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.