects because strategies challenge each other.
That comparison is moot in these 17 cases. Why? While China has been pursuing competitive advantage, its targets have been using the equivalent of a narrow cash flow strategy. In most cases, the targeted state could not muster a superior combined arms strategy either. Even in those cases where superior military powers — presumably the US and Soviet Union/perhaps Russia — possessed superior military capability, China’s broader-than-military strategy prevailed.
Combined arms versus combined effects usually results in the former winning battles and losing wars. Historically this statement holds as long as purely military “solutions” are deemed to be unacceptably violent or costly in other ways. For instance, the Mongol massacre-invasions from 1207-1368 had to be defeated militarily (by Mamluk and Chinese armies). Victorious Mongols retreated from Europe only upon the death of Ogodei (son of Genghis Khan) in order to scrap over the succession.
What do we see when we look at the types of tools used in China’s combined effects strategies? We see superior technology of strategy, and superior strategy of technology.
Technology of Strategy
Specifically, we see broader combinations of effects brought about by more variety of tools on targets that influence will and capability. This outcome is better than the effects of military force alone. The key to success is understanding contextual details of the information environment.
In vulnerable circumstances, a diplomatic, economic, military and social dilemma is more likely to create convincing coercive effects across audiences than a military dilemma on the battlefield. Put another way, targeting will and capability with diplomatic, informational, military, economic, and social instruments of power with activities creates more influential information than a one-instrument strategy.
The technology of combined effects strategy can create relative advantages over a competitor’s effects by imposing dilemmas. To pull that off, we need a strategic mindset for technology, one that develops diverse tools and uses flexible ways to create the competitive effects.
Strategy of Technology
The domestic political structure of China legitimizes a strategic mindset to acquire technology by any means. The single-Party authoritarian system, characterized by scholar Fei-Ling Wang as the China Order, promotes such legitimacy through hyper-nationalism and near-totalitarian control. Beijing re-emphasizes its century of humiliation at the hands of other empires to justify both its lack of internal freedoms and external aggression. So far, this stratagem has worked.
As a result, Beijing can reject international standards of behavior as unfair, such as the ruling by International Court of Appeals in The Hague in favor of the Philippines, and use the event as “proof” of a US containment strategy. Military strength is necessary but not sufficient. Of the 17 cases we reviewed, the most often used tool was military (16 times), followed by diplomatic (12 ), economic (7) and social (5). The military tool was never used by itself.
Fourteen of the 17 cases involved border disputes, so the use of military deployments and occasional use of force is understandable. However it was the combination of military tools with diplomacy (7 times), economic pressure (4 ), information (3) and social (1) that created winning combinations. Since we emphasized external threats, social tools were artificially suppressed in the analysis.
The inclusion of cases 15-17 (overland and maritime dimensions of the Belt and Road Initiative in Eurasia and Melanesia) demonstrates the globalizing reach of China’s strategy. More than mere territorial expansion (reclamation of lost territory, from Beijing’s perspective), the massive effort is a rational strategy of technological competitive advantage.
Unifying Strategy, Technology and Information
Competitors such as China acquire information and apply technology using a strategic approach. The effort is holistic and principled. Note that “principled” does not necessarily mean virtuous according to international norms (the Beijing regime steals a lot of information). Principled as seen from a comparative perspective —the Communist Party of China’s worldview—means an approach to strategy and technology that is consistent, coherent and pragmatic.
Technology: A Holistic Definition
If we adopt a holistic definition of technology, we can recognize competitive advantage as a basic principle of China’s strategy. This arrangement of information, a sort of narrative, can unify strategy and technology to achieve competitive advantage.
A commonly accepted definition of technology is, the practical application of knowledge to achieve a purpose. The first task might identify the purpose of technology (such as a particular competitive advantage) then generate supporting activities. The second task could orchestrate those activities opportunistically to produce synergistic effects.
In contrast, the US national security strategy, national defense strategy, national military strategy, and various other national strategies create technology for different purposes. As expected, effects occur rather separately. The process is more analytic and bureaucratic than synthetic and holistic. Technology yields good results: superior performance of joint military and related agency activities. However, we often do not get competitive strategic results. Why? We fail to recombine individual department and agency technologies to generate holistic combinations of effects.
The holistic definition of technology above is consistent with analyses of technology transfer (62) that identify two components of technology: (1) knowledge or technique; and (2) doing things to obtain a result. Note that many interests in technology transfer are about moving (sharing, buying, stealing) technology from one actor (lab, owner, competitor, etc.) to another (market, licensee, competitor).
Next, let’s recognize that applications of knowledge can be from both “soft” and “hard” sciences, such as cultural-linguistic expertise, political judgment, data analytics, miniaturized circuitry, digitized information, quantum computing, and artificial intelligence.
Strategy: An Arrangement of Information
Now, instead of looking for technologies that fit the dozen or so existing national strategies, let’s start with technological competitive advantage as a strategic aim itself (such as in Project Socrates). We do this to unify strategy and technology by linking types of information — ends, ways and means.
To execute such a strategy, it makes sense to identify ways to create relative technological advantages. We seek to prevent and cause technological advantage in two major ways: psychologically and physically, and cooperatively and confrontationally.
In the following two spectra of effects, the top spectrum represents psychological effects and the bottom spectrum represents physical effects:
Cooperative effects are italicized; confrontational effects are normal case. The left side of each spectrum are preventive effects while the right side are causative effects. The top spectrum is the preventive-causative blend of psychological effects and the bottom spectrum is the preventive-causative blend of physical effects. By defining our options in terms of various effects, we should be better able to evaluate the effective competitive advantages of our operations.
