Friday, July 23, 2010

The Ultimate Theory of Everything

Not our name.... Yet, this was the operating concept behind a body of theory of potential relevance to librarianship. It comes far afield from the realm of military strategy. Librarians have little to do with guns, bombs, and airplanes; probably the closest approach to this realm would be encounters with government agents attempting to enforce the Patriot Act against which the principles of our profession tend to align us in opposition. However, librarianship now, as seen in our discussion of the future, has everything to do with issues of survival. For this reason and out of a posture of free inquiry, it behooves us to look at whatever may be useful to the profession.

To understand the theory, it is important to understand the creator. This person was John R. Boyd, an Air Force officer who is virtually unknown. He began his career as a self-proclaimed "Top Gun" style fighter pilot after the Korean War who had a standing bet that any opponent starting out on the tail (dominant) position on his aircraft would have his role reversed within 40 seconds. He never lost. After completing the definitive tactical manual for air combat, he moved on to make major contributions to the design of the F-15 and F-16 fighter planes which have played a dominant role in national defense for the last decades. His ideas continued to evolve beyond aerial warfare to grapple with the very foundations of military theory. Along the way, his naturally abrasive personality grew positively eccentric. Already disliked by the Air Force for interfering with their airplane designs (though they embraced his results), Boyd took to roaming the Pentagon in a tattered bathrobe and slippers. For almost no reason at all, he was capable of collaring four star generals and shouting criticisms in their face in a shower of spittle. His profane fighter pilot's language would make secretaries weep, and his own supporters speculated that he "did not have both oars in the water." Yet out of his ruminations grew a body of theory of conflict in any form, and some hints suggest that his ideas were fundamental to the fabulous success of the U.S. military in its two Gulf Wars (in military terms anyway). At Boyd's funeral in 1997, the Air Force from whom he was almost completely estranged contributed 11 minutes to his eulogy. Nevertheless, the work of this shadowy figure on survival deserves the attention of librarians facing an uncertain future in a competitive environment.

There is no definitive written record of Boyd's ideas. They were delivered in idiosyncratic and near incomprehensible slide presentations lasting up to 13 hours. Only smaller, suggestive documents and secondary sources remain. The basis of his theory was three scientific concepts: 1) Goedel's Incompleteness Theorem 2) Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and 3) Entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. From these he reasoned that any organization exists in an infinitely complex and dynamic universe. Thus, no organization can encompass within itself all the tools necessary to deal with the challenges it will encounter. To survive, the organization must continually adapt to its environment through a procedure which became formalized as the Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action Loop (OODA). In terms of the airplanes which were Boyd's original subject, the observation step involved perceiving a threat. The orientation step called for formulating a list of options for response--attack or flee, in which direction, and how. The decision step required choosing an option, and the final step was to execute it. With this formalism, the criteria for success was found to correlate almost exclusively with the SPEED with which the organization cycled through this process. In the airplane example, success did not depend on the speed, turning radius, range or any physical quality of the airplane nor the level of training, eyesight or particular attribute of the pilot, as one might suppose, but on the speed at which the system of pilot and airplane could run the decision cycle. The power of this theory lay in its broad application to any sufficiently defined organization whether it was the entire Marine Corps which formulated a new doctrine of maneuver based on this system, the entire military forces of the United States, or companies in the business world or sports teams all of which have found notable success with these ideas. The rhetoric surrounding the theory is more pervasive than one might realize. When former Secretary of State Colin Powell called for "getting inside the decision cycle" of terrorists following 9/11, he was virtually quoting Boyd's ideas.

So, the message for libraries to consider as they organize for the future is clear: Survival depends on the speed of decision cycling.

Boyd, J.R., 1976. Destruction and Creation.

Coram, R., 2002. Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War. Little, Brown, New York.

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