COMMENTARY

Toughest challenges require uncommon dedication

IBM’s Gerstner tells how to transform an institution

The opportunity for transformational change at the Defense Department often seems so close at hand and yet never quite in reach — especially when it comes to technology advances during the past few years. Those advances are unquestionably transforming what we do and how we do it — from virtualized computing to smart sensors and mobile apps — as living and working wirelessly is becoming the new normal.

However, history suggests that it will be a long time before those revolutionary changes result in the kind of fundamental transformation that they’re capable of unleashing in government and military bureaucracies. More often than not, it takes early adopters on the edge and champions at the core to prove new technologies are good for more than just incremental improvements.

One man who appreciates that difference more than most is Louis Gerstner, IBM’s former chairman and chief executive officer. Speaking at LandWarNet 2010 in August, Gerstner described what it took to transform an institution, not simply fix it, after IBM lost its edge in a world that had largely moved on.

In essence, it wasn’t having the right strategies that mattered most, he argued. Rather, it was having leaders who remained focused on reshaping the culture in the middle of an organization that didn’t want to change. That meant identifying and installing leaders who were willing to dismantle and re-engineer the core processes that drove the enterprise and align them with a vision that was different from what made the institution successful in the first place. It also required leaders who could communicate a compelling story about why the organization had to change — and quickly.

Skepticism ran thick in the audience that the Army, with all its institutionalized practices, could transform itself like IBM had. Gerstner responded to the skepticism with a sobering message: Society can afford for organizations even as big as IBM to fail, he said. But it cannot afford for the Army to fail. Then he added: “Hard doesn’t mean stop trying.”

That’s a message many in the military forces live by. But it's also a message that needs to be taken more to heart if rapidly evolving technologies are to have a greater, more transformational effect on military operations.

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On a separate matter, one of the great privileges of being editor-in-chief of Defense Systems is the opportunities it affords to meet so many men and women who demonstrate, often with their very lives, that special spirit to push on, no matter how difficult the problems.

Beginning next issue, I will be turning that privilege over to someone who is well known to many of our readers. Barry Rosenberg has been covering the defense sector and aerospace industry throughout the world for nearly 25 years. We’ve been fortunate to feature his insightful stories in Defense Systems in recent years and are now even more fortunate in having him take the helm as Defense Systems’ editor-in-chief as I take on new editorial and event-planning duties at our parent company. It has indeed been a privilege to serve Defense Systems’ readers, and I look forward to staying in touch with many of you.

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