Organizational Culture and Learning during the First World War

This is the second of several posts running on Defence-in-Depth over the next few weeks arising out of the Military Learning and Innovation Roundtable held at the Joint Services Command and Staff College on Wednesday 17 June 2015. The roundtable explored the various ways in which armed forces have learned, adapted, and innovated in times of war and peace, austerity, and pressure from the eighteenth century to the present day. You can read more about the aims and objectives, research outputs, and future events of the Military Innovation and Learning Research Group at Podcasts from the roundtable are available to download here.


Although I had long been active in the process of military learning, it was only in 2009 or so that I began to look critically at this subject when Dr Stuart Griffin, Dr Helen McCartney, and I started a project examining how the US and British armies learned lessons from the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan. As I began this project, I was heavily influenced by a traditional literature on military learning, a literature that focused on one extreme – innovation. This literature took, and sometimes still takes, a fairly simple view of military learning: each work argues a specific viewpoint on how military innovation occurs and has little room for complimentary learning processes. A new generation of scholars, such as John Nagl, had begun to challenge the dominance of the traditional literature on military innovation, but even this new literature presented a simplistic view of military learning. As with the traditional innovation literature, the new learning literature analyzed successful or unsuccessful examples of military learning for instrumental purposes; this new literature sought models that could be applied to help create ‘learning organizations’ from existing armed forces.

Initially, I quite happily accepted this idea that there were ‘good’ and ‘bad’ models of organizational learning. In effect that one could study past events to determine the characteristics necessary for a learning organization and that if one identified the correct characteristics it would be relatively easy to create learning organizations from today’s armed forces. However, when I attempted to apply this idea to history, I found this simply didn’t stand up to scrutiny. My research on the British and German armies in the First World War demonstrated that each army employed multiple means of learning over the course of the war, but that the different organizational cultures of each army caused each to have different strengths and weaknesses. Like individuals, organizations learn in different ways; how they learn is shaped by their organizational culture.

We can see this clearly when we compare the British and the German armies during the war. Although both armies changed almost beyond recognition between 1914 and 1918, the cultures that dominated these institutions at the start of the war remained largely intact. The two armies displayed very different cultures that in turn shaped how they learned.

The British army continued to exhibit a suspicion of formal learning throughout the war, only really embracing formal learning structures late in the conflict. Throughout, it relied on the learning methods that had worked for the organization in the past. In keeping with an army that was widely geographically dispersed and lacked a strong general staff and strong doctrine, these were predominantly non-formal methods. These learning methods relied on personal contacts and networks to share relevant knowledge. This created a plethora of learning routes, which were highly dependent upon individual commanders; some divisional or corps commanders might institute regular ‘conferences’ to share knowledge and experience within their command; some might disseminate written ‘lessons learned’ reports; others might rely on divisional schools to share knowledge. This dependence on the individual initiative of a commander also personalized knowledge sharing. This system created individuals who became well known as effective ‘trainers’ or ‘educators,’ and specific tactical ideas were easily attributed to individuals. In short, influential individuals were necessary ‘patrons’ to new ideas.

The German army, with its very different organizational culture, made extensive use of formal methods of learning. Here we can see clearly the differences in organizational culture to the British army. Before 1914, the German army was a much larger army than the British. It was also concentrated geographically and doctrinally, and finally, it had embraced, if not originated, the new ‘professionalization’ of the army through a strong general staff. Accordingly, throughout the war, the German army preferred to make use of formal methods of learning. Indeed, though the pre-war schools were largely shut down, the German army quickly instituted new schools designed to share best practice and new experiences throughout the army. Of the course of the war, these schools spread and often used ‘teach-the-teacher’ techniques to share new knowledge. The German army also shared widely written ‘lessons learned’ reports and developed standard formats for these as the war progressed. This was a largely impersonal system; knowledge and ideas became property of the army as a whole, rather than specific individuals. For example, through archival work, we can sometimes see who wrote specific doctrine manuals, but this was not apparent during the war.

My initial belief, based on much of the existing literature on military innovation and learning, was that the German army would be a better ‘learning organization’ than the British army. Undoubtedly, it some ways it was. Strong formal structures for the management of knowledge allowed ideas to be shared rapidly and effectively throughout the German army, while the British army sometimes struggled in this regard. New tactical ideas were rapidly and comprehensively introduced to the German army, while in the British army tactical knowledge remained local until near the end of the war.

