For those who read business literature, you will have noticed that the term ‘disruptive’ has recently attained the same heights as ‘synergy’ and other great buzzwords of yore. There is a reason for this, of course. In business to consumer markets (B2C), rapid adoption of new technologies has revolutionized the brand-customer relationship and wiped out entire industries in a matter of years. Brian Solis, prophet and leading light of digital business theory, has written a lot about this new constantly disruptive marketplace. To clearly outline the price of not adapting, he coined the term ‘Digital Darwinism’. In his own words, it implies: “…a kind of natural market selection that favors innovative companies at a time when technology and society are evolving faster than the ability of many organizations to adapt. It is this dynamic (along with a myriad of other problems of course) that in fact killed Borders, Blockbuster, Polaroid, Kodak, and the like.“
So much for the B2C world. But what about the practices of Public Relations and Corporate Affairs / Communications in settings where there is no sea of demanding customers clamoring for respect or rapid product innovation? However comfortable they have been up to now, professionals in this market should also prepare to be pushed well outside their comfort zones, if this hasn’t already happened. Though folks in these positions are typically chosen for past experience in politics or journalism (or both), the new disruptive forces that will challenge their employer’s reputation and social license to operate will no longer come through traditional channels. As we are already beginning to notice, these crises come seemingly out of thin air, from a rapidly arising ‘swarm’ of citizens and advocates that mobilize at lightning speed and gain enough momentum to dominate media coverage and tip the hand of governments in their favour.
Welcome to the ‘Netwar’ era
Communications theory is mushy for decision makers, I know. So let’s turn to military strategy instead. In a 1993 Rand Corporation think piece now legendary among digital theorists, authors John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt looked to a near future in which military and idelogical battles would be fought more and more with information and social networks. “Cyberwar is Coming”, written for the U.S. military and intelligence community, essentially foretold how the networked world, with its growing store of information, links between interest groups and rapidly evolving technological platforms, would come to de-stabilize established power and politics.
In a 2001 follow up study, titled Networks and Netwars, the authors offer the following observations, which are highly relevant to this discussion:
The rise of networks means that power is migrating to nonstate actors, because they are able to organize into sprawling multiorganizational networks (especially “all-channel” networks, in which every node is connected to every other node) more readily than can traditional, hierarchical, state actors. This means that conflicts may increasingly be waged by “networks,” perhaps more than by “hierarchies.” It also means that whoever masters the network form stands to gain the advantage.
Second, as the information revolution deepens, the conduct and outcome of conflicts increasingly depend on information and communications. More than ever before, conflicts revolve around “knowledge” and the use of “soft power.” Adversaries are learning to emphasize “information operations” and “perception management”—that is, media-oriented measures that aim to attract or disorient rather than coerce, and that affect how secure a society, a military, or other actor feels about its knowledge of itself and of its adversaries.
Managing Corporate Affairs in the Netwar era
In Networks and Netwars, Arquilla and Ronfeldt do present strategic counsel for their audience. However, they are clearly doubtful as to the capacity of hierarchical structures to adapt to these new realities in time. They argue that network power can only be countered with network approaches and that such approaches are difficult and counterintuitive for traditional players. And therein lies the challenge. While B2C players are driven to innovate by risks and rewards, industrial players will mostly be motivated to adapt their corporate affairs approaches by the threat of significant disruption. What will happen to those who cannot or will not adapt to the rise of networked power? We will have to stand back and watch Digital Darwinism take its course.
For an example of an approach that uses network strategy to manage conflict in the resource sector, see the presentation below: