Donovan’s OSS: Nest of Spies or Big Bang Startup

This article was sent to the GSA on July 7, 2014 to support the preservation of offices of General William (“wild Bill”) Donovan and the Office of Strategic Services  on Potomac Hill, D. C. during World War Two.  It is based on Donovan’s Brain due for release in 2015.

©Copyright Robert Joseph Harris 2014, All Rights Reserved

Wild Bill Donovan

“OSS was a direct reflection of Donovan’s character. He was its spark plug, the moving force behind it. In a sense it can be said that Donovan was OSS.”

Stewart Alsop and Thomas Braden, Sub Rosa (1946)

On July 21 the General Services Administration will close the period for receiving comments on its plans to build new office space where the buildings on Potomac Hill now stand that housed America’s first global intelligence agency from 1941 to 1945 until it was shut down after WWII.

That agency, Office of Strategic Services, would become the Central Intelligence Agency in 1948. Its founding father was General William (“wild Bill”) Donovan who quickly assembled a diverse and dedicated band of highly skilled and highly intelligent people to build a world-class intelligence operation from scratch to combat the established world power of Nazi Germany on the move to take over earth.

Was the fledgling OSS a “nest of spies,” as Steve Hendrix described them in the Washington Post on June 28? Or was the OSS an innovative Government “big bang” startup, perhaps only the second one in our country’s history after the first startup, which founded America in 1776?

We argue that OSS was a big bang startup and, as such, the OSS buildings on Potomac Hill are sacred artifacts that should be preserved and celebrated as part of its proud legacy from its role in helping win WWII, and for its continuing huge impact on civil society through the innovative ideas that it created and validated through use, and then diffused organically throughout the world as standard practice.

Our view is that Donovan was the Steve Jobs of the OSS startup–wild, visionary, experimental, hanging onto the reins of his diverse team of strong-willed, highly-skilled, and highly-intelligent people with big egos trying to compete with each other and the 800 pound gorilla called Hitler and his established Nazi team. Like other startups, OSS was constantly growing out of its funding and space, and had to keep making requests from its venture capital partner, Uncle Sam, Inc.

From 1941 to 1943 the number of full-time OSS staff increased to over 10,000 people, 900 of whom were the brains of the operation¬-the Research and Analysis (R&A) group. They were building the OSS airplane as they were flying it at an estimated cost for its five years of $1.3 billion in 2007 dollars.

R&A was responsible for implementing Donovan’s vision of an all-source data-fusion analysis capability to understand everything about Germany’s strengths, weaknesses, its structure, its industries, its culture, its finances, its current technology, its new technology under development, it people, its geography, its plans, its key executives, their weaknesses, its transportation networks, its communication networks, its energy sources and their location, its spies,…EVERYTHING!

Donovan’s big idea (ahead of its time) was that a global war would be won more on information and strategy than on weapons and breaking secret codes, even though he was a 58 year-old soldier by training and inclination who had won the Medal of Honor for his service in WWI. Donovan essentially built R&A into his version of a Big Data Intelligent Analytics Computer with human brains that he fused together with sheer force of his personality and will.

He would not let anyone come into a meeting without leaving their ego at the door and knowing they were not to pontificate in their specialty; instead they learned to come in ready to openly collaborate on the issue at hand. Discussions were wild, wooly, brutal, fast, and effective. Below is a list of some of the little known positive impacts created by OSS during its existence from 1941 to 1945 that diffused into the civil sector during the last 70 years; they are still going strong today:

1. Created big data intelligent analytics before computers existed that were conducted with the smart brains of hundreds of people and their disciplines fused together into multidisciplinary teams as a crowd-sourced entity that collected big data from all sources imaginable from train schedules to industrial plans to rumors to solve complex problems.

2. Designed and implemented the first whole-person capability assessment for staffing the 11,000 personnel of the OSS, a process adopted and refined by AT&T and other large companies, which became the standard approach for career path planning in industry.

3. Enabled creation of the new discipline of Industrial Psychology by academics that turned the OSS whole person assessment program into a graduate academic field of teaching, research, and refinement at universities throughout the world.

4. Created, Tested, and Applied Modern Management methods during WWII before “management” was recognized as a discipline, and before Peter Drucker’s classic book on General Motor, Concept of the Corporation, was published in 1945 as the first book that treated modern management as an academic discipline, and formalized many of the key concepts that Donovan had already invented and used.

5. Launched the modern research and consulting industry when the key economist, 33 year-old Charles Hicks (who joined R&A at its beginning) left at the end of WWII to join fledgling think tank RAND Corporation, where he further developed Donovan’s multidisciplinary analysis methods that became standard tools used to grow the now multi-billion dollar knowledge-management industry (Hicks and others).

6. Transferred wartime crisis management techniques to peace time activities of all kinds from managing the student unrest of the 1960s at the University of California (Hicks was President), to natural disasters, and emergency medical treatments.

7. Changed DoD Weapons Purchasing to a rational Program Planning and Budgeting System from a spot buying “retail purchasing” approach (Hicks, Enthoven and others).

8. Donovan’s Brain and legacy are alive today in the thousands of people who were trained by people who worked for people who worked with him at OSS and each other 70 years ago while protecting the freedom of us all.

Like Steven Job’s Apple Computer Company, Donovan’s OSS Company also went “public” as it became a permanent government entity known as the CIA. The main difference between the Apple and OSS startups is that virtually no one knows about OSS’s exciting history and positive impact it has had on America’s way of life, while virtually everyone knows the Steve Jobs and Apple Computer story and its impact.

If Presidents Jefferson and Eisenhower had a say in this matter they would say Donovan is one of our greatest heroes and OSS is one of our America’s most important public inventions ever; there is no better way to memorialize this great patriot and the OSS Organization than to preserve these historical buildings.

Robert Harris, PhD
CEO, Paradigm Research International
Innovation Expert

Arthur Reinhardt

OSS Treasurer

CIA, Retired

2 thoughts on “Donovan’s OSS: Nest of Spies or Big Bang Startup

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