Military Innovation Studies: Well-Set for the Future?

 This is the fifth of several posts running on Defence-in-Depth 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.


On 17 June, I was given the unenviable task of delivering the final presentation of the inaugural Military Innovation and Learning Research Group roundtable. This was unenviable in two ways. First, if you have read the preceding blogs from Huw DaviesRobert FoleyAimée Fox-Godden and Jill Russell, you will know that I had to follow fascinating presentations showcasing cutting-edge research on historical examples of learning and innovation. Second, I was capping off the day by talking theory; following tales of daring-do, if you like, with philosophical musings on why and how.

As I looked out on my weary audience, nodding along or nodding off, I was sorely tempted to run for the more familiar cover of lessons learned from insurgency in Iraq or ambushes in Afghanistan. However, I was also aware that my temptation to do so was as much a reflection of my own deep-seated aversion to pesky questions of epistemology and ontology as it was of my desire to spare friends and colleagues from the philosophical clutches of the likes of Kuhn, Derrida and Foucault. In the event, I couldn’t face Foucault any more than my audience but serious reflection on the compatibility, or otherwise, of approaches to understanding military learning drawn from competing philosophies of knowledge is a necessary evil even for the most hardened empiricist. Like it or not, we need sound theory if we are to engender good practice. But this is self-evident, surely? Why is it important to re-state it here?

There is a temptation, all too strong in the field of military innovation studies, to leap past or side-step the theory in order to put ideas into practice. This is laudable in as much as it wishes to evade the entanglements of academic debate but dangerous in that, in our rush to have an impact, many of us have perhaps been guilty of taking short-cuts with our theorising. I say “us” because I am every bit as guilty as anyone else. Why is this the case? It is emphatically not because academics interested in how and why militaries learn lack sound theoretical grounding. In fact, as Adam Grissom pointed out in his seminal 2006 article on the state of the field, The future of military innovation studies, the four broad ‘schools’ of thought about military innovation each represent a competing theory about the drivers of change. The big guns of IR theory, though most notably realist and critical approaches, suffuse much of the literature and key figures such as Barry Posen, Jack Snyder, Stephen Rosen, Deborah Avant, Theo Farrell and Terry Terriff all situate their research within the wider IR theoretical framework. However, what is striking about the competing schools of thought is that, in reality, they hardly compete at all. In fact, scholars from each are often at great pains to emphasise that their work is compatible with that of colleagues exploring the issues from different perspectives. In a world where the odds of two academics in a phone-box engaging in a viciously inept game of slapsie are high, what price a whole field of study characterised by mutual respect?

I suspect that the comparative lack of interest in deep theorising and the camaraderie of scholars working in the field stems largely from the fact that most of us routinely work, or have forged good relationships, with the military. Indeed, many of the academics studying military innovation were, or remain, serving officers or conduct their research within the unique environment of professional military education. The result is a close knit scholar-practitioner community that is interested, first and foremost, in applied knowledge. We often ask why in order to answer practitioners’ questions of how: usually “how do we become a better learning organisation?” The answer, alluded to in several of the preceding blogs, is that “it depends” because there is no single template; the learning culture of each military organisation is unique because each military’s organisational culture is itself unique. However, the military are practitioners and practitioners want more concrete answers than “it depends” so we in turn take liberties with the theory in order to advance the practice. As Robert Foley wrote; much of the military innovation literature, old and new, analyses the case studies and develops ‘models’ for instrumental purposes. Instrumentalising history, as Huw Davies explained in an earlier blog, always runs the risk of ignoring or distorting context. By the same token, good history allied to poor theory, or vice versa, may appear far more compelling than it should. Military innovation studies is particularly susceptible to this problem because one of the field’s greatest strengths, its increasingly multidisciplinary character, also makes it vulnerable to misappropriated concepts from one discipline entering the wider corpus via another. Organisational learning theory is a case in point, with its terminology gaining an increasingly influential place in military innovation studies yet comparatively few scholars engaging critically with the original OL literature.

So what is to be done? Well, first, if I have raised a concern that strikes a chord, it should still be just that; a single concern in an otherwise vibrant field of study, enriched greatly by the number of young scholars pushing its interdisciplinary boundaries. To me, increasing interest in the utility of organisational learning theory and the depth of scholarship associated with cultural approaches (both organisational and strategic) are particularly fascinating, offering exciting new avenues for future research. Further, the vast majority of the scholarship is both challenging and challenged; a healthy debate about the drivers of innovation from within military organisations, for instance, is on-going. Just as Theo Farrell and others sparked interest in new research on military adaptation and Robert Foley, Helen McCartney and myself responded to Adam Grissom’s call for more detailed studies of bottom-up innovation with our article, Transformation in contact, so Sergio Catignani’s excellent 2012 article, Getting COIN’ at the Tactical Level in Afghanistan: Reassessing Counter-Insurgency Adaptation in the British Army, enhanced the bottom-up research agenda and identified the flaws inherent within it. Others have followed suit, ensuring an increasingly lively academic debate that should infuse the whole field of study. However, it doesn’t and that is the problem. Most of the debate revolves around the internal dynamics of change and takes it as read that approaches that privilege external factors are both important and compatible with these organisational cultural drivers. We thus side-step some bigger, more awkward questions about how the whole body of knowledge fits together, or whether it even does.

As a scholar who works day-in day-out with practitioners, I’m perhaps the last person one would expect to extol the virtues of greater respect for theory. But too much theory is not the danger here: too little is. The intensely applied-focus of the field is both its greatest strength, encouraging scholars and practitioners alike to focus high-quality research on practical problems, but also its greatest weakness, instilling a sort of subconscious theoretical conservatism (with a very small ‘c’) that encourages academics from very different philosophical backgrounds to gravitate to the same middle-ground. Personally, I’m comfy in that middle-ground; I think approaches that remain open to the possibility that other theories grounded in apparently incompatible philosophies are all the stronger for that openness. However, the likelihood that this is a sentiment shared by most of my colleagues is a double-edged sword because if we gloss over genuine contradictions, we do no-one any favours, including ourselves. Dusting off our Popper, our Waltz and our Habermas may not be such a bad idea after all. Perhaps it is time for a good-natured row about the fundamentals of military innovation: some academic slapsie.

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