Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 21, 2013

The homeland security conversation

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on March 21, 2013

This afternoon I’m giving a presentation to the Virginia Emergency Management Association.  My topic is the strategic capacity of supply chains in potentially catastrophic events.  A Virginian heard me give a similar presentation on the West coast and asked for an update.

In mid-December I was pushed onto a stage in front of a bunch of scientists.  From the (lack of ) questions and the open-mouth stares encountered, I must have lapsed into glossolalia… their reaction perhaps being similar to your reaction to my use of glossolalia.  In any case, they were paying attention, but I failed to make a relevant connection.

I prefer open-mouth stares to dropped-dead heads working on their texts. This is my principal recollection of a session with “senior leadership” of an important organization.  The only person actually making eye-contact with me was the Big Guy.  Later he and I had an interesting conversation.  When I sought out the executive responsible for the core of my presentation she mostly wanted to talk about the weather.

Dead-heads are increasingly common, despite a colleague’s description of my presentation style as being “as much dancing as talking.”  The senior guy who put me on the agenda was sure the audience was listening. “We’re expert multi-taskers,” he explained.  Maybe.  I perceived a strong intellectual force-field seeking to exclude anything that might pierce the current consensus.  I left plenty of time for questions, there were none.

This afternoon I’ve been given 60 minutes.  I intend to present some supply chain findings specific to Virginia.  In rehearsal I’ve been able to do this in 17 to 20 minutes.   I think there are some provocative findings.  Then I plan to give the rest of the time to questions and answers.  I would prefer to focus on issues that are relevant to the audience.

Related to relevance: I hope a conversation might begin.  Supply chain is not — yet — a typical EM issue. I would like to hear some local supply chain stories and respond with stories of my own.  I would like to hear some catastrophe stories and ask some questions of the audience.  I would like to hear some questions I have not previously considered. Conversation is derived from root words meaning “to turn”.  In a conversation we are turning a topic upside-down, right-side-up, and every which way, thinking together about all the different angles.  Questions are the keys to the kingdom of new knowledge and potential wisdom.

There is too much information (at least too much for me).   There is an amazing amount of knowledge (information-in-context).    There is too little wisdom (ability to apply knowledge), which I perceive is one of the outcomes of too little conversation.

We gather information, analyze, report, present, argue.   We defend hypotheses and theories.  We marshal arguments and propose solutions.    There are times and places for all these.

But without a parallel process of conversation — including the casual give-and-take of uncertainties and unknowns — the analytical process leaves us with little more than separate pieces and divided lives.

Conversation is, I perceive (argue?), especially important to homeland security.   If there is any value-added to homeland security it is as an integrative, questioning, creative influence on disciplines related to the field.   Disciplines seem naturally — and rather helpfully — inclined to reductionism.  What works?  What’s the best formula for success?  Define, train, exercise, and deploy it.  In other words, be disciplined.

And even in the most hard-core disciplines, conversations are a regular part of life in the firehouse, police precinct, and at other grass-roots.   But these are usually discipline-specific (or community-specific) conversations.  The homeland security conversation, if it happens at all, is mostly the outcome of inter-disciplinary conferences; where we have often adopted an anti-conversational approach.

About two-thirds of the presentations I have heard over the last 120 days might accurately be entitled: “Let me introduce myself/my workplace/work assignment/tribe/INSERT”.  Even when their work clearly had merit, the presentations often communicated navel-gazing self-absorption (and defensiveness).  In several cases I know the presenters were specifically invited to present on topics other than their organization, were coached through mini-presentations to emphasize the other purposes, but once they were given the stage they defaulted to the cult of self-aggrandizement.  Not a very effective conversation-starter.

After one recent conference a female colleague commented, “None of these guys seem to know the way to get attention is to pay attention to what the other person considers important.”  I had a sense she might have been making a broader critique.

At one recent multi-disciplinary conference there were no breaks scheduled, so as not to interfere with the “transfer of information.”  Stop with the inert and self-referential information! Give me an opportunity to engage, question, and play with your knowledge.   Schedule more coffee-breaks, not fewer.  Have more small groups and fewer keynote speeches.  TED talks have their place.  But I would rather talk with Ted.

Mark Twain offered, “Let us make a special effort to stop communicating with each other, so we can have some conversation.”

I’ll let you know how it goes this afternoon.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

March 21, 2013 @ 3:03 am

So Phil! Can or should supply chains be regulated to promote resilience? Does focus on the bottom line destroy resilience?

Is just in time inventory control related to resilience? Positively or negatively?

What organizations in DHS focus on supply chains as related to HS? Does DHS let contracts or hire consultants to focus on supply chains?

What is the best open source document or documents discussing supply chains and their relationship to HS?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 21, 2013 @ 5:38 am


I don’t think a traditional regulatory approach would achieve much (good). The system changes too dynamically and would, essentially, just self-organize to minimize the regulation. It probably makes more sense to treat the supply chain as a “commons” (ala Ostrom) than an industry. This suggests creatively brokered self-management.

