By Jason Bloomberg
Amid the posturing and recriminations following this past December’s ill-fated terrorist attack by the alleged Nigerian Christmas bomber, the underlying cause of the intelligence breach has gone all but unnoticed.
How is it the global post-9/11 anti-terrorist machine could miss a lone Nigerian with explosives in his underwear? After all, chatter included reference to “the Nigerian,” his own father gave warning, he was on a terrorist watch list, and he purchased a one-way ticket to Detroit, paid cash, and checked no luggage. You’d think any one of these bits of information would set off alarms, and the fact that the intelligence community missed the lot is a sign of sheer incompetence, right?
Not so fast. Such a conclusion is actually fallacious. The missing piece of the puzzle is the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of monthly air travelers, and millions of weekly messages that constitutes he chatter the intelligence community routinely follows. And that watch list? Hundreds of thousands of names, to be sure.
Furthermore, the quantity of information that agents must follow is increasing at an exponential rate. So, while it seems in retrospect that agents missed a huge red flag, in actuality there is so much noise that even the combination of warnings taken together was lost in a sea of noise. A dozen red flags, yes, but could you discern a dozen red grains of sand on a beach?
The true reason behind the intelligence breach is far more subtle than simple incompetence, and furthermore, the solution is just as difficult to discern. The most interesting part of this discussion from ZapThink’s perspective, naturally, is the implication for enterprise IT.
The global intelligence community is but one enterprise among many dealing with exponentially increasing quantities and complexity of information. All other enterprises, in the private as well as public sector, face similar challenges: As Moore’s Law and its corollaries proceed on their inexorable path, what happens when the human ability to deal with the resulting information overload falls short? How can you help your organization keep from getting lost in the noise?
The governance crisis point
Strictly speaking, Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors that current technology can cram onto a chip of a given size will increase exponentially over time. But the transistors on a chip are really only the tip of the iceberg; along with processing power we have exponential growth in hard drive capacity, network speed, and other related measures – what we’re calling corollaries to Moore’s Law. And of course, there’s also the all-important corollary to Murphy’s Law that states that the quantity of information available will naturally expand to fill all available space.
Anybody who remembers the wheat and chessboard problem knows that this explosion of information will lead to problems down the road. IT vendors, of course, have long seen this trend as a huge opportunity, and have risen to the occasion with tools to help organizations manage the burgeoning quantity of information. What vendors cannot do, however, is improve how people deal with this problem.
Fundamentally, human capabilities at best grow linearly. Our brains, after all, are not subject to Moore’s Law, and even so, enterprises depend far more on the interactions among people than on the contributions of individuals taken separately. While the number of transistors may double every 18 months, our management, analysis, and other communication skills will only see gradual improvements at best.
This disconnect leads to what ZapThink calls the governance crisis point, as illustrated in the figure below.
The diagram above illustrates the fact that while the quantity and complexity of information in any enterprise grows exponentially, the human ability to deal with that information at best grows linearly. No matter where you put the two curves, eventually the one overtakes the other at the governance crisis point, leading to the “governance crisis point problem”: Eventually, human activities are unable to deal with the quantity and complexity of information.
Unfortunately, no technology can solve this problem, because technology only affects the exponential curve. I’m sure today’s intelligence agents have state-of-the-art analysis tools, since after all, if they don’t have them, then who does? But the bomber was still able to get on the plane.
Furthermore, neither is the solution to this problem a purely human one. We’d clearly be fooling ourselves to think that if only we worked harder or smarter, we might be able to keep up. Equally foolish would be the assumption we might be able to slow down the exponential growth of information. Like it or not, this curve is an inexorable juggernaut.
SOA to the rescue?
Seeing as this article is from ZapThink, you might think that service-oriented architecture (SOA) is the answer to this problem. In fact, SOA plays a support role, but the core of the solution centers on governance, hence the name of the crisis point. Anyone who’s been through our Licensed ZapThink Architect course or our SOA & Cloud Governance course understands that the relationship between SOA and governance is a complex one, as SOA depends upon governance but also enables governance for the organization at large.
Just so with the governance crisis point problem: Neither technology nor human change will solve the problem, but a better approach to formalizing the interactions between people and technology give us a path to the solution. The starting point is to understand that governance involves creating, communicating, and enforcing policies that are important to an organization, and that those policies may be anywhere on a spectrum from human-centric to technology-centric. In the context of SOA, then, the first step is to represent certain policies as metadata, and incorporate those metadata in the organization’s governance framework.
In practice, the governance team sorts the policies within scope of the current project into those policies that are best handled by human interactions and those policies that lend themselves to automation. Representing the latter set of policies as metadata enables the SOA governance infrastructure to automate policy enforcement as well as other policy-based processes. Such policy representations alone, however. cannot solve the governance crisis point problem.
The answer lies in how the governance team deals with policies, in other words, what are their polices regarding policies, or what ZapThink likes to call metapolicies. Working through the organization’s policies for dealing with governance, and automating those policies, gives the organization a “metapolicy feedback loop” approach to leveraging the power of technology to improve governance overall.
Catching terrorists and other IT management challenges
How this metapolicy feedback loop might help intelligence agents catch the next terrorist provides a simple illustration of how any enterprise might approach their own information explosion challenges. First, how do agents deal with information today? Basically, they have an information challenge, they implement tools to address that challenge, and they have policies for how to use those tools, as the expression below illustrates:
Information problem --> tools --> policies for using tools --> governance
Now, the challenge with the expression above is that it’s static; it doesn’t take into account the fact that the information problem explodes exponentially, while governance best practices grow linearly. As a result, eventually the quantity of information overwhelms the capabilities of the tools, leading to failures like the explosive in the underwear. Instead, here’s how the expression should work:
Information problem --> tools --> policies for using tools --> metapolicies for dealing with governance --> next-generation governance tools --> best practice approach for dealing with information problem over time
Essentially, the crisis point requires a new level of interaction between human activity and technology capability, a technology-enabled governance feedback loop that promises to enable any enterprise to deal with the information explosion, regardless of whether you’re catching terrorists or pleasing shareholders.
The ZapThink take
Okay, so just how does SOA fit into this story? Remember that as enterprise architecture, SOA consists of a set of best practices for organizing and leveraging IT resources to meet business needs, and the act of applying and enforcing such practices is what we mean by governance. Furthermore, SOA provides a best-practice approach for implementing governance, not just of the services that the SOA implementation supports, but for the organization as a whole.
In essence, SOA leads to a more formal approach to governance, where organizations are able to leverage technology to improve the creation, communication, and enforcement of policies across the board, including those policies that deal with how to automate such governance processes. In the intelligence example, SOA might help agents leverage technology to identify suspicious patterns more effectively by allowing them to craft increasingly sophisticated intelligence policies. In the general case, SOA can lead to more effective management decision making across large organizations.
There is, of course, more to this story. We’ve discussed the problem of too much information before, in our ZapFlash on Net-Centricity, for example. Technology progress leaving people behind is a common thread to all of ZapThink’s research.
If you’re struggling with your own information explosion issues, whether you’re in the intelligence community, the U.S. Department of Defense, or simply struggling with the day-to-day reality that is enterprise IT, drop us a line! Maybe we can help you prevent your next intelligence breach in your organization.
This guest BriefingsDirect post comes courtesy of Jason Bloomberg, managing partner at ZapThink.
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