Clausewitz and Learning Through Communities of Practice


Many organisations like to describe themselves as ‘learning organisations;’ however, very few are actually good at organisational learning. One of the key challenges facing any organisation is how to take the knowledge and experience of individuals and spread this throughout a group so that everyone learns. This problems is particularly acute in military institutions, where the overall organisation (army, navy, air force, or marines) is sub-divided into well-defined units that often impede the free flow of knowledge. Of course, there are good reasons and clear benefits to this sub-division — creation of esprit de corps, cohesion, identity, etc. — but they nonetheless restrict the free transfer of knowledge. While to a certain extent ‘lessons-learned’ systems and centralised doctrine formation can overcome these divisions, such mechanisms also produce sometimes-unwelcome filters through which new knowledge has to travel.

One additional method armed forces have employed for overcoming the challenges to organisational learning has been through ‘communities of practice.’ These bring together members of the armed forces who are looking to develop their professional knowledge and understanding, sometimes on very specific topics. A key characteristic of communities of practice is precisely this focus, not necessarily on specific topics, but on sharing experience and creating knowledge to develop how specific tasks or roles are performed. In this sense, they are more structured than blogs or ad hoc meetings, which are perhaps better understood as ‘communities of interest,’ rather than ‘communities of practice.’ Modern examples of communities of practice within the armed forces include in the US Army or Vital Ground on the British army’s Knowledge Exchange, both of which have been successful because they focus on developing knowledge about specific roles within the armed forces. We might also include recent ‘Drinks and Thinks‘ or DEF Agoras. While the term ‘communities of practice’ might be relatively new, the concept is not. There are long antecedents for such practices within armed forces from which we can learn today. Here on Defence-in-Depth, Huw Davies recently wrote about Carl von Clausewitz as the first military blogger. This may or may not be true, but Clausewitz was certainly part of a community of practice at an important point in his career.

Some years ago, Charles White published a fascinating book examining the community of practice in which a young Clausewitz participated. The Prussian Militärische Gesellschaft, or Military Society, was established in 1801 in Berlin by Clausewitz’ mentor and the reformer of the Prussian army, Gerhard von Scharnhorst. The statues of the society make clear its intent:

‘The purpose of the Society is to instruct its members through the exchange of ideas in all areas of the art of war, in a manner that would encourage them to seek out truth, that would avoid the difficulties of private study with its tendency to one-sidedness, and that would seem best suited to place theory and practice in proper relationship.’

While the main branch was based in Berlin, others sprung up across Prussia. Branches would generally meet once a week to hear and discuss a paper delivered by a member, and each member was required to present a paper at least once a year. Indeed, membership was decided by a committee that read and voted on anonymously submitted essays. Clear emphasis was placed on this spread of knowledge through presentation and discussion of members’ ideas — This is where learning and improving the members’ practical knowledge of warfare would occur. It was also a continuous practice. Learning did not simply occur in formal educational settings, but could happen through semiformal society meetings. Scharnhorst and his fellow founders continually stressed the importance of the connection between theory and practice, a point that was later at the center of Clausewitz’ magnum opus, On War.

Very quickly, membership in the Military Society became an important element for many officers’ careers. Membership was only limited by a requirement to be a Prussian officer and to be able to produce a well-reasoned essay for discussion. White’s book provides a list of 188 members of the Military Society in Berlin. Some of these were high-ranking Prussian officers and members of the Royal House, but many, if not most, were young lieutenants or captains. Many of these junior officers rose to prominence in the Wars of Liberation, including Karl Wilhelm von Grolman, August Rühle von Lilienstern, Hans Graf Yorck von Wartenburg, August Graf von Gneisenau, Hermann von Boyen, and of course Carl von Clausewitz. Indeed, the membership list of the Society reads like a who’s who of the Prussian military elite of the early to mid-nineteenth century (some 60 percent of members went on to become generals). While the membership was obviously as self-selecting group — only those with the interest and the aptitude applied and were accepted — being part of this society also clearly helped create important professional networks that aided the careers of its members.

Scharnhorst placed education at the heart of his reforms of the Prussian army. He knew that only through the continual examination and questioning of existing ideas and beliefs could development and change occur. The Military Society was founded at a period of great change in warfare, when the new ideas of the French Revolution and Napoleon were challenging the long-established beliefs of ancien regime armies. Scharnhorst knew that an important way to understand and spread the new knowledge being created by these new forms of warfare was through discussion and debate amongst those who would have to put these ideas into practice. Indeed, the Military Society served this purpose so well that Napoleon ordered its dissolution following Prussia’s defeat in 1806.

Many of the Society’s papers were published in its proceedings, Denkwürdigkeiten der militärischen Gesellschaft in Berlin, and are available via Google Books.

Image: Scharnhorst together with other Prussian army reformers in a painting entitled ‘Reorganisation‘ by Carl Röchling (21 May 1855 – 6 May 1920) via Wikimedia Commons.

4 thoughts on “Clausewitz and Learning Through Communities of Practice

    1. I think the phrase goes something like ‘great minds think alike’! Seriously, I think it indicative that larger number of scholars are focusing on military learning and innovation and seeking to apply past experience to the present. It is heartening to see the increase in blogs, such as The Bridge and War on the Rocks. Indeed, we established Defence-in-Depth in part to help generate discussion within the defence community in the United Kingdom, to be a community of interest, if not community of practice.

      PS: Let’s hope they also inspire people to read Charles White’s excellent book on the Militärische Gesellschaft!


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