Understanding Influence: A Matter of National Security

By John M. Koval III

image_thumb[1] This post is inspired by your Nov. 1, 2010, post titled Wikileaks as an exemplar of Now Media, Part 1. I agree with you that anyone can be influential, and that it's impractical to distinguish between consumers, creators, audiences, and media. That being said, we're failing as a country to understand influence, not as a subjective skill, but as a system, or, perhaps more accurately, as a weapons system.

From a national security perspective, we have an obligation to know exactly how state and non-state actors, like Wikileaks founder Jules Assange, employ influence. In the 21st century, we're fighting influence wars against traditional states, transnational networks, bloggers, media, and countless others. Yet, we don't have a framework to fight these wars. It's as if we've begun the Manhattan Project without the periodic table of chemical elements.

Our company has developed the first decision-system for information warfighters. In it, there are 25 influence strategies - so far as we can tell - that we colloquially refer to as "plays." We've organized them in The Standard Table of Influence Strategies, the first rational taxonomy for classifying the irreducible stratagems of influence. It was developed by our firm's CEO, Alan Kelly, and explained in his book.

For example, we know that Assange is influential not because he controls Wikileaks, but because he's mastered one particular influence stratagem, a play called the Mirror, defined as follows: Mirror - Introduces new facts or information into a marketplace which contradicts a rival's position or point of view. Like forcing someone to look at her own reflection, a Mirror typically prevents a rival from credibly pursuing its agenda. In Assange's case, he's powerful because he's forcing a reconciliation of the private record with the public.

Why is this important?

Because when we define something - which is to say, to give it a name, a definition, and set of unique characteristics - we can dig deeper and work toward understanding it, which leads to bigger things, like predictive modeling and influence wargaming. We can also discover best practices to (1) counter a particular influence stratagem, (2) accelerate a particular influence stratagem, (3) group stratagems together to create more nuanced effects, (4) understand what stratagems work best to divert a rival's intended course of action; frame an issue on favorable terms; lure a fence-sitting third-party to our side; and attack an enemy where it's most vulnerable, etc. You can click here to see best practices for how one might counter Assange's Mirror play.

For far too long, influence professionals - those operating in public affairs, public relations, diplomacy, advertising, sales, marketing, counter-insurgency communications, etc. - have been operating without standard systems. They're like biologists operating without a phylogenetic tree or software engineers coding without a programming language. It's chaos.

And yet, our government's current ability to fight influence wars is much like a chemist without the periodic table. Accidents are bound to happen.

Add to this the fact that our armed forces, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq, are now being asked to win the hearts and mind of the local population, and the need becomes even more urgent. A Marine cannot tell you, by name, the stratagem that a villager just employed against him, much less the best practice for bending or blunting it. It's bad enough that our influence warfighters - particularly in the State Department - are forced to play with one hand tied behind their back due to anachronistic laws like Smith-Mundt. But we don't have to compound the problem. We must adopt standards.

It's irresponsible that we're not, at the highest levels of government, deploying such an influence-based weapons system. It's a matter of national security. We must adopt and drive a lingua franca and decision-system to manage and win the other half of the wars and conflicts that consume us--the influence wars that clearly we're losing. Through the standardization of influence, we'll increase our ability, by an order of magnitude, to control, manage, and ultimately, win, the information wars of the 21st century, whether against al-Qaeda, Wikileaks, or tomorrow's next great threat.

John M. Koval III is a certified consultant at Playmaker Systems, LLC, a Bethesda-based management consultancy and software development firm. For a full biography, click here.

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This post was solicited by me because I find the Playmaker model intriguing. I'm interested in your thoughts and comments, both on the post and the Playmaker concept.

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