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 www.militaryinnovation.org. 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)