Pathways to improve military learning: key lessons-learned research agendas

TOM DYSON

Tom Dyson is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Department of Politics and International Relations, Royal Holloway College, University of London. His forthcoming book Organisational Learning and the Modern Army: A New Model for Lessons Learned Processes will be published by Routledge in July 2019.

During the last two decades there has been growing practitioner and academic interest in how organisational learning principles can be effectively applied within the public sector to deliver improved services and policy outputs. Militaries, particularly within NATO, have been at the forefront of these developments. Military learning processes have been established throughout history. But from the 1980s onwards, technological and conceptual advances in organisational learning have encouraged the establishment of formal, permanent learning processes on a more widespread basis within militaries, known as ‘lessons-learned’ processes. In recent years these processes have undergone significant development during military campaigns in Iraq and, especially, Afghanistan.

Lessons-learned offer the potential for militaries to dramatically improve their capacity to translate local adaptation undertaken by troops on deployment into wider organisational adaptation and innovation and to learn lessons from alliance partners. Yet national lessons-learned processes within many NATO member-states remain very much work-in-progress. They vary both in terms of their institutional structures and their effectiveness in recalibrating the activity of the ‘institutional’ military to the demands of ongoing campaigns and operations. These problems have led some scholars to be dismissive about the ability of lessons-learned to contribute to intra- and inter-organisational military learning.

Rejecting the utility of lessons-learned on the basis of the difficulties that militaries have encountered in developing and exploiting such processes in Iraq and Afghanistan is, though, misguided. The evidence emerging from research on learning in public organisations suggests that lessons-learned can exert a very positive impact upon their capacity to adapt, innovate and emulate. As Day notes: ‘Organizations without practical mechanisms to remember what has worked and why will have to repeat their failures and rediscover their success formulas over and over again’. Furthermore, it is too early in the development of formal military lessons-learned processes to give up on their potential. Failing to study them would not only be to the detriment of practitioners and military studies, but would also deny the growing academic literature on learning processes in public organisations important case studies.

The limited academic scholarship on lessons-learned which has emerged in recent years has not undertaken a thorough investigation of the organisational processes and activities which can help improve tactical and operational level lessons-learned. Practitioner guidance about lessons-learned could also be improved. The NATO Lessons Learned Handbook published by NATO’s Joint Analysis and Lessons Learned Centre (JALLC), now in its third edition, aims to establish the key processes and activities which permit military organisations to capture, analyse and share lessons. However, it focuses largely on technical guidance about undertaking different activities within a lessons process, such as visualisation and analysis techniques, or how to write-up individual lessons-learned. Consideration of the wider steps that military organisations can take to create the conditions for effective learning – such as the establishment an organisational culture that is supportive of learning at the individual, group and organisational levels – is missing. In the absence of these fundamentals, detailed technical guidance, while valuable in itself, is of limited help in improving the effectiveness of national single-service and joint lesson-learned processes.

In sum, many basic principles of lessons-learned best-practice are yet to be fully recognised, let alone applied in a consistent manner across NATO member states.

Moving forward: dynamic organisational capabilities and best-practice

Fortunately there is a substantial academic literature on organisational learning which can inform our understanding of the core features of best-practice in lessons learned at the single-service and joint levels. The organisational learning sub-field of dynamic organisational capabilities – which examines how organisations can effectively use their resources and competencies, especially those which are knowledge-based, to generate greater value than their competitors – is particularly fruitful.

While this scholarship has emerged within a corporate environment, scholarship on dynamic organisational capabilities is increasingly focusing upon case studies of public sector organisations involved in dynamic, rapidly-changing and high-risk environments such as health services, police forces and fire and rescue services. Furthermore, military organisations and corporations display important commonalities. Crucially, both militaries and corporations operate in a highly-competitive, rapidly-changing and disruptive environment in which the failure to adapt, innovate and emulate can be punished with severe penalties. In the case of a corporation, the result can be job losses and possibly bankruptcy. In the case of the military, the penalties are even more severe: the loss of civilian and military lives, a decrease in the relative power of the state and even its destruction. Moreover, as large, complex organisations both militaries and corporations face the challenge of overcoming significant bureaucratic, cultural and socio-psychological barriers to learning.

