#41 The Army as a Learning Organization

I was mistakenly sent this article earlier this week by a command sergeant major who has become a mentor to me and one of the readers of the blog. He wanted me to comment on something he had written, but sent this one by mistake. It is an article in Joint Forces Quarterly entitled "Can the Army Become a Learning Organization?" You can find it at:


Before he knew that he had sent me the incorrect document, I had already written my reply. Because I think the issue is very important and one we should be looking at, I am going to include my response to the original document here:


Here are my thoughts on the article you sent me. The critical part of my response will be my 'orientation' toward the organization at the lowest level - the squad, section, platoon and company. I have taken quotations from the article and used them to form my thoughts. Obviously, the author's approach is much larger, i.e the institution itself. The problem here is that the bottom and the top can be - and many times are - very far apart due to different 'orientations'. Using OODA, those Orientations form the basis for most of the deficiencies we face.

"The US Army is an institution whose competence centers around the learning of its officers from their enrollment in its War Colleges to participation in After Action Reviews."

While this statement is very true, it implies that true learning in the Army doesn't begin until an officer reaches the rank of Lieutenant Colonel or Colonel. Basically, until they have reached the 17-22 year mark in their careers. Even if one accepts that learning is happening at the 2nd Lieutenant to Major level, it is mostly directed from the 'Orientation' of that person's supervisor. For example, if I have a boss who only recognizes kinetic (direct firefight) action as a viable answer to an enemy situation, then trying to learn about COIN (counterinsurgency) will probably not be accepted very well. Secondly, there is no reference at all to how learning happens in the enlisted corps. One of the overlooked portions of any article I've ever read regarding how 'smart' the Army is is that there are distinctly different learning priorities between the officer and enlisted corps. This may seem obvious, but it is fair to say that for any officer, formal classroom education is a priority. After all, the degree is the way they became an officer in the first place. For many in the enlisted corps that is not the case. This means that while my Lieutenant is a kid with an engineering degree from West Point, the Soldiers he leads will likely have anything from a High School equivalency to an Associates degree. And since we have linked promotion points to college credits, there is a strong likelihood that he took those classes not to learn, but to get promoted.

The 'education priority' gap is critical to recognize. Starting with the top (Senior officers) and looking down won't work. If we want to become a learning organization, we need to look at who needs to learn and how they are best suited to learning. This would reinforce to the entire service the value of formal education, allow for conceptual learning to happen (which improves responses to unforeseen situations) and, over time, assimilate improved critical thinking skills into the force.

"Both the normative and developmental perspectives focus on the problems and difficulties in promoting learning in organizations. When organizations fail to establish the necessary conditions, they suffer from learning disabilities due to the fundamental ways in which individuals have been trained to act and from barriers to discovering and utilizing solutions to organizational problems."

"Learning is avoided when leaders attribute failure not to internal causes but to conditions in the external environment or to factors that cannot be controlled."

This is a huge paragraph for me. If you start with a unit comprised mostly of people who do not value cognitive learning (the enlisted corps), create a culture where those who are considered 'educated' are not validated (the junior officer corps), and then back up that culture with a structure (Task/Condition/Standard based training) that creates barriers to mission accomplishment and the introduction of critical thinking skills, you will inevitably end up with an ever-increasing 'deep thought' gap between the officer and enlisted corps.

"Learning is apt to challenge established ways of doing things."

"However, what one finds in ant hierarchical organization is a conscious or subconscious tendency to defer to those in authority or positions of command. Beyond avoiding conflict, the pointing out of some mistake or error can also be embarrassing and thus socially unacceptable."

We spend a lot of time these days having SME's (Subject Matter Experts) on every little thing, but the truth is that in most cases, if the boss doesn't like what he/she is hearing, then the information itself becomes devalued - not just the method of delivery. This creates an environment where the information provider finds him/herself playing to the crowd. The information itself, however, will still be of neutral value; that is that it will be valid or invalid regardless of the manner it is presented. To challenge the status quo is to invite career suicide unless the organization holds as a pre-existing condition that careerism will not be valued over critical disagreement and thought. In another article I quoted in my blog, this was recognized as the difference between discussing and issue - widely seen as receiving guidance from the boss, and having a dialogue - which implies exploring an issue and it's closely related satellites in order to gain insight an understanding.

This idea is contrasted in the article by the following quote:

"If there is one trait of learning organizations, it is that information and knowledge flows freely up, down, and across the organization."

How many Army organizations do you know who work this way? Very few. Since we are an undereducated enlisted force who institutionally does not respect 'critical thought' and has a structure designed to work on experience over knowledge it becomes apparent that the entire rank structure becomes an impediment to learning. Educated Soldiers become a threat to their immediate superiors and create power and authority issues inside the organization.

In light of the Outcome Based thinking process, the article states :

"What should be of interest is not learning per se, but the impact of that learning relative to strategic directions."

This sounds a lot like OBT&E to me. Focus on what impacts and attributes we want to develop in Soldiers and then work the process backwards until we recognize all the things that personally and structurally act as impediments to achieving them. And the violently remove them.

I think what we need to do is (1) prioritize enlisted education. By prioritize, I mean we must value learning over rote memorization and put a priority on the ability to think deeply and creatively to support commander's intent and strategic policies. (2) Create command cultures tied to inclusion and dialogue rather than rank based exclusion and discussion. (3) Close as quickly as possible the education gap. This could be done easily by removing most of the existing programs of instruction at noncomissioned officer education schools and replacing them with history based and ethically challenging tactical decision games. (4) Reduce/remove the idea that rank equals knowledge. Ranks equals authority and responsibility, not necessarily knowledge. My job as a leader is to take the information the SME presents me, look at it critically using 'orientation' and fit it into the intent and strategic purpose of the organization.

If we could do these things, I think we would be teaching critical thinking, developing the ability to rapidly manage variable inputs in dynamic situations and introducing 'higher' education concepts that support Soldier and character development.

As always, I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

No comments:

Post a Comment