Intellect and innovation for warfighting capability.

Idea Pitch – Local Mentoring Nodes – Developing Human Capital

November 29th, 2016 by Kathryn Christie and Kate Tollenaar


17th Century Coffee House


BLUF: A pilot Barracks Mentoring Group provides a model for joint professional military education, to engender cultural change and facilitate mentoring at the tactical level. This model can be established as an ADF wide initiative as a way of developing human capital.

While Defence prepares for the next iteration of Pathways to Change, the Mentoring Group model addresses a gap of grass roots implementation of strategic reform. The benefits of a grass roots model includes enabling diversity of thought, addressing pockets of counter culture, and providing a feedback loop to the strategic level, which can be employed in periodic reviews to track the success of implementation for new programs. This model also addresses a recommendation of the 2016 Ryan Review, where members have access to informal, as well as formal, education and mentoring opportunities.

The Ryan Review noted that ‘Army is not placed within a unified approach to develop the intellectual capabilities of its people in a manner similar to other professions’. The review further states that ‘There is no combined residential education, self-development, unit based education and experience continuum with strategic priorities to provide guidance’.  This gap analysis is a clear indicator that there is an opportunity for conceptual innovation within the current localised training and education environment.

One such approach to develop our human capital is to establish a series of local collaborative mentoring groups. The intent of these groups is to foster a voluntary educational and engagement framework which sits separate from, but complementary to, career courses and specific training milestones. Think of it as a unit professional development program, but all ranks and services, which is focused on topics such as leadership, cultural change, recruitment, flexible work, preventative mental health, and resilience. Topics are adjusted to meet the needs of the specific base, the meetings work with local battle rhythms, and the model requires few resources. The outcome of such an approach would see focused and continuous professional development, working in concert with current training frameworks. Online platforms encourage the conversation to continue between meetings, which encourages self-study and the practice of writing. These skills are essential for a learning organisation which aims to strive towards professional mastery.

The Opportunity

The current framework outlined in the Ryan Review describes a developmental continuum grounded on progressive, sequential training limited to specific segments of the ADF. This centralised, linear approach to training and education is at odds with the contemporary complex operating environment. That is, the ADF is required to operate effectively within ambiguous, unstructured environments yet employs controlled, centralised training to build this capacity. A mentoring group offers a flexible approach to learning, guided by the requirements of the group to address concerns and issues which are most relevant to them. Sessions are facilitated by local subject matter experts – military or civilian – which broadens an individual’s network of contacts and potential mentors.

The 2016 Defence White Paper reinforces the need for innovative education design to develop our people. Similarly, clear guidance is provided within ‘The Chiefs’ study of 2013, where the importance of Joint Professional Military Education (PME) is clearly defined, encouraging us to find ways to educate a wider and richer range of skills and responses including economics, politics, and military sociology. The Pathways to Change, Cultural Reform Program, speaks on the importance that innovative education initiatives, like collective mentoring, will play in socialising the agreed cultural norms and expectations of an ADF committed to continuous improvement. As does The First Principles Review, where strong joint networks are envisioned to facilitate an effective Defence Organisation.

Networking people and linking entities

Networking people and linking entities

The solution

An option to help assist the education gap identified in the Ryan Review at the grass roots level is a model tested by the Simpsons Barracks Mentoring Group (SBMG), located in Melbourne. The SBMG has been piloted over Jun-Dec 16, with its intent to filter strategic guidance to the tactical level to create real change through PME. The SBMG identified that intellectual collaboration in a neutral setting was the type of educational forum that the participants not only wanted, but needed, in order to better inform the reality of cultural change. The sessions, conducted monthly, allowed for diverse and different thoughts, robust discussion, and the opportunity to provide feedback from the tactical level to the strategic space. Topics were decided by the members and occassions provided for members to plan and facilitate sessions, creating opportunities for leadership outside of the unit.

