Originally posted Monday, April 28, 2003
Waiting for our Clausewitz
Carl von Clausewitz died in 1831 leaving an unfinished manuscript and other papers that his wife edited and published between 1832 and 1837. The most important of these was On War. That work was not an instant success, but it has been an enduring work. Even today articles and books continue to analyze Clausewitz's work and, most interestingly, use that work to analyze military problems in the present. See here for examples.
Clausewitz holds a position that is striking. Not only is he esteemed by scholars, he is read by current practitioners. In business studies few hold an analogous position. There are scholars whose work gets taught in B-schools but these are rarely the books that executives recommend. Further, these latter are often examples of the fad de jure (reengineering, discipline of market leaders, Tom Peters, etc.) and lack staying power.
The only exception i can think of is Michael Porter. His work is used in B-schools and also in corporate strategic planning. Porter, however, differs radically in his approach. Clausewitz presents descriptive theories, his aim is to help the future commander prepare himself for the challenges he will face. In contrast, Porter's work is intensely prescriptive. His Five-factor framework and generic strategies are templates waiting for the executive's implementation.
Porter's, then, implies that the key to business strategy is "knowing". The doing will almost take care of itself. Clausewitz never presumed that the science of war (which gets studied in peacetime) could ever supplant the art of war (which wins actual battles and campaigns).
One big reason why command remained an art was "friction" one of Clausewitz's signal contributions to military theory:
In war, "everything looks simple; the knowledge required does not look remarkable, the strategic options are so obvious that by comparison the simplest problem of higher mathematics has an impressive scientific dignity."
"Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war."
"The military machine-- the army and everything related to it-- is basically very simple and therefore seems easy to manage. But we should bear in mind that none of its components is of one piece: each part is composed of individual, everyone of whom retains his potential of friction."