JIT and related elements of lean supply chains have probably increased systemic resilience in all but the most catastrophic contexts. Depending on the character, location, and footprint of the potential catastrophe there are aspects of the current system that will amplify negative consequences of a potentially catastrophic event. Some of these amplifications are worth real concern.

Most of the DHS organizations involved in CIP (e.g. NPPD) have a recognized connection with supply chains. It is an increasing target of concern. Certainly DHS (and other government agencies) let many contracts and hire myriad consultants related to their own supply chains. There is much less attention to the supply chain as a national asset. This is why the National Strategy for Global Supply Chain Security, previously discussed at HSLWatch, could be so important.

I have seen/heard classified briefings on the supply chain. You would be better served to punch in “supply chain” at Amazon, select almost any serious text, and use your own analysis and imagination to derive strategic lessons for resilience and security.

Regarding my broader point: It is worth pointing out that this quick give-and-take is not conversational. You asked good questions… I chose to answer with more implied certainty than is appropriate given my ignorance. If we were face-to-face, you would have seen me lean back, laugh, be incoherent, and finally offer something tentatively responsive. This would have encouraged a symmetrical response by you and, maybe, we would have actually started a conversation about the supply chain… each helping the other to a new understanding.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 21, 2013 @ 9:02 am

Interesting to note that the FEMA presentations on the VEMA program were canceled due to sequestration cut-backs. One of the presentations was on PPD-8. In this way the potential for an interdisciplinary strategic conversation has been further curtailed. Travel is often toward the top of the “savings”list. Obviously it depends on the purpose of travel and how that purpose is pursued, but travel has always remained close to the top of my priorities, especially when money is tight.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 21, 2013 @ 9:59 am

So if the US has largely reverted to Come-As-You-Are warfare would it be safe to assume that HS is active only after mobilization and if necessary re-establishment of supply chains?

And given the professional experts in Logistics is supply chain theory and practice their domain?

Do any colleges and universities have degrees in logistics and/or supply chains?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 21, 2013 @ 5:23 pm

As promised a quick report: I was preceded by a related 40-45 minute presentation. I then took about 18 minutes to give a project overview (I think it was coherent) and this was followed by about 35 minutes of give-and-take with the audience.

Most of the questions and comments — I realize in retrospect — had to do with 1) how to open up relationships with the private sector and 2) how to manage relationships within the public sector “chain-of-command” (more or less, loosely defined) to facilitate private-public relationships.

So… I engaged in a conversation with several members of the audience about how we do what we can with what we’ve got, brokering relationships, finding allies, and not allowing the chain-of-command to chain us down. In front of a mostly (all?) public sector crowd I was concerned that my attitude toward the chain-of-command might seem fanciful or worse. But at least among those who came up to talk afterwards, it was received in the spirit it was offered: not as prideful insubordination, but as creative problem-solving.

I am never quite sure what I actually have said when I finish these spontaneous exchanges. There was at least one riff where I probably just babbled. But I wonder if risking being stupid doesn’t help the conversation? So… stammering a bit and even going over-the-top may encourage audience members to also step out of their comfort zone where we can think together about what is often called unthinkable.

Being able to have a kind of real conversation today helped me recognize that my project — in contrast to most others I heard presented — is very open-ended. I don’t know, precisely, where it is going. There are emerging patterns, but they are very tentative. It could all fall apart in loose pieces OR it could come together with some very strong collaboration between non-traditional partners. It is getting close to the critical moment, but it is still too soon to see if the yeast will rise (or not).

Was it worth the time and effort to drive 120 miles each way? Was it worth the risk of sounding stupid? What is the value — and potential risk — of sharing innovative approaches that have tentative outcomes? I don’t — yet — have answers to these questions. It is possible I will never really know. Is this inability-to-know an innate indictment of the effort? What about credible performance measures?

I am an introvert. It costs me more than others to open myself to an audience. I will not sleep well tonight. I will second-guess waaay too much. But I have spent most of my life doing this kind of work because in, maybe, one out of ten times something wonderful happens, something that would not have otherwise happened, and somehow the one joy seems to justify the nine (or more) occasions of low-grade pain.

The art of the conversation… it is not an easy art.

(Bill: To respond… I am not tracking your first comment… not sure what you are saying. There are significant undergraduate and graduate programs in logistics and supply chain management. There are also professional and academic thought leaders looking at the sort of policy issues involved in national and international resilience of supply chains. But I perceive there is a significant gap between resilience theory and actual supply chain practice.)

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 22, 2013 @ 7:25 am

Thanks Phil!

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 23, 2013 @ 7:50 am

And Phil ever thought about an OPEN Thread every Friday when the normal posts are skipped? Give other readers and commentators a chance to post comments or vent or praise!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 23, 2013 @ 8:11 am

Bill: Thanks for the suggestion. I just “opened” a space and back-dated it to Friday. Phil

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