Consultants: Help Wanted in Afghanistan

josh-russ.jpgImagine a company with a new board of directors, charged with entering complex markets while managing rapid growth, both organic and through M&A. This company is struggling to hit its performance targets. It has been hemorrhaging money and hasn’t turned a profit in over eight years. Needless to say, shareholders are upset. How would most senior management teams handle these problems? In today’s competitive business space, chances are they would go outside the organization for highly skilled, industry knowledgeable, impartial consultants to work with them to solve strategic-level inefficiencies.

Now consider that this troubled company is actually NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). ISAF (the “Coalition”) faces real business problems in Afghanistan and are pressured by a global audience to make significant progress by the end of 2010. The Coalition is at a tipping point and should use every resource available to improve their bottom line — promote stability and support security sector reforms throughout Afghanistan. Who are they bringing in to help them expand, operate efficiently, measure success, and develop a unified strategy?

The simple answer: no one. The Coalition is using whoever they already have within their organization, which often means under-qualified and overwhelmed military officers. These officers, well suited to manage battle space, are ill-equipped to solve complex business issues integral to running a large organization and achieving socioeconomic progress in a counter-insurgency mission.

The Coalition should look outside to readily available management and strategy consultants. These consultants would provide unbiased expertise to address strategic business problems in an otherwise military doctrine-oriented organization. The similarities between Afghanistan’s conflict challenges and those of a troubled business are striking. With improved business processes, disparate and uncoordinated stakeholders in Afghanistan could effectively align and extend the value of their time and money.

Strategy consultants could solve many problems for the Coalition. One example is in aligning disparate strategies. There are a myriad moving parts in the coalition machine, but they’re not working in unison. Aid agencies are focused on development in secure areas, while the military is focused on securing hostile areas. Recently there has been an increased recognition for the need to coordinate; the military doesn’t want to risk a soldier’s life if development and governance projects will not follow. With so many national lines and funding sources and no one explicitly in charge, coordination can become a cripplingly time-consuming and futile exercise. Without any single organization in charge, many individual strategies continue to be executed and a great deal of money wasted.

Accomplishing “unity of effort” will require formal coordinating mechanisms, redefinition of stakeholder roles, and personnel dedicated to management. Organizational change strategists are familiar with these challenges. Trends toward increasing civilian-military integration are evident, but they are ad-hoc and inconsistent across organizations. Regional Command-South has a Civil-Military Cell and the U.S. Embassy has a Civil-Military Action Group, each with slightly different objectives and no defined counterpart in other Embassies, Regional Commands, or Headquarters. A consulting team could approach this problem holistically and impartially. They could evaluate where coordination is most essential, establish formal decision-making processes and complementary organizational structures, and identify who is best suited to manage these processes.

Consultants are starting to make an appearance in Afghanistan at the strategic level. In Southern Afghanistan, a UK firm (Upper Quartile) was hired by USAID to formulate two strategic analyses which formed the basis for a Regional Campaign Plan. The first analysis provided a framework for regional economic development and the second outlined enablers for improving licit agriculture income. They were quickly endorsed by the military, embassies, and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA). This signifies a paradigm shift: the military is looking for civilians to shape policy during a counter-insurgency. Experienced problem solvers are in demand and should have a more pronounced role in shaping strategies.

Management and strategy consulting firms have much to gain by expanding business into Afghanistan. Any firm involved in successfully executing this type of high-profile strategy work would gain access to new regional markets. Gathering business intelligence in Afghanistan creates a first mover advantage which can be leveraged to bring in other clients as the country stabilizes. Firms will also be able to tie into the most visible political and military networks, currently the focus of major global media, with many opportunities for exposure. Consultants would be advisors at the highest level, helping General Officers and Ambassadors do their job more efficiently. Improving the business processes of the entire operation in Afghanistan and aligning the right expertise to the right jobs for the right amount of time is certainly newsworthy.

Change is occurring throughout Afghanistan, and the international community is looking for results. The Coalition, in business terms, must address its operational and organizational dysfunction to become profitable. If it were a public corporation, would the management team hesitate to leverage every tool available? Consultants stand ready to improve the bottom line.

Our Story
In the summer of 2008, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates convinced the lead nations in Regional Command South, Kandahar, Afghanistan of the need for coordinated civilian-military strategy development and planning. In December of that same year, the CIVMIL Cell was created with a mandate to build a regional comprehensive integrated strategy to inform military planning. Our eight person team was not a consultancy, but filled typical consulting roles. We collected information from various stakeholders, organized integrated strategies, and delivered them to the headquarters’ General Officers.

There were only two military officers in this shop, both MBAs. 1LT Russell Grant, a reserve officer, was activated and put his career at IBM Strategy & Change on hold and LT Welle, a ship driver, recently finished teaching Political Science at the U.S. Naval Academy. Crossing paths in Afghanistan was purely chance, but in conducting our staff mission we participated in planning at all levels — from executive meetings in Kabul to grass-root shuras. The desire for our business-oriented perspective made it clear there was a missing ingredient in ISAF — strategy consultants with complex problem-solving experience.

1LT Russell L. Grant (USAR) and LT Joshua W. Welle (USN) served in the Civil-Military Planning Cell at the Regional Command-South Headquarters in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Russell Grant is a Senior Consultant for IBM Strategy & Change and a graduate of Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon. Joshua Welle is a Navy surface warfare officer and holds an MA/MBA from the University of Maryland.

The views expressed here are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect those of the Army, the Navy, or the Defense Department.

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