#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.

# 40 Respect

" World War II taught me one important lesson in leadership: the most valuable Soldier was the one who was well informed, encouraged to use his head and treated with respect."

General Omar N. Bradley 'A General's Life', 1983

"Respect for the individual is the basis for the rule of law - the very essence of what the nation stands for. In the Army, respect means treating others as they should be treated. This value reiterates that people are the most precious resource and that one is bound to treat others with dignity and respect."

FM 6-22 Leadership

"The fundamental cause of any breakdown of morale and discipline within the Armed Forces usually comes of this - that a commander or his subordinates transgress by treating men as if they were children or serfs instead of showing respect for their adulthood."

Brigadier General S.L.A Marshall ' The Armed Forces Officer', 1950

I wasn't sure where this post was going this morning until I read the quotations above. As I think about it, individual respect may be the most important value of all, for without it you cannot espouse nor understand any of the others. Respect for the individual, respect for the organization, respect for authority, heritage and tradition, and most importantly, respect for yourself.

This was a busy week for me. I spent 2 bitterly cold days on the range with a unit who has come a long way toward developing a viable marksmanship program and has been asked to share their methods and procedures with their entire brigade as part of their preparation for deployment. I had a luncheon with a battalion commander and his company commanders to discuss my ideas and thoughts regarding training design, and then presented those yesterday to all of that unit's leadership from Sergeant thru Lieutenant Colonel. This last event represents a turning point (hopefully) for me, that will allow more units to look at what they are doing, why they are doing it that way, and how they can accomplish that training in the best manner possible for those we serve - both above and below us.

At one point in the discussion, the battalion commander interjected and spoke of 'ownership'. He was giving ownership of the training responsibilities to the company level officers and NCO's. He would provide his intent and the left and right boundaries, and paint a picture of an endstate, but the units were free to develop the manner in which they achieved it. It should be said here that some of you will say, "Well that's the way it is. Or that's the way it should be." You're correct. That is the way we say we do business, but the truth is that that's often not what's happening. Company level leaders are not only being told what to do by their bosses, but they're being told exactly how to do it as well. And it has been that way for well over a decade, so there is a whole generation of officers and NCOs who don't know that it hasn't always been this way. So, a battalion commander who is willing to give the design of training back to his subordinates does equal something of a revolutionary thought process if you haven't been in the Army for more than twelve or fifteen years.

But it occurred to me that what he was really doing for his subordinates was offering the handshake of respect. He is demonstrating the value of respect. He is reaching out his hand and in effect saying, "I respect you. I respect your talents, your ideas, and your position. I will continue to respect you until you know longer demonstrate the you are worthy of it. I know you will not let me down."

Acceptance of this by his subordinates will begin with their sense of self-respect. Who am I? What do I value? What will I surrender? What will I not? As leaders we must spend more time with ourselves and try to answer those questions. Those answers form the backbone of who we are, what we stand for, and how we view ourselves. But those answers have nothing to do with our positions as a leader. The answers are for the person with or without the position. I think that most folks blithely adopt grandiose words like duty, loyalty, honor, respect etc, without ever really understanding the depths those words possess. The power and shape of them. The way they provide warmth and shelter when circumstances drive that person to ugly places where hard choices and decisions have to be made. Soldiers will fight and die for a person they respect. His or her position is inconsequential. Conversely, they will resist the positional leader who they do not respect as a person.

Respecting yourself does not absolve you of responsibility for recognizing your weaknesses and working towards correcting them. In fact, self respect demands constant self evaluation in order to ensure that you remain true to those answers as life and circumstance move forward. I care enough about myself to look me clearly in the eye and see if I really measure up to those things that I say I do. One cannot respect oneself if one will not look unflinchingly in the mirror and constantly evaluate whether or not the answers remain true.

Once I determine my level of self respect, I can now respect other people. All of the definitions above have one theme that is unstated. The individual. A unique being unlike anyone else on the planet. Respect means accepting that, and more importantly, valuing it. A leaders job is not to create people in his or her own likeness, but rather to find, develop, and nurture their own sense of self respect. Acceptance of others as singular, unique, people will drive a leader outside of themselves and teach them to see others as they truly are, not how the leader wishes them to be. We don't do this very well in the Army. The system we work in has a tendency to push 'leaders' toward making clones of themselves instead of valuing the diversity that the individual brings to the organization. In my opinion, this is what has created some of the high level of disaffection in the junior officer corps and certainly in the junior enlisted corps. We have a generation of Soldiers who see themselves as unique individuals and they resent the hypocrisy of senior leaders who seem intent on creating little clones. Cloning implies a fundamental disrespect of the individual.

When I have come to understand and gain a measure of self respect and then have learned to respect the uniqueness of others, then we together can come to respect the authority, heritage and tradition of the organization. But, you cannot force this without the first 2. Every regulation, standard, policy, courtesy etc, makes up the culture of a place, be it the Army or IBM. Individual acceptance of these norms of behavior demonstrate a respect for them. In essence, the group norms fit into the individual sense of things that he/she respects in themselves. However, if you force the institutional respect over self respect, and those of other individuals, they rapidly become hollow words which will not stand the test of time. Only after I have a solid sense of myself, and value the individuality of others can the group absorb, accept and respect the values of the organization.

In a broader sense, the ability to develop self respect, value the uniqueness of individuals and willful acceptance of the norms of the organization has an effect on how we view our environment. We gain the ability to see others individually and without self or organizationally applied labels. Consider the Afghan man who is trying to live and provide for his family in the difficult grey area between the Taliban, a corrupt Afghan government, and the US promise of a better future. If we respect him and the difficulty of his circumstance and that he is doing what he must to provide for those in his charge, then we are looking at one individual. He may be our enemy, but it is equally possible that he is not. That also, is a measure of respect. I respect him enough to understand that his choices will not be simple or easy. I understand why he joins with the Taliban. I understand why he does not trust his government or mine. The choices he makes will determine my actions, but I do respect and understand his position.

At the local level, the battalion commander has offered his hand in respect to his subordinates. The big question is will they take it? Right now, I'm not sure. It will be uncertain ground for many of them because they do not have - and cannot see - the outcome. They have not ever been offered this kind of freedom before and they are somewhat frightened to move away from what they are familiar with. To walk down the road of freedom will mean questioning many of the very values and norms that raised them. It will turn leaders into followers and followers into leaders. It upsets the hierarchical order of structure. It will lead to disagreement and friction. It will require thought and consideration. Most importantly, it will require trust, and the bedrock foundation of trust is respect.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

# 39 The Discussions We Need To Have

Over the past 6 months, I have intentionally avoided political discussions because I generally cannot find anything worth discussing. We currently live in such a divided political society, that the worst tragedy imaginable would likely be turned into political theater within hours. With everybody pointing the finger at the 'other' side, and hoping to score political points with their constituencies, the real issues we need to face are mostly left behind.

The attached article, however, did catch my eye. Not for it's source (Newsweek), but rather for it's rather pragmatic acceptance that we are living in a new era where the interposition of technology, radicalism, and political maneuvering have come to a crossroads. The way ahead cannot be the way of the past.

If you consider the events of the last 8 years, you begin to see that most US actions are actually reactions. And being reactionary, is somewhat in our collective nature. Acceptance of that and being able to see both it's positive and negative effects equally would go a long way in changing the national discourse.

Check out the article here:


I'd be interested in your thoughts. As we struggle to protect against attack and protect against an invasive government, the true discussion we should be engaging in is, is there a middle ground?