Time to Build Bridges

August 2006
By Vice Adm. Herbert A. Browne, USN (Ret.)

I am certain that every successful military leader in our nation’s history would say that people constitute the armed services’ most value asset; and perhaps at no other time in history has that been truer. In operations around the world, the United States is relying on fewer people—both military and civilian—to do more with less. This is a spot-on description of service members, government workers, corporate personnel and law enforcement agents alike who are keeping our country safe or responding to those in need after disasters. And sometimes, in the middle of all the hype about technology, we lose sight of the fact that it is human-ware, if you will, that is the centerpiece of every successful operation.

One of my favorite sayings about our association’s offerings is that they enable the “art of the possible.” But today, that may be only partially accurate. While AFCEA’s conferences, classes and publications certainly support technological advances, research and development, they really facilitate the “science of the possible.” Now more than ever before, AFCEA can make the biggest difference in the lives of its members and in the country as well by also facilitating the interaction between apprentices, journeymen and masters, which is where the real art of the possible resides.

The generation of computer-savvy professionals that is entering the military and industry know more about how to operate technology than most baby boomers have time to forget. The almost-always embarrassing call for help with a simple software program to a son, daughter or even grandchild is a stark reminder that in the 21st century, they really DO know more than we do … about some things anyway.

And their almost intuitive knowledge about texting, instant messaging, blogging and social networking is only half of the talent they are bringing into the workplace. Their nearly unquenchable thirst to know more, do it faster, find a better way and answer the question, “Why can’t we …?” is dizzying to those of us who remember astronauts who spoke to us from space with a video-sound delay that resembled a poorly dubbed foreign film.

These amazing techno-talents are pushing inventiveness to the limits, but their abilities are merely the external signs of hidden and developing skills that also are useful. While one-on-one chatting is hailed as a new communications skill for the masters, the apprentices and journeymen can handle six instant messaging windows while checking e-mail and playing Texas Hold ‘Em online. They have rewritten the definition of multitasking. It is a sign of mental agility that only magicians once possessed. And, most importantly, it is a talent that warfighters, intelligence analysts and first responders alike will need as information pours into their computers and handheld devices at incredible speeds.

This is not to say that it’s time for the baby boomers to disconnect the network, close their laptops, turn off the lights and go home. In fact, this is a crucial time to kick their leadership skills into high gear, reconnect and stay connected because many who raced straight toward learning how to thumb-type at the speed of light sped past learning how to communicate with finesse. Though they know how to instant message with a stranger half way around the world, they sometimes find themselves searching for the best way to express themselves face-to-face or to organize a team to tackle a task, and these talents are equally important to enhancing security and bringing about peace.

But unlike the Rio Grande-size gap of the 1960s that divided the generations, 21st century generational differences can be bridge anchors, the foundation for connecting the banks. And it is up to military and corporate leadership—the masters—to recognize and act on this opportunity.

Some organizations already have moved in this direction. Leading the way with a technique called reverse mentoring, they have assigned young, newly hired personnel one-on-one to seasoned executives within their companies. This new generation of professionals works directly with corporate leaders not only to teach them how to use new capabilities but also to make the most of them to the greater benefit of the company. In some cases, the new hires’ future with the firm depends on the effectiveness of their teaching methods—in other words, on whether the executive can pass the technology-use test at the end of the instruction period.

This approach is mutually beneficial. While the boss is learning how to use the latest and greatest communications systems, the apprentice is discovering the importance of leadership, creativity, flexibility, clarity and, yes, sometimes patience when communicating.

Organizations such as AFCEA facilitate the bridge-building between the generation of young professionals who use communications technologies as if they were born with PDAs in their hands and the generation with VCRs that continue to blink 12:00. The former not only understands how to use the capabilities today but also envisions how they can be used in the future; the latter knows that information and communication systems are only tools. And when expertise and experience have the opportunity to merge, the results are more powerful than any supercomputer.