John Boyd and social media marketing

I recently finished Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, by Robert Coram.  The book tells the story of an Air Force fighter pilot who brought a radically different way of thinking about buying and flying fighter planes, the E-M Theory, the USAF.  I highly recommend reading it yourself.  (Huge thank you to Ryan Holiday for his reading list and monthly updates).

Energy Maneuverability theory is a model of aircraft performance. It was promulgated by Col. John Boyd, and is useful in describing an aircraft’s performance as the total of kinetic and potential energies or aircraft specific energy. It relates the thrust, weight, drag, wing area, and other flight characteristics of an aircraft into a quantitative model. This allows combat capabilities of various aircraft or prospective design trade-offs to be predicted and compared.


Boyd also came up with a theory about decision making in warfare, the OODA loop.  The theory has since been applied more generally to how an entity reacts to an event.

Harry Hillaker (chief designer of the F-16) said of the OODA theory, “Time is the dominant parameter. The pilot who goes through the OODA cycle in the shortest time prevails because his opponent is caught responding to situations that have already changed.”

Boyd hypothesized that all intelligent organisms and organizations undergo a continuous cycle of interaction with their environment. Boyd breaks this cycle down to four interrelated and overlapping processes through which one cycles continuously:

  • Observation: the collection of data by means of the senses
  • Orientation: the analysis and synthesis of data to form one’s current mental perspective
  • Decision: the determination of a course of action based on one’s current mental perspective
  • Action: the physical playing-out of decisions

– Wikipedia

I work for IBM doing social media for a competitive team focused on Oracle.  And it seems to me that a theory originally designed for air-to-air combat could be applied to the ebbs and flows of social media.  (Which I consider to be the exchanging and transmitting of ideas between people).  Time is again the dominant parameter.  Whoever can collect data the fastest and react to it the most intelligently will have an edge over his competitors.  In Boyd’s words, they can get inside their competitor’s decision making cycle, and force the competitor to make decisions on situations that have already changed.
Big corporate environments, whether it is the military or a private entity, aren’t known for their rapid decision making.  That’s why I think social media decisions should be pushed far down the chain of command, all the way to the immediate experts in a subject area.  The experts who are closest to a topic (in my case, frequently database software or middleware or hardware engineers) are in the best position to observe social media “conversations” and act on what they are reading.

In my next post, I’ll discuss why I think the role of a social media lead inside a big corporate company should be to prepare an organization’s experts to do just that – observe and act and make their own decisions with as little corporate oversight as possible.  Anything else is just too slow!
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Posted in Book Review, IBM, Marketing

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