Hence the scholarship on dynamic organisational capabilities is of great relevance to military studies. It can improve our understanding about best-practice in four key capabilities of lessons-learned:

  • Knowledge acquisition: the capability to gather knowledge about changes in the operational environment, the performance of troops in the field, the performance of key organisations involved in supporting deployed forces and finally, learning by alliance partners.
  • Knowledge management: developing the IT hardware and software that is capable of managing a lessons-learned process effectively.
  • Knowledge dissemination: the capability to communicate individual lessons-learned to key stakeholders, both within and outside the military.
  • Knowledge transformation: the capability to effectively combine new and existing organisational knowledge by establishing an organisational culture characterised by experimentation and creativity. This capability is the most important of all, as knowledge acquisition, knowledge management and knowledge dissemination capabilities are of little use if an organisation’s culture does not promote learning.

Combined, these four capabilities develop the ‘absorptive capacity’ of an organisation: its ability to ‘identify, assimilate and exploit knowledge from the external environment’.

Key research agendas in lessons-learned

There are three main empirical fields where academic research on dynamic organisational capabilities should fruitfully focus its enquiries in order to help NATO member states and the JALLC with their efforts to identify and implement lessons-learned best-practice.

First of all, there is a need for comparative scholarship of the development of lessons-learned processes within public and private sector professions involved in dynamic and rapidly-changing environments, such as the military, health services, fire and rescue services, rail services and nuclear industry. For example, many such organisations in the UK have developed, or are in the process of developing, lessons-learned processes. Yet their experiences have received little scholarly attention. Such research should examine the best-practices which have emerged across these different sectors in the four dynamic organisational capabilities which facilitate absorptive capacity: knowledge acquisition, management, dissemination and, most importantly, transformation.

Scholarship on the public and private sector should also addresses the factors which have facilitated and impeded the emergence of good learning practices, by examining the role of variables including bureaucratic politics, organisational culture, strategic culture and socio-psychological factors. Absorptive capacity is not simply dependent upon the conditions set by these variables, but exists in a mutually-constitutive relationship with them. For example, organisational culture can both affect and be affected by absorptive capacity. It plays a very important role in facilitating or undermining the development and effectiveness of knowledge transformation. Yet, as the organisational activities and processes which support absorptive capacity emerge, they can reduce the corrupting influence that certain forms of organisational culture (such as a culture of blame, or an outdated understanding of the role of the military professional) can exert on military learning.

Scholarship on learning both within and outside the military highlights how further ‘bottom-up’ improvements to absorptive capacity can emerge as a military becomes more competent at individual, group and organisational learning. As Davidson notes: ‘With organizational structures and processes in place that are designed to permit and even promote the transfer of experiential knowledge, traditional cultural preferences for sustaining an organisation’s essence can be effectively challenged by new operational experiences’. A better understanding of this mutually-constitutive relationship will be vital in exploiting the potential of lessons-learned. This understanding will be enriched by work which adopts a deeper historical perspective, as very important insights about the variables which promote learning can also be gathered from the analysis of public sector learning experiences outside the modern context.

Second, therole of lessons-learned as a mechanism for improving the effectiveness of inter-organisational learning is unexplored. Lessons-learned have the potential to make an important contribution to improving the efficiency of the cross-national transfer of best-practice in military affairs.Large institutions, such as militaries, have a tendency to focus on knowledge exploitation, which can lead to the failure to explore new knowledge. Learning from other militaries confronting similar problems can help to improve knowledge exploration by providing the opportunity to draw upon a wider experience base and encounter new emerging challenges.

Research is required to examine the impact of national lessons-learned processes on military emulation and how the contribution of lessons-learned to emulation might be improved. Organisational learning and institutional memory within NATO and the UN peace operations bureaucracy has received scholarly attention. However, further research is necessary to explore the role of the institutional organs of CSDP, the JALLC and the UN’s peace operations bureaucracy in facilitating the cross-national transfer of lessons. The effectiveness of these organisations’ activities to promote the identification and exchange of best-practice in learning processes are also unexplored.

Finally, greater engagement between scholars and lessons-learned practitioners will be essential in ensuring that principles of lessons-learned best-practice are recognised and implemented in national lessons-learned processes, many of which have been developed with little input from academia. It will also be important in ameliorating the negative impact of the time constraints facing JALLC analysts on the scope of NATO guidance on lessons-learned. Such engagement will help to ensure that the next (fourth) edition of the NATO Lessons Learned Handbook provides clearer and more comprehensive guidance on the fundamental features of best-practice in lessons-learned processes.

Image: NATO lessons learned staff course via the Swedish Army.

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