To create relative technological advantages, consider some psychological and physical options. Psychologically, one combination would be to deter and dissuade an adversary from acquiring or using the technology while also compelling and persuading the adversary to expend resources elsewhere.
Physically, a similar combination would be to defend and secure ourselves from the adversary’s acquisition or use of the technology while also coercing and inducing the adversary to expend resources elsewhere.
There are many possible combinations and targets of influence beyond the adversary. For instance, we might persuade and induce our own decision makers to develop the technology for ourselves and allies. This effort is technology of strategy because the functions of the preceding effects is to achieve strategic advantage.
Next, to exploit the competitive advantage provided by the technology we might apply the technology as a means to influence will and capability to bring about competitive combinations of effects. This is a strategy of technology because technological tools are acting on will and capability.
The following logic box portrays tools to influence will and capability in order to achieve desired effects. Any technology used to intimidate or assure will, or neutralize or enhance capability, would be a psychological tool. Any technology used to push or demonstrate will, or deny or exercise capability, would be a physical tool.
The upshot of the preceding arrangements is that it’s possible, and highly desirable, to create technological advantage as well as to tailor technology for strategy.
Let’s return to our business example. Zamazon wants to create a competitive advantage over Amazon via technology that’s more innovative in terms of using knowledge or techniques. Accordingly, now cash flow is not the ultimate goal. Instead, Zamazon commits to crafting better technology, then developing a strategy to out-compete Amazon. Zamazon’s customer needs and delivery apps could create opportunities to shape the market in terms of more accurate, flexible and timely customer satisfaction. If that looks like it could happen, Amazon may offer to buy out Zamazon. If all of the above fails, Zamazon might just settle for the crumbs of cash flow falling from the detritus of Amazon’s largesse.
In the national security arena, settling for a suboptimal outcome is much less desirable than proactively planning to achieve attainable goals. We should be asking, what competitive advantages can produce combinations of desired effects that out-perform our competitors’ results?
This question needs to be asked and answered on a constant basis over near, medium and long-term horizons. Superior application of knowledge and techniques — technology — is key to sustaining competitive advantages. The strategic question of what are our overall goals in terms of causative and preventive effects? can lead to fundamental and specific comparisons of relative advantage.
These comparisons should be broad, such as choices between cash flow and market share, market share and market rules, armed service-specific operations and joint force operations, and combined arms (joint force operations) and combined effects, indigenous and global technologies, and cooperation and confrontation.
The US national security community’s approach to cultivating technologies that generate effective competitive advantage leaves much to improve. At best, we chase incremental advantages such as bigger budgets, combined arms and multi-domain operations (MDO), then pursue broader effects and technologies as afterthoughts. Basically we try to out-fund and out-pace competitors, as in a race. However, what we need to do is subsume competitors’ technologies, as in a strategy of learning.
Learning is competitive too. Just as combined arms warfare was broader than its predecessors, MDO is broader than combined arms in a single domain. Combined arms imposes dilemmas on single arms, but is too narrow to out-maneuver MDO. MDO is narrower than all-effects warfare. And competitors such as China are waging all-domain all-effects warfare.
So, as US forces sail and fly around and above China’s artificial maritime constructions that are effectively seized territory, China dredges and fortifies and networks the fabrications as information that empowers Beijing’s strategy. This deterrent and coercive strategy has avoided triggering an effective US or allied response.
Gaining and maintaining advantage in any-domain any-effects competition and conflict requires a commitment to strategy, technology and information. We cannot eliminate uncertainty in complex warfare, but we can be more precise about competing technologies that enable choices of strategy, technology and information.
At least our predicament is clear. The US political system is hard-pressed to coordinate DIMES-wide strategy even as resourceful opponents effectively blend diverse instruments of power. Our prevailing peace-or-war definition of security effectively sanctifies areas of operations for adversary use.
Meanwhile our analytic-bureaucratic approach to strategy budgets the what rather than plans the how of national power. The result is fragmented lines of effort rather than orchestrated combinations of effects:
- Our diplomacy is about fostering relationships to find common ground, not exploiting disagreements.
- Our military doctrine fails to define hybrid warfare, precluding a host of preemptive options.
- Our information operations exclude the prosecution of espionage cases, preventing leverage for trade negotiations.
- Our economic sanctions are highly problematic and subject to sudden political reversals.
- Our social programs such as foreign assistance compete against domestic priorities (in both Democratic and Republican administrations), reducing influence abroad.
Back to Project Socrates. As an information and technology strategy, its ideas can create competitive advantages. Small businesses are finding effective ways to unify strategy, technology and information where government bureaucracies do not:
- JMark Services Inc.’s joint-certified Information Environment Advanced Analysis Course teaches how to achieve strategic overmatch in the information environment.
- Quadrigy Inc. continues the Socrates Project’s technological approach; the next step is to field an automated innovation system.
While we repeatedly referred to China’s strategic approach, 21st century competitors include non-human actors. Human and machine-learning technology has already developed artificial intelligence that can out-think human experts in specialized areas. Breakthroughs in quantum computing are accelerating that process. Researchers concerned about legitimate competition are exploring AI governance, synthesizing human preferences, and autonomous weapons. As machine learning achieves a level of intelligence to write programs and perhaps rearrange physical structures, the need for effective competitive advantage will become all too clear. This challenge is a critical security and leadership issue today.