Armed Forces as a Learning Organisation
Archived Articles 30 Aug 2009  EWR
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Tomas Jermalavicius, ICDS

Confronted with formidable challenges of counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States military realised that their old ways of conducting warfare were irrelevant and that they had to relearn the forgotten tricks of “small wars” anew. In this quest, the U.S. military leadership became fascinated with a rather old managerial concept of learning organisation: the counterinsurgency manual of 2006 explicitly refers to the imperative for the U.S. military to turn itself into a smart learning organisation as a precondition for long-term success in current and future military campaigns.

Learning organisation (and the related concept of organisational learning) is not just about instituting a requirement of continuous training and education for members of an organisation. Popularised by such authors as Bob Garratt and David Garvin, it refers to the ability of the entire organisation to continuously learn and change itself. For organisations operating in a highly complex and competitive environment, such an ability is a matter of survival. If failure to learn for a business organisation often means bankruptcy and financial loss to its owners, failure of a military organisation to learn may underpin a national disaster such as a loss of sovereignty.

Being a learning organisation is very much about building the right organisational culture, supported by appropriate structural and procedural arrangements. These are organisations characterised by the climate of critical and long-term thinking, open dialogue, empowerment, participation, supportive leadership and shared vision. They encourage their members to be entrepreneurial – to take risks, experiment and innovate, even fail – and reward continuous learning and improvement. As a rule, they have flat and flexible structures, few rigid standard operating procedures and many cross-functional teams. They are hungry for new data and new knowledge and have mechanisms in place to generate and disseminate them.

Historically, smart and victorious military organisations evolved as natural learners, displaying many of the above properties. Modern Western military organisations are inconceivable without such aspects, often taken for granted, as “mission command”, honest and deep “lessons learned” from realistic exercises as well as operations, “jointness” in planning and execution, vigorous concept development and experimentation (CD&E) activities, continuous self-development of personnel as well as 360-degree feedback. The ongoing military transformation within many NATO countries underlines the need to rely on these characteristics of smart military.

At the same time, there are some limits as to how far armed forces can go down the path of promoting the culture of learning. For instance, in wartime, there is often little time for open dialogue and critical thinking. Commander’s responsibility and speed of execution in the thickness of war matter more than thorough discussions about the merits of the chosen course of action. Reckless risk-taking may endanger military personnel or innocent civilians. Lack of rigid SOPs when it comes to safe handling of equipment during exercises or in performing routine peacetime tasks may lead to loss of lives or property. And, during peacetime preparations, political masters would not want the military to experiment with concepts, deemed incongruent with national policy, strategy or societal values.

But often these and other natural limitations pale in comparison with how anti-learning military organisations can become: hierarchical, bureaucratic, entangled in thousands of regulations and SOPs, full of autocratic leaders and passive executors, intolerant to critical thoughts, hostile to uncomfortable evidence, punitive towards initiative and risk-taking, insistent on “zero defects” policy, rewarding obedience rather than honesty and commitment to learning, and stubbornly attached to old doctrines and practices. (in the Baltics, we often refer to these characteristics as “Soviet”, although some Western armed forces may exhibit them as well).

As all three Baltic states are celebrating the 90th anniversary of their armed forces, an appropriate question to ask is which way they are heading – towards becoming smart learning organisations, capable of anticipating and constantly adapting to new strategic challenges, or dumb anti-learning entities, bound to fail in their duty to the nation. So far, the picture is mixed at best. But as they grow beyond the pains and daily challenges of reconstituting themselves from scratch, the trends will become clearer. After all, shaping the right organisational culture is a long-term undertaking.

To get their institutional “software” – military culture – incorporate a crucial algorithm of effective organisational learning, our armed forces will need much patient effort by all their members, whatever their rank and position, to promote and practice the values, mentality and behaviour concomitant with nature of a learning organisation. They will also have to become more reflective, self-conscious as well as self-critical and stop just imitating “best practice” of management and leadership of more advanced military organisations while essentially adhering to the old “Soviet” (i.e. anti-learning) ways.

Equally important, they will need all the support and understanding of their political masters and general public that they can muster in maintaining their professional autonomy. Without such support as well as respect to professional boundaries of the military, there can be no genuine progress towards smart learning armed forces of the 21st century, capable of serving their nation in an effective manner. This is a progress that each and every stakeholder of defence, be it statesman, military man /woman, or ordinary citizen, should desire, demand and pursue.
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