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Sense and Response Organizations

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Ubiquitous information and communication technologies are defining the Information Age. Our personal, professional, and organizational lives are radically changed by communication and information on demand at our fingertips. Resulting freedoms from the constraints of real time and space are leading to the globalization of the economy, culture, and values. Decision cycles are compressed because of nearly synchronous communication and accelerating expectations for engagement. The behavior of customers and competitors is no longer predictable. Annual strategic planning cycles are being overtaken by demands for greater responsiveness that can only be achieved through increased organizational ability to gather information from the environment and to respond effectively and quickly. Rapid prototyping and speed to market are essential. Successful organizations need to leverage information and information technology for strategic advantage to survive, be sustainable in, and help influence the unpredictable world.


They need to develop new capabilities for global connectivity, real-time collaboration, rapid and continuous information sharing that facilitate shared situational awareness, boundary less interaction and leadership opportunities, ubiquitous access and transformation of organizations to the Information age. In the defense arena this set of capabilities is called net centricity, defined as people, processes, and technology working together to enable timely access to information, sharing of information, and collaboration among those who need it the most. Net centric communication and collaboration will allow large, complex organizations to survive by adapting systematically, with flexibility, agility, and responsiveness.

They must go beyond the traditional model of make and sell to develop their information gathering, decision making capabilities, and internal operations to sense and response to meet evolving customer needs. While all organizations will need to operate to some degree as “make and sell” organizations, they will need to grow their capacities to sense and respond if they are to compete in the 21st Century marketplace. By gathering and leveraging information, these organizations will be able to customize products and services to meet the needs of their current and new customers. The more customer-focused, net-centric, and agile they become, the more real-time information they seek, receive, process, and use to make decisions in response to the unknown and unexpected.


The specialized and rule-based processes of the Industrial Age federal bureaucracy grew in response to the size, complexity, and demands of government of an earlier time. Today, however, the inefficiency, opacity, cost, and unresponsive nature of government are out of line with Information Age opportunities and expectations, demands for efficiency, and impatience of citizens, suppliers, and employees. While there are some innovative efforts for e-government underway, the fundamental culture, nature, and core processes of government have changed little so far in the Information Age.

Despite its traditional hierarchical structure based on command and control systems and culture, the U.S. Department of Defense is committed to transform to net centricity to make agile and sense and respond behavior and cultures possible. Higher education is another very tradition bound institution. While it is taking advantage of information and communication technologies for many of its functions, the culture and core functions of teaching and learning at most institutions are still very traditional. A few innovative, responsive, sense and respond units of traditional universities or the new entrepreneurial universities are becoming net centric and agile, but both higher education and government are still primarily make and sell institutions, and by their very nature adapt very slowly to environmental changes.

In the Information Resources Management College, National Defense University began to embrace the concept of net centricity. While maintaining and enhancing its academic rigor as a college in a regionally accredited graduate institution the college began transforming from a traditional Industrial Age to a net centric college. Being net centric allows the college to sense and respond to today’s dynamic unpredictable environment. The college pulses current student, stakeholder and organizational needs and business environments worldwide, and anticipates the future. It fosters an agile culture in which innovation and initiative, self organization and governance drive its operations and policies. The college is actively engaged in its network of respected partners. Its business processes meet the dynamic information demands and expectations of its students, faculty, and staff.

The appropriate hardware, software, courseware and databases enable information gathering and sharing, and support of an engaged academic community. These papers describe the essential elements and stages of transformation to a net centric agile sense and respond organization and how one college strategically transformed. The final section of the paper proposes the college as a model for a net centric agile government and academic organization that might serve as a model for other organizations.

Net centricity, as defined for business in the 21st Century or the future military force, has five capabilities: global connectivity; real-time collaboration; rapid and continuous information sharing that leads to shared situational awareness, boundary-less interaction and leadership opportunities; and ubiquitous access. Net centricity creates an information rich environment populated by vastly increased number of valuable information sources that can be effectively discovered and utilized by those who need and can benefit from it. It is a transformation enabler that empowers all users with the ability to easily discover access, integrate, correlate and fuse data/information that supports their mission objectives.

The desired outcomes of net centric communication are decision making that is timely, informed, more robust and dispersed, and authority and responsibility dispersed across a flatter organization. Initiative, adaptability, and innovation are encouraged because members of the net-centric network are engaged, informed, and empowered. Effective real time information allows an organization to develop its capacity to sense and respond. According to Haeckel, in sense and respond organizations addictiveness takes precedence over efficiency because change is continuous. In contrast with make and sell organizations in which change was predictable, efficiency was the priority, and planning could take place on long term cycles, sense-and-respond organizations are designed to gather and act upon their dynamic and unpredictable environment. The needs of customers become the engine driving a company’s operation. In response, the organization changes, and context and coordination replace command and control.