However, the non-formal methods of the British army also had their strengths. Strong social and professional networks that connected army officers to the wider civilian community, while German officers were largely a separate social caste within German society. This allowed British officers to bring expertise and knowledge into the army from outside the organization. These strong social connections within the British army and British society, tied to the ‘personalization of knowledge’ created patronage for sometimes quite radical ideas. This is the reason that the British army could and did invent the tank, while the German army faced with exactly the same tactical and operational situation, could not and did not.

All of this is not to say that the British army did not use formal methods of learning or that the German army did not use non-formal methods during the war; of course both did. However, the largely ‘amateur’ and individualistic organizational culture of the British army during the war meant that it made more effective use of non-formal methods than the German. The highly ‘professionalized’ and more anonymous organizational culture of the German army meant that it made more effective use of formal methods of learning during the war. Both were adept at adapting and innovating over the course of the war, but the ways in which they did this were dictated by their broader organizational cultures.

 Image: German officers practicing formal learning during the First World War. Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum. © IWM (Q 88249)


  1. Military Innovation

    I gave a talk at the recent ITEC training & simulation conference as part of their innovation showcase. What I said wasn’t particularly innovative (but, with the exception of Colonel David Vassallo and Major Tom Mouat, both British Army officers, nor were many of the other speakers). It was essentially rhetoric with little evidence to substantiate my assertions and was focused specifically on innovation in training/education/learning. But after last week’s very informative inaugural session of the JSCSC/KCL DSD led Military Innovation and Learning Research Group I thought it might be worth revisiting what I said and expanding it to further stimulate the debate.

    One part of my presentation focused on two different types of innovation, exploitative (incremental) and explorative (radical). As we heard at Shrivenham, from both the military and the academics, we have at the very least muddled through on the former and at times have been very good at incrementally innovating. Examples include changing our tactics in order to meet new threats/challenges, developing new equipment and capabilities, and embracing technology. But have we ever successfully radically innovated? And if not why not?

    First, what do I mean by exploitation vs exploration in innovation? This table outlines the differences.

    Exploitation – Incremental Exploration – Radical
    Follow the rules. Drive out variance Break the rules. Promote variance
    Focus on current (past?) needs Focus on future needs
    Manage and refine current competencies Develop & lead new competencies. Look for excellence.
    Optimise the organisation for the current rules Develop new organisation with new rules
    Low to medium uncertainty High uncertainty

    We often hear the cry that our strategic/orgnisational culture doesn’t allow us to be real innovators. We don’t like uncertainty and this gets more so the higher up the chain of command one rises. And it is difficult to conduct radical change while continuing with business as usual (such as operations & deployments). But the first barrier isn’t about culture, it’s whether radical innovation can ever be brought to bear on any aspects of military activity. Taking the three components of fighting power in turn, where are the opportunities to be radical?

    Moral Component (Motivation, Moral cohesion, Ethical foundations)

    Physical Component (Cap Dev, Sustainability, Equipment, Manpower)

    Conceptual Component (Understanding of conflict and context, Higher level doctrine (Philosophy and principles), TTPs, Education, Innovation and Lessons)

    It’s hard isn’t it? They all sort of work in a sort of okay way and so rather than develop new organisations and new rules at the macro level we invariably delve down in the micro and meso levels to bring about the (reactive) incremental changes that will be needed. But these incremental changes will only meet the current needs and by the time we implement any incremental changes the current may well have become the past.

    But even if we find an area in which we think radical innovation can make a difference, we will still find it difficult to radically innovate. Why? As the table shows, there is a high uncertainty associated with radical innovation and uncertainty is not a friend of senior officers. It’s not in their culture and it’s not in our wider strategic/organizational culture. Part of the problem is that we don’t have the right attitude towards failure. Failure is seen to be negative and so we do all we can to avoid it; we have forgotten that failure is part of learning. Yet we have all learned from failure, whether it was falling off our bicycles the first time the stabilisers were removed or the time in boxing training when we dropped our guard a little too much – and got hurt as a result. All 3 services are very good at learning from failure yet we still hide from it. We need to understand that failure can be absolutely critical to developing innovation and we have to have the confidence to allow failure to occur.

