On “Learning Organizations”

The SWJ Blog published an op-ed by Colonel David Maxwell entitled “Random Thoughts on Irregular Warfare and Security Assistance (Full PDF Article)“. Like a lot of more open-ended, ruminating pieces, Maxwell’s post was “generative” in the sense of trying to articulate insights regarding a complex situation, which Col. Maxwell accomplished. Here’s the section that raised my eyebrow:

…First we need to look at ourselves critically and ask if we have been able to develop effective strategies and campaign plans and then support and execute them, respectively. I think that most all of our challenges can be attributed to our strategies and campaign plans (and I will caveat this and say we need to understand that in this world of irregular warfare, complex operations and hybrid warfare there is no cookie cutter strategy or campaign plan template that will work the first time, every time. We need to be agile and flexible and be able to adapt to constantly morphing conditions). But I would say that this is where we need to focus most of all because our forces at the tactical level from all Services have proven very adept and capable and have demonstrated that they are truly learning organizations

Why would the “tactical”level have acheived “learning organization” status and not the “operational” and “strategic” levels of military command? Some possibilities:

  • The social networks within the official hierarchical org at the tactical level can effectively leverage both weak and strong ties 
  • Greater degree of shared purpose and sense of mission
  • The tactical level, being a “smaller world” in systems terms than the operational or strategic levels, has a much better “signal to noise” ratio.
  • The social networks within the hierarchical org at the tactical level create an environment of greater transparency -discussion may be squelched but situational awareness can’t be.
  • Encouragement of critical discussion and incentives for problem-solving.
  • Greater tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity.
  • Tacit knowledge is likely to quickly become explicit organizational, knowledge through “shop talk”, the grapevine, de-briefing and formal “lessons learned” dissemination procedures.
  • The stress and danger of the tactical evironment itself is an incentive to adapt and learn – “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Dr. Samuel Johnson.  

Can the operational and strategic levels of the military ( or any organization with a bureaucratic structure – schools, corporations, government agencies etc.) become a “learning organization” despite greater scale, distance from events, degrees of abstraction and other obstacles? Of course. However it depends greatly on two things – creating a “tighter” network with a high velocity of meaningful communication and a new kind of leadership committed to the hard work of re-engineering the organizational culture around adaptive “fitness” and learning.

6 comments on this post.
  1. A.E.:

    I have a related piece on this that comes to a similar conclusion.

  2. The Tactical Loop « The Committee of Public Safety:

    […] a comment » Zenpundit has a fortuitously timed post On “Learning Organizations”. It covers many of the same themes as Adam Elkus’s post Can Strategy Be Crowdsourced? which I […]

  3. deichmans:

    Excellent post, Zen.  I believe two factors discriminate between tactical and strategic networks in terms of "learning":

    1) Feedback: Tactical organizations can empirically perceive their actions, and concomitant effects, allowing more effective adaptation.

    2) Time: Tactical effects tend to have a near-immediate cause-effect relationship, while strategic actions are cumulative and ostensibly delayed.

    BTW: Minor quibble.  There is no "Operational" level — other than as a justification for staff positions in bloated bureaucracies.  It’s an anachronistic carry-over from Napoleon’s Maison, which required an intermediate level between "strategy" and "tactics" due to the limited speed of information propagation in the early 19th cent. (approx. 100 miles per day for rich content; faster for low-baud [<8 bit] messages via Roman-style signal towers).

    To paraphrase a British chess grandmaster (Nigel Short, I believe): "Tactics is what you do when you’re doing something; strategy is what you do when you’re doing nothing."

  4. zen:

    Hey Wiz,
    .
    Thx! I agree with you on time/feedback/empiricism.
    .
    "Operational" level may be ( or perhaps "should be") of historic vintage but it’s so recent a history ( WWII, Korea, Vietnam etc.) that it’s inevitably going to be part of the discussion for some time until you get a few generations of general officers from when "operations" was a critical level.
    .
    BTW – Lexington Green sent me a copy of October issue of The Journal of Military History and there is a great article on "PROVN:Westmoreland and the historians" – directly intersects with the Nagl-Gentile debate on force structure and COIN doctrine. Have not looked for an online link yet but I intend to do so.

  5. Yankee Sailor:

    While the technical and environmental aspects certainly are a factor, I think a more fundamental explanation is the folks operating at the tactical level are less institutionalized than those that populate the operational level. The people that work at the tactical level are more junior people who are less set in their ways, and also a larger group that hasn’t been weeded for decades to root out people that don’t stay in their box. 

  6. cubrikaska:

    Este tema es simplemente incomparable:), me gusta)))