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Kathleen Sutcliffe
  Kathleen Sutcliffe

Recommendations of 9/11 Report May Not Be Enough

2/13/2006 --

Directives aimed at strengthening information sharing and improving strategic intelligence may not be enough to protect against future attacks.

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—The recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Report, though well-intentioned, ignore the reality that information-handling difficulties and faulty communication have been common contributors to many large-scale disasters, says a University of Michigan business professor.

Kathleen Sutcliffe of Michigan's Ross School of Business cautions that post-9/11 directives aimed at strengthening information sharing and improving strategic intelligence may not be enough to protect against attacks in the future.

"The terrorist strikes of 9/11 were unexpected by many, but not by all," said Sutcliffe, professor of management and organizations at the Ross School. "Organizational theorists interested in understanding organizational crises and failures and how systems can remain reliable in the face of unexpected events have recounted for some time the vulnerabilities of complex systems and the likelihood of breeches in possible defenses.

"Although it would be nice to be more optimistic than pessimistic, it isn't clear that the 9/11 report's recommendations alone will eliminate vulnerability, as they are intended to do."

In an article forthcoming in the International Public Management Journal, Sutcliffe examines several key interpersonal, group and inter-organizational challenges to information sharing and knowledge management that are overlooked by the 9/11 report's recommendations. Those recommendations focus on culture as well as the organizational structures that influence it, and call for unifying and reorganizing the government, particularly in the areas of strategic intelligence and operational planning, as well as counter-terrorism.

The bottom-line objective, she says, is to integrate and coordinate the approach, outlook and priorities of large numbers of responders from disparate units in a way that enables them to achieve collective, sustained responses to crisis situations.

Process challenges, however, can limit the motivation of people to share information, she says.

"Groups of functional specialists (with non-overlapping work expertise) may be unable to exploit their diverse expertise because they are less motivated to share information, and thus they share less than groups composed of some generalists," Sutcliffe said. "In contrast, individuals with a broad range of experience are more likely to recognize the relevance and importance of information they possess, both for individuals in other areas and for the group as a whole. Thus, they are more motivated to share information, so the level of information sharing should be high."

Groups trying to convert divergent perceptions into action face other problems as well, according to Sutcliffe.

"Diverse groups sometimes focus only on the perceptions that are held in common, so unique information does not get shared," she said. "Yet, it is the divergence, not the commonality, in information and perceptions that holds the key to detecting anomalies."

The 9/11 report's recommendations also call for bolstering information acquisition and sharing by improving information technology and databases. However, increasing the volume of information not only creates more internal-processing problems, but also can lead to greater ambiguity, i.e., multiple and sometimes conflicting meanings, Sutcliffe says.

"Debate, discussion and other group processes can resolve ambiguity, but these processes are complicated when the organizational culture emphasizes assertive behaviors, such as advocacy, rather than active listening," she said.

Culture not only can increase ambiguity, but also can resolve it, sometimes with unwanted consequences, she said. Rigidities in assumptions and beliefs, for example, bring the danger of collective blindness to issues and raise the danger that precipitating events outside the bounds of organizational perception may go unnoticed or may be misunderstood.

Finally, an inter-organizational condition called "variable disjunction of information" has been shown repeatedly to play a role in fostering large-scale crises and disasters. This condition, Sutcliffe says, occurs when multiple groups handling a problem are unable to obtain precisely the same information and thus many differing interpretations of a situation exist, making complete consensus almost impossible to achieve.

"Cultures that press a diverse set of people to seek consensus or to agree on a single description of a situation may inadvertently stifle the reporting of anomalies," she said. "Because consensus takes time, this allows problems to worsen and makes their origins harder to uncover."

Despite rigorous investigative efforts, the causes and complexity of disasters such as 9/11 may never be fully understood, in part because such inquiries focus on the problem after the fact rather than on how it presented itself to those involved beforehand, Sutcliffe says.

"It is tempting to think the conditions preceding 9/11 are unique and that the inability of individuals to bring together information in a way which would have made the danger clear was a one-off situation—one that can be remedied by more unified organizational structures and cultures, stronger norms of information sharing and more widely available sources of information," she said. "But this situation isnít that simple, and there is more to it than this naÔve view implies."

Written by Claudia Capos

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat
Phone: (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847