July 14, 2008

A word of the day (a fairly new one for me anyway), the acronym ‘VUCA’, meaning “Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.” It is a blanket term to describe the rapid pace of change in the world, and how that change interacts in unpredictable and dangerous ways.

This is a reference from 2007 and here stating that it’s a term that’s been in use by the US Army since before 9/11, as in ‘VUCA U(niversity)” as a insider term for the Army War College.

No, I’m not just trying to be clever. Okay, I am trying to be clever, but there’s a real point to the title. It’s the insider nickname for the Army War College. What’s it mean? Well, I’m sure that you’ll all be surprised to discover that VUCA is an acronym (what is it with the Army and its fondness for acronyms, anyway?). VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. The AWC (damn, now I’m doing it, too) uses this as a model, developed by some very smart social scientists, for viewing the world. As you might expect, the Army sees VUCA as something of a bad thing; the central mission of the War College, then, is to teach senior officers how to reduce VUCA, how to strive for stability, certainty, simplicity, and clarity.

From the Australian Air Force:

The challenge to strategic leadership is recognizing that the decision maker cannot have a “stand-alone” perspective, and that effective strategic decisions must flow from a managed process that produces a perspective through consensus that is broader than any single person probably possesses.

National Security Strategy

Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) are not independent concepts. While each may describe certain aspects of a decision task. Each feeds the other. Strategic policy objectives are formulated within the context of this VUCA world.

To say that there is a new world order, and that the United States is the single remaining super-power somehow gifted with the responsibility for global leadership, is to do no more than open the door on the process of strategic policy formulation. The hard work is in formulating policy objectives that are compatible with the world that will emerge over the next three or four decades. These are the policy decisions that will have added value to the world community as well as to the nation itself. This “new world” is now being shaped both by environmental forces and by the actions of key players on the world scene.

In 1980, the Tofflers wrote about a sea change-a contextual change of such mammoth proportions that old paradigms would no longer suffice. The Tofflers described two major revolutions that have transformed the course of human history, and asserted that we are now in the midst of a third revolution. The agricultural revolution began some 10,000 years ago, and the industrial revolution some 300 years ago. Each produced sweeping changes in how human effort was organized.

Now we have a third revolution-a third wave, a third age- the Information Age. With it comes an inundating wave of writings about what the information age is all about and what it will do either to or for us. The “third wave” is thought by many to be a dominant force transforming nations and societies, leading to a qualitatively different paradigm by which to interpret world events.

Just as the economic superstructure in the advanced industrial nations rests on food production, so the technology of the Information Age rests on the productive capacity of the Industrial Age. But the vast societal and cultural changes that are likely to occur later are unclear. The only certain things are that the world will get more complex, and will change in ways not clearly seen now.

The challenge for strategic leadership is to understand the dynamics of change that are now occurring, and develop the clearest possible visualization of the end results of change, with enough lead time to ensure a competitively advantageous position can be achieved.

VUCA as a Base

Coping with VUCA is the essence of strategic leadership. And, if the United States is to aspire to permanent global leadership, VUCA requires understanding different cultures, different kinds of national objectives, and different means other nations employ to achieve their objectives. And the logic for working effectively with nations around the globe must include not only competitive advantage for the United States, but “value added” for other nations.

We know what our existing knowledge lets us know and we see from our own perspectives, sometimes dimly. We make assumptions about other cultures, often mistakenly, based on what is reasonable in our own culture. We infer intentions based on what our intentions would be in that situation, “if we were they.” Strategic leadership must, of necessity, be based on a broader frame of reference. Using a VUCA Time Horizon will help provide that reference.

The term has wound its way into corporate. A reference from Fortune‘s site:

Robert McDonald, Procter & Gamble’s (PG, Fortune 500) chief operating officer, has borrowed a military term to describe this new business world order: “It’s a VUCA world,” he says – volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. “The idea that a butterfly flaps its wings in Africa and an earthquake occurs somewhere else in the world is our reality.

And fittingly enough, it’s a placename in Kosovo.

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