April 07, 2005

Defense Language Transformation Roadmap

Fred Kaplan in Slate tears into what he calls "one of the funniest and saddest government documents I've run across in years", the Defense Language Transformation Roadmap. Money quote:

In the three and a half years after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States built a massive arsenal, equipped an equally massive fighting force, and declared victory in a worldwide war over imperial Japan and Nazi Germany.

In the three and a half years after the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, the U.S. government funded dozens—if not hundreds—of Russian-language and Russian-studies departments not just within the military but in high schools and colleges all across America.

Now, three and a half years after Islamic fundamentalists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Department of Defense is three months away from publishing an official "instruction" providing "guidance for language program management."

Well, the DoD has been doing a few other things. And other relevant sectors of American society have not all been joining in enthusiastically. But still...

Kaplan's complaint reminds of something that happened towards the end of my (generally positive) 15 years in the research lab of a large company:

Style 1 : 50-odd R&D department heads sat in meetings for several months to plan a weekend "technology portfolio exposition" for managers of line organizations.

Style 2 : the CEO of a small ($100M/year sales) technology company had an idea, called a friend who told him to talk to me, reached me by phone on the Thursday before the big weekend exposition, and then flew in from California overnight for a brief demo Friday morning at the computer in my office, and a conversation over lunch about implementation issues.

Style 1 results: After the weekend technology show, we set up a subcommittee to compile and evaluate the responses, and scheduled a further series of meetings to decide on the methodology for prioritizing product opportunities for further exploration.

Style 2 results: Monday morning, FedEx delivered a package from Friday's visitor, containing a draft licensing agreement and half a dozen bound copies of a business plan.

Of course the license agreement and business plan then languished for quite a long time in the committee charged with considering such proposals. In fact, I think they were still there when I left the company.

The U.S. Department of Defense now seems to exhibit instances of both styles, in general and in the specific case of its language needs. My impression is that the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, for example, has responded rapidly and effectively to changes that began fifteen years ago with the end of the Cold War, and have accelerated over the past few years since 9/11. However, the document that Kaplan links to certainly gives an impression of something less than urgency felt in some other quarters.


Posted by Mark Liberman at April 7, 2005 02:18 PM