    Closely allied to our fear of failure is our rush to (negatively) judge. We all bring our experience, intellect and our prejudices to bear on any new ideas. Some of us will judge positively, some will judge negatively, yet most of us won’t actually know whether it is a good thing or a bad thing because it won’t have been tried (and thus it won’t have been given the opportunity to fail).

    So how do we overcome this fear of failure (direct or by association) and this ability to judge without evidence? Perhaps we should do what our doctrine tells us to do. ADP Ops is quite clear on the subject:

    “Education and innovation are important elements of the conceptual component. They develop not just understanding, but an interest in understanding. They feed the generation of new ideas, for example by designing concepts that could change doctrine or transform organisations and capability.”

    “Innovation depends on research, experimentation and operational analysis, as well as having sufficient organizational freedoms and confident people.“

    In other words, in order to be able to radically innovate we need to be more radical in our approach. Robert O. Work, Deputy US Secretary of Defense (sic) understands the challenge and the barriers. In a memo written in Feb 15 he said that “Innovation can be highly disruptive and creates relative winners and losers. It thrives in a culture that embraces experimentation and tolerates dissent and risk-taking.“


  2. The table didn’t work. Here it is in a different format:

    Exploitation – Incremental
    Follow the rules. Drive out variance
    Focus on current (past?) needs
    Manage and refine current competencies
    Optimise the organisation for the current rules
    Low to medium uncertainty

    Exploration – Radical
    Break the rules. Promote variance
    Focus on future needs
    Develop and lead new competencies. And look for excellence.
    Develop new organisation with new rules
    High uncertainty


  3. I think that there should be recognition that some methods within divisions already had structure and formality, a ‘micro-formality’ if you like, if not early in the war, at least not overly ‘late’. It seems to me that your statement that ‘The British army continued to exhibit a suspicion of formal learning throughout the war, only really embracing formal learning structures late in the conflict’ depends on how late is ‘late’. I appreciate that the thrust of your comments is to examine differences between the British and German approaches against the start points of their respective cultures, the latter of which I know little other than your instructive ‘Dumb Donkeys’ paper.

    As yet, I have only examined, in any depth, learning processes within a single division of the BEF. Having set out to examine training, I am beginning to realise for myself that the training is conditioned by the way in which learning and the recycling of knowledge takes place. The lessons from a division’s own experience may be distilled in many ways whilst knowledge acquired outside may come formally or informally.

    I would certainly agree that learning varied within British divisions (although I have only read up on a limited number so far). That variance seems to result from differences in the way that divisions built up their systems (if any) and dependent on leadership styles rather than a variance resulting from adaptations of some common system across the BEF, if only because there seems to no evidence for the latter until early 1917. At that stage, the issue of the pamphlet SS 143, associated with a radical alteration of the structure of the infantry platoon, would imply that there had been major efforts to draw lessons across the BEF for some time prior to publication.

    It depends here whether by ‘learning’ we mean solely the analysis of operational and logistical experience in order to draw conclusions for development or whether or not we include the other end of the cycle (if that is not a contradiction in terms – I think I mean ‘the diametrically opposite arc’). By that, I would include the resultant planning and implementation of formal courses to train the trainers and develop the individual skills of officers and NCOs as well as influencing the day-to-day training within units (i.e. the learning at the ‘sharp end’). Analysis may have remained ad hoc within the BEF, often the result of commanders and staff officers talking (and more importantly … listening) to officers and soldiers. In the 55th Division, my initial assessment of the almost illegible personal notebooks of the divisional commander (Major-General Hugh Jeudwine) would indicate extensive discussion with officers at all levels through the division from its reconstitution in France in January 1916. There appear to be quite formal briefings in 55th Division (with accompanying notes) in August/September 1916 to officers and sergeants (by brigade) on ‘lessons learnt’ following initial experiences on the Somme. The headings for these briefings clearly reflect some of the themes identified in SS 119 Preliminary Notes on the Tactical Lessons of the Recent Operations (July 1916) and documents such as Cavan’s tactical memo to XIV Corps of August 1916 (found in the Official History 1916 Vol 2 Appendices) but distinct divisional themes also seem to be present. Although, as Gary Sheffield observes in his biography of Haig, there was no ‘central authority to collect and codify this material, to turn it into tactical doctrine and then disseminate and enforce it throughout the BEF’..

