I've been to a couple of conferences recently where I was surprised to see representatives of the U.S. military on panels discussing various uses of technology, but I was shocked to learn that the military was on the cutting edge of the technologies being discussed. To be honest, my perception of the military would be more in line with the recent announcement that US Army was updating its 700,000 desktops at the end year, not with Windows 7 and Office 2010, but with Vista and Office 2007.
So how is it that the military can be by turns cutting edge and clueless?
Military Gets Social
At the AIIM conference in Philadelphia recently, I watched a CIO panel discuss various technology topics. When the discussion turned to social media, I was taken aback when the military representative, James Whitlock, Lt. Col., U.S. Air Force Medical, seemed to understand the most and the private sector representatives the least. Indeed, David Meerman Scott (whom I interviewed in Don't Spread a Virus, Catch a World Wide Rave), has written extensively about the Air Force's use of social media including this piece called The US Air Force and Social Media. A Discussion with Colonel Michael Caldwell.
Scott is clearly impressed with the way the Air Force has embraced social media and he wonders (quite rightly in my view) why some large corporations are so afraid of it:
I was impressed with how deeply the smart people at the Air Force have thought about social media and how quickly they have jumped in. I hope that people from all organizations, particularly executives in large corporations who are often fearful and dismissive of social media, can learn from Colonel Caldwell and the examples here.
They Get Cloud Computing Too
Last week I attended the MIT CIO Conference in Cambridge, MA and watched a panel called CIO Leadership and the Bottom Line that included representatives from Dell, IBM, Parexel and the Defense Information Systems Agency. When the talk focused on cloud computing, the Dell representative, Stephen Schuckenbrook, president, large enterprise was more enthusiastic than I would have expected, but Jo Hoppe, the CIO at Parexel took a dim view. Who embraced it fully? Rear Admiral Elizabeth Hight, vice director of the Defense Information Systems Agency.
Hight explained how the military has set up a flexible set of cloud services that enables people in the field to set up and break down a project very quickly, a must in a military situation. Hight said they have a secure system and they are able to provide their constituents what they need on the fly. Meanwhile Hoppe complained that her company, which deals with drug trials, couldn't use cloud computing because it wasn't secure enough and regulations prohibited it.
Panel moderator, Erick Brynjolfsson of the MIT Center for Digital Business did not miss the irony that the military, which requires perhaps the most secure network in the world was not afraid to engage in cloud computing, but the private sector company CIO claimed she was handcuffed by regulations around security.
But Why Vista?
Yet just as I'm beginning to think the military completely understands technology comes word the United States Army plans to upgrade their Windows XP/Office 2003, a perfectly good combination and as stable as you're likely to get from Microsoft to Vista/Office 2007. The obvious question is why go to Vista, which has been notoriously unstable?
I would feel a lot better about our military personnel on XP than I would on Vista. But if you're going to upgrade here's a little advice: Dudes, Windows 7 and Office 2010 is on the way. If you insist on going with a Microsoft solution, you're probably better waiting for the upgrade .
Even better, you might want to consider Linux and OpenOffice for a majority of desktops and save the tax payers a few dollars.
In the end, the military is like any other large organizations making some good technology decisions and some bad ones, but when they make good ones, private companies can watch and learn and realize there's nothing to be afraid of when it comes to moving your organization forward on the technology curve. Just stay away from Vista for goodness sakes.