Skip to main content

The collaboration gap

Napoleon Bonaparte believed that coalition warfare was a recipe for failure. Instead, it proved to be his undoing.

Today, increasing world interdependence and a collective aversion to unprovoked aggression has made the coalition—a joining of two or more countries in a collective effort, be it combat, peacekeeping or humanitarian—the modern recipe for defense. In these situations, the various components at play include command relationships, training and tactics, combined operations, high-technology weapons, personnel and equipment strength, and cultural relationships.

Coalitions have often been seen as problematic, as defense forces have to reconcile the demands of the coalition with their nation’s own priorities. A recurring theme involves coalition partners being viewed with suspicion and information being shared reluctantly out of fear for national security. But coalitions are increasingly pervasive and more complex with each year.

Much has been written about the difficulties of working within modern coalitions. Issues such as different languages, clashing cultures and imbalanced capabilities lead to a lack of trust that undermines any commitment to “duty to share.” New technologies might stand to revolutionize the battle space, but it’s a lack of compatibility between systems, insufficient bandwidth and information overload that actually prohibit effective collaboration.

Defense forces need to understand how to make modern coalitions work effectively by improving collaboration, exploiting all the more sophisticated information sharing technologies at their disposal. IBM’s Global Defense team has sought answers by engaging in discussions with those actively engaged in coalition operations on the front line, in supporting operations, and in developing strategy and policy.

Building a bridge across the collaboration gap

The IBM Global Defence Study: 100+ individuals' experience of operations; 340 coalition partners from 61 nations; Respondents from the entire chain of command; Operations from 1994 to 2008.In a first-of-a-kind report, the IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV) performed a global survey of defense forces (3.97MB) to help derive practical suggestions for improving coalition effectiveness. More than 100 respondents from 12 nations commented on some 340 coalition partners. Their direct experiences in the field cover a wide range of coalition operations from 1994 to 2009 in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other parts of the world including Europe, the Pacific and Africa.

They were asked to rate the effectiveness of different aspects of coalition operations performed over the last decade, commenting on what was difficult and prioritizing their recommendations for improvement. IBM does not see this report as providing categorical answers, but rather as the start of a productive discussion about how to improve coalition effectiveness.

The IBV calculated a collaboration effectiveness index from respondents’ subjective ratings of the overall effectiveness of their coalition partners on a scale from one (very poor) to five (very good). The score is therefore a reflection of how well the coalition partners worked together on the operation, rather than the effectiveness of the operation itself.

The results of the survey are startling. They demonstrate that there has been little noticeable improvement in coalition effectiveness over the past 15 years. The effectiveness of collaboration was expected to increase over time, as nations learn through experience and apply the latest technologies. But in fact, the survey results indicate that there has been no significant improvement.

Graphic: Measuring the collaboration gap. Source: IBV Institute of Business Value.

Interestingly, when in theater, interagency collaboration is rated as excellent at the lowest tactical levels, but respondents noted that it lacks integration at the higher levels of command. The more junior officers tend to rate their operations as more effective than the very senior ranks. Why such a disparity? Perhaps senior officers have higher expectations or are closer to some of the political and bureaucratic constraints visible at headquarters.

Graphic: Average effectiveness of coalition partners. Source: IBM Global Defense Study.

To bridge the gap, defense forces can take action in three main areas:

Collaborative ways of working
Defense forces should encourage collaborative conduct in their future leaders through leadership development training or the use of performance measures that recognize coalition success as important. Perhaps specific responsibilities should be included in leaders’ roles, such as targets to improve collaboration with particular coalition partners. Collaboration champions could be identified, with the directive to facilitate coalition effectiveness.

Sharing information
There are many concrete actions that defense forces can take to improve information sharing. For example, new multilevel security systems with proper partitioning and access control of sensitive data can help overcome security constraints. Work can also continue to align security policies and procedures. Standardization of data definitions and rigorous information governance procedures will build confidence in data quality. High-quality language translators are now becoming available and can be built into applications and communications systems, such as instant messaging.

Exploiting technology
The immediate priority for many coalitions is implementing a compatible infrastructure with sufficient bandwidth to support coalition applications. Achieving a shared infrastructure is a difficult challenge. Often the preferred solution is to use the lead coalition partner’s technical standards and systems. (In practice, only the United States is able to fulfill this role.) However, this approach is not favored by all respondents. Alternatives might include building a new infrastructure based on NATO standards, or adopting open architectures, standards and commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software, which is more likely to be interoperable with coalition partners’ systems.

The Security Jam

In early 2010, IBM, along with the Security & Defence Agenda, NATO and the European Union (EU), sponsored and contributed to the first ever Security Jam, an online discussion about Defense and security issues with nearly 4,000 participants from 124 countries. Held over five days, the Security Jam proved itself a catalyst for creative thinking by experts, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), national government decision makers and international institutions, industry representatives, soldiers, journalists, scholars and opinion leaders.

In March 2012, the tradition continued with the third online Security Jam. More than 3,800 posts from participants resulted in 10 recommendations (PDF, 739KB), which were presented to the NATO and EU leaderships ahead of the May 2012 Chicago summits, and other discussions about global security issues.

To build effective coalitions demands new approaches, exploiting technology, sharing intelligence and new ways of working to build trust and effective working relationships.

The goal of the Security Jam is not to write policy for any particular organization. It is to generate as many new ideas as possible and to build on the creative synergies of many minds focused on one topic: the changing nature of the security landscape in the 21st century.

The dominant issue is how to improve collaboration between NATO and the EU on approaches to defense and security, whether at strategic, operational or tactical levels. As defense forces participate in a wide range of missions, including humanitarian aid, nation building and disaster relief, those forces need to develop a comprehensive approach, engaging military and civil partners from different nations.

At the 2010 jam, 10 specific recommendations emerged from the various forums and were synthesized in the final report, which is available here. Half of these recommendations specifically relate to practical improvements in collaboration; for example, by creating a European Security academy, creating a civilian wing in NATO, creating a European Intelligence Agency, improving the EU’s public diplomacy and creating a joint publication between the EU and NATO. The report was circulated to senior decision makers in NATO and the EU as input to the review of the NATO Defense strategy and the setting up of the European External Action Service later that year.

Both the Global Defense study and the Security Jam report reinforce the widely held view that improving the effectiveness of coalitions is one of the most pressing challenges facing national defense forces and those international bodies such as NATO, the EU and NGOs that participate in the wide range of overseas operations. The reports are full of many practical suggestions about how collaboration can improve, but the track record showing little noticeable improvement over the past 15 years highlights the difficulties in making lasting improvements.

Allocating effort to improving coalition effectiveness can be compromised as there are strong incentives on defense leaders to protect local budgets. Improving collaboration will take time, but there are some immediate steps that can be taken to encourage defense forces to give it their attention. Above all improving coalition performance requires the commitment of defense leaders to set targets for improving effectiveness, measuring progress against these targets and making leaders accountable for delivering improvements.

IBM solutions to help

IBM is working with defence forces around the world to improve the effectiveness of coalitions. IBM solutions cover all areas of defence: battlefield, command and control, intelligence, logistics and back office. We have state-of-the-art technical solutions, backed by our extensive research activities, information management solutions and a wide range of consulting solutions, supported by a global team of experienced consultants.