    Very thorough formal (or at least ‘systematic’) processes were in place within 55th Division to obtain the post-operational conclusions down to platoon level following the Battle of Pilkem Ridge (July/August 1917) with the witness of the senior surviving soldier in each platoon (sometimes a private soldier found himself writing directly for the consumption of his divisional general), each report being apparently read by Jeudwine, although in itself this might point to lack of provision within the divisional staff for such a function. From these reports, conclusions were drawn and delivered by conference to a broad audience and by document even more broadly. There was systematic interaction both before and after the training periods that preceded the Third Ypres campaign.
    Formal training (on the basis of classes and course being run and therefore being ‘learning’) seems to have started rather earlier than ‘late in the war’ with the Third Army School starting in late 1915 (although interestingly the appointment of commandant, Kentish, was possibly through informal networking with Fuller, they being near contemporaries at school, Malvern College). In the aftermath of Loos and by the beginning of 1916, once the de-skilled nature of the BEF and the inexperience of the New Army formations were recognised, the need for formal training in-theatre was identified although the resulting divisional and corps schools (with some evidence of brigade schools) were originally improvised and not necessarily synchronised in their teaching (probably an under-statement). In XIV Corps, divisions (including 55th Division) were directed to begin schools at the beginning of 1916. Jeudwine in his previous appointment as a commander of 41st Infantry Brigade had already directed his COs, in autumn 1915, to realise that their battalions were effectively ‘schools’.
    We must remember, every minute of the day, that he [the Commanding Officer] not only commands a fighting machine but directs a school.

    I see the publication of SS 152, Training of British Armies in France (Provisional) (or similar – I am quoting from memory) in mid-1917 as a response to divisional diversity. This pamphlet set out to co-ordinate courses and content across the BEF and the effort must have been initiated in early in the year, probably coincident with Brigadier-General Arthur Solly-Flood’s arrival at GHQ Training Branch [Jim Beach’s paper in War in History 19 (4) pp. 464-491 ‘Issued by the General Staff: Doctrine Writing at British GHQ, 1917-1918’].
    I am beginning to see within the 55th Division an amalgam of influences in learning that draw on the GOC’s extensive conversations with officers and soldiers in the front line (implied from his personal notebooks) and on their written reports, feedback in routine divisional and corps conferences, immediate debriefs following training exercises throughout 1917 with salient points noted in the GOC’s notebooks and subsequent written notes for distribution to divisional units, the use of substantial by other divisional commanders, either provided or borrowed. There was also the recommendation to junior commanders and senior NCOs to consult and be familiar with Deus Ex Machina of ‘pamphlets’, issued from on high and uninfluenced by the immediate experience within the division, in addition to what was taught by staff at divisional or corps schools.

    On the evidence of the production of SS 152 in July 1917, I think the BEF embraced formal learning in a reasonably homogenous way prior, say, to the establishment of the Inspectorate of Training in 1918 and that within some divisions (as you mention – led by recognised ‘trainers’) there was little suspicion from quite early on. I am not sure that there was a distrust of formal learning, just a lack of co-ordination. If one takes the summer and autumn of 1915 as the point at which it was realised that learning issues needed to be tackled to reskill the BEF, something reinforced by the outcome of the Somme campaign, then a timescale of eighteen months to the spring of 1917 to start to regulate formal learning across the organization does not seem so long in comparison to the lead time required today for, say, educational or training reform.


    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Ian. A few responses to them: First, I do agree that the British army made use of formal learning methods. My point is rather than compared to the German army, they made more use of non-formal methods, and the German army compared to the British army made more use of formal methods. There were and are strengths and weaknesses to both broad approaches, and neither approach exists in isolation. I have no doubt that some British divisions developed formal learning structures — Helen McCartney’s work showed this within Jeudwine’s 55th Division, as you note, and clearly Ivor Maxse’s division and later corps developed these too. But this is my point, these were highly dependent upon individuals, and each British division developed its own style of learning until late in the war because it was so influenced by individuals and the BEF lacked a unified learning structure until late in the war. (Perhaps we will disagree about what constitutes late in the war. Personally, I view 1917 as late in the war, but I can see your perspective too.) We remember these individuals in the British army because they stand out as different from the rest in a way we do not remember, or even know, the German staff officers that provided the backbone of an army-wide learning system within the German army.


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