Employees are empowered to respond to customer needs within the well understood mission and parameters. The organization is engaged in anticipating and pre empting the actions of customers and competitors. If growth is finding and developing new ways to establish sustainable competitive advantage, operational effectiveness, productivity, and efficiency though necessary, are not enough. According to research conducted by Gartner, today’s companies must innovate and create new market segments, distribution channels, product categories, service offerings, and production processes. Companies must be agile in order to deal with, explore and analyze the unknown or unexpected, and collaborate with others. Agility is the ability of an organization to sense environmental change and respond efficiently and effectively to that change. Four fundamental capacities enable organizations to increase their agile performance: awareness, flexibility, adaptability, and productivity.

Awareness is proactive sensing and data gathering. Flexibility is the ability to respond appropriately to expected changes, while adaptability is the ability of the organization to respond to unexpected changes by adding options. Productivity is the capacity to respond effectively and efficiently with substantial internal changes that require innovation, involve risk, and are potentially disruptive. In order to sense and respond effectively and efficiently the leadership of adaptive and agile organizations must be more distributed than in command-and-control hierarchical organizations. Decision-making must be more decentralized in a culture in which the purpose and scope of the business are clear to everyone. Governing adaptive organizations requires a context for behavior, not a means for dictating it. The context consists of three elements: a reason for being that articulates the organization’s essential purpose, governing principles that set boundaries on allowable behavior, and a high level business design for how critical elements interact to fulfill the reason for being. Transforming to a sense-and-respond organization requires leadership commitment to create a new culture, capacities, systems, rewards, and behavior. The operational tempos of their organizations would likely continue to increase, keeping these professionals chained to their offices or in the field, and out of traditional classrooms.

Budgets were almost guaranteed to be tightened with support for traditional in resident learning at risk. In response, the leadership deliberately set a course toward agility and net-centricity. In response, the college now offers courses in at least four formats that vary in length and delivery mode. The longest program of eight courses leading to the Chief Information Officer Certificate is fourteen weeks in residence, but the same certificate can be earned by taking eight separate courses over four years in three delivery modes. Most students still come to campus for courses. Approximately 20 percent of all course enrolments are in interactive seminar distributed learning offerings that have no residential component. For about 5 percent of enrolments, the college conducts residential course offerings at the students’ location to accommodate their particular constituencies’ needs.

The college has expanded the array of programs into specialized areas in response to requests by students, alumni, and stakeholder organizations. Listening to stakeholders who report that a segment of their workforce needs learning delivered in individual courses but are not interested in credit for certificates or graduate degrees, the college is now actively recruiting students for professional development as well as certificate and graduate credit. The college is also offering workshops on requested topics of varying depth, for various audiences and purposes. This responsiveness to expressed stakeholder needs and interests has led to exciting engagements for many faculty members and increased the college’s reputation. Being responsive requires adjusting the workload metrics and rewards for faculty, as well as curriculum development and contracting for new products. The college is also expanding its global reach to offer courses and to share curriculum with faculty in collaborating international institutions. Government employees who become students of the college require access to education that offers them opportunities to think strategically about Information Age issues and challenges with their multi-agency peers.

The college’s students and faculty are technologically savvy and demand global 24/7 access and efficiency to satisfy their learning and business needs. To stay relevant to students, stakeholders, and faculty the college has become more net-centric and agile in its educational offerings and delivery systems, leadership and culture, networks, learning and business processes, and supporting technologies. The college leadership is transforming the college into a net-centric agile organization from one that was more traditionally governmental and military in its culture, hierarchy, internal focus, department-centric, residential location, and paper-based curriculum and business processes. To become an agile organization the college leadership must model and support collaboration, rapid and continuous information access and exchange, and global connectivity. The college leadership is evolving the culture by encouraging, rewarding, and modeling collaboration across diverse functions and departments both internally and externally. By sharing information and pushing responsibility for decision-making downward to department chairs and faculty members means that the leadership is distributing accountability and responsibility for quality. The leadership of the college regularly and deliberately communicates its expectations for curriculum and instruction to become net-centric, i.e., every course is to be enriched by e-learning so that enrolled students, even in resident offerings, can access e-learning lessons in the distributed learning formats in case a natural or man-made emergency prevents delivery of instruction on campus.


The leadership expects faculty to foster valuable network partnerships in their academic and professional fields. To set the context, leaders articulated a clear sense of mission and purpose, the governing principles that set boundaries for distributed leadership and responsibility, and a high level business design. The college leaders set strategic goals that require net centric operations to provide learning opportunities for students, business processes of the college, and professional and organizational partnering, cross-boundary collaborating, and global connectivity in physical and virtual space. To increase its partnerships the college expanded its engagement with private sector and public institutions, domestic and global, for concept development, academic programs, and timely learning. The college’s pioneering efforts in timework policy that led to a national award in 2004 required the integration of new technologies, business process, and policies for communication, productivity, and trust. Faculty are equipped with the appropriate hardware, software, and communication resources to facilitate learning, advise students, conduct research, and participate in college operations 24/7 remotely, even internationally, as necessary. The college facilitates net-centric teaching via its very successful interactive distributed learning (DL) model by weighting DL teaching as time and a half credit in calculating faculty teaching loads. In every one of its academic programs, the curriculum explicitly addresses the net-centric concepts of cross-boundary leadership, communication, and collaboration.

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