As a point of difference to the one on one, traditionally hierarchical mentoring framework agreed to in principal by the ADF, the SBMG model is designed around a volunteer group of joint personnel (including APS) across all ranks, convened over a lunch break with facilitated discourse on relevant Defence topics. The activity incorporates guest SME presenters, tailored resource material for pre-reading, and topical blog discussion and analysis. The most appropriate definition of mentoring as relevant to the program would describe the SBMG model as the facilitation of development ‘through the arrangement of specific learning experiences, actively involving the learner in thinking, acting, problem solving, guiding them into extending and constructing knowledge’ (Tovey 1999).

The SBMG model aims to create a intellectual and facilitated environment with the goal of engendering a broad personal education to encourage creative thought, organisational understanding, and develop a ‘wider and richer range of skills’. The second and third order effects of the mentoring group is the liminal development of flexibility of thought and action required to solve complex, ambiguous problems. This is anticipated by developing a more extensive military specific personal knowledge library drawing inspiration from Clausewitz’ ‘Coup D’Oeil’ theory of Strategic Intuition.

While it appears difficult to define success though quantifiable criteria, the voluntary, collaborative approach increased teamwork across units on base and reinforced the organisational climate and culture. This is relevant in light of the updated Pathways to Change review which reiterates the importance of socialising the agreed cultural norms and expectations within Defence to reinforce the need to adhere to Defence values.

Steps for the future

In 2017 the SBMG will trial an online presence that includes a digital compendium of resources and a discussion forum, leveraging from current platforms such as Grounded Curiosity and Erudite Warrior to share resources. The group will also harness work from RAN and RAAF in the mentoring space, and gain further insight into development of innovative educational initiatives through analysis of similar allied reviews.

Requirements for implementation

The SBMG has proven that the model is inherently cost effective. The model could be replicated throughout the ADF with strategic guidance from areas such as the AHQ Mentoring Resource Centre or VCDF group. Implementation is then delegated under the guidance of local commanders, to be guided by the requirements of the audience. There is little requirement for travel funds, given its local nature and lunchtime activities limit interference to unit battle rhythms.  Some funding may be required to sponsor travel from interstate speakers. Minimal cost is also incurred to cater the activity, whilst sharing a meal creates a more informal collegial environment designed in line with the 17th Century Coffee House Culture of networking, topical discussion and collective engagement, as a means to identify innovative solutions. It is estimated that the running cost could be as low as $2000 per year per group.

Most bases already have a neutral space that could be utilised for group meetings. The SBMG meets at the on-base Everyman’s Centre, a deliberate choice because it is informal, non-hierarchical, and a space where people already converge from different backgrounds to engage in open discussion.


Strategic educational reviews have identified a gap in existing training frameworks to provide regular PME, across all ranks and levels. In addition, cultural reforms strategies clearly outline the need to embed the agreed cultural norms and expectations within the Defence Organisation. The SBMG provides an example of a mentoring group that can be shaped to meet local requirements, at minimal cost, and helps develop the human capital of the ADF to be best prepared for operations in complex environments.

Please leave your comments on this idea through the comments section below or email your feedback to

About the authors
Kathryn Christie was the J5 of Defence Command Support Training Centre (DCSTC) at Simpson Barracks in 2016 and is posted to Australian Command and Staff College in 2017.
Kate Tollenaar is Officer Commanding 138 Signals Squadron at Simpson Barracks. She is the Co Director of the SBMG in 2017, with  Rachel Beeton (DCSTC).

Resource Material

Grounded Curiosity is a platform to spark debate, focused on junior commanders. The views expressed do not reflect any official position or that of any of the author’s employers – see more here.

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2 Comments on "Idea Pitch – Local Mentoring Nodes – Developing Human Capital"

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Great pitch Kat and Kate!

What you started with the SBMG was excellent to be a part of, and I look forward to participating next year. Hopefully the idea is expanded across our other establishments.

Liz Boulton

This is a fabulous idea and congrats on your initiative. Instead of sitting around waiting for ‘someone’ to ‘do something’, these people have taken charge of their own unit/base culture, teams and own self development journey. I love the idea of it being a group exploration and learning adventure etc. So low cost, but high impact. Creating ownership, personal learning and a safe discursive environment is the way with cultural change, congratulations.