The sweeping effects of the fourth industrial revolution are readily evident in the exponential increase of emergent and disruptive technologies becoming commercially available. In this fluid and uncertain environment, we need to consider how Army can remain agile enough to learn from, exploit, and integrate into this global context. Empowering our workforce at all levels⎯through providing readily-accessible innovation hubs and changing cultural perceptions around failure⎯will ensure Army is agile by design, as opposed to retroactively adaptive. Scott Berkun’s statement that, ‘innovation is significant positive change’ can be applied in a military context to procedural efficiency, materiel, and harnessing of human capital. Encouraging innovation and empowering human capital in Army will allow us to capitalize on the corporate knowledge of organic subject matter experts and change the paradigm of soldiers as labour to soldiers as a resource.
The Institute for Corporate Productivity (ic4p) published a study analysing the practices of companies renowned for innovation through their human capital. The ten common managerial strategies were summarised as those that:
1. Use technology for collaboration and sharing knowledge,Promote innovation as an organisational value,
2. Include innovation as a leadership development competency,
3. Tie compensation to innovation,
4. Develop an idea finding program,
5. Fund outside projects,
6. Train for creativity,
7. Create a review process for innovative ideas,
8.Recruit for creative talent, and
9. Reward innovation with rewarding work.
The Army employs these managerial strategies to varying success, yet the deliberate, holistic engagement of the workforce in pursuit of organisational innovation has stagnated. Such inertia—even when the want to improve is evident, and considerable effort and practice have been allocated towards it—is a normal and regular phenomenon. How, then, do we counteract such a plateau? Simply put, Army can reduce the extent to which it experiences innovative stagnation through changing the organisational perception of learning and performance environments. Eduardo Briceno’s learning and performance zones have useful application when considering the challenge of an inherently innovative Army. Delineating between the learning zone—where the intent is to accept and capitalise on failure for organisational growth—and the performance zone—where already-mastered skills and knowledge are applied to maximise immediate outputs—enables the organisation to better define the goal of an activity and apply the relevant framework. It is this, in conjunction with a harmonious alternation between the two zones, which Briceno argues achieves the greatest results.
Army operates in high stakes environments and, out of necessity, fosters attitudes focused on flawless execution. This culture demands high standards and emphasises perfected outcomes; consequently, the organisation defaults to these expectations, even in situations where failure carries no significant ramifications. Army thus functions predominantly in the performance zone (which has arguably become its modus operandi), encouraging organisational adherence to what is known to be effective, limiting the exploration of new methods to safe applications and gradual implementation. Harteis highlights that even in low-risk training scenarios, there is a widespread perception that mistakes are unfavourable, and are accompanied by negative professional and social outcomes. From the authors experience of career courses and as an instructor (of both ab initio and advanced trainees) individuals tend to feel that peers, superiors, subordinates, mentors and instructors will see them as incapable if they fail and, as a result, individuals and organisations within Army avoid the risks—and associated mistakes and failures—required for learning and innovation. This supports Briceno’s observation that in this environment, substantial innovative improvement is impossible; time is instead dedicated to ‘task perfecting’, and it is thus evident that prolonged time in the performance zone is to the detriment of professional growth and mastery.
This perfection-oriented approach hinders future performance and Army thus struggles to sustain large-scale organic innovation and risks. It is unrealistic and undesirable to expect Army to abandon its constant pursuit of perfection. Rather, the challenge is to create a productive learning zone which allows creative and innovative thinking to flourish, and thus optimises performance. To capitalise on Army’s human capital to provide innovative growth and solutions, especially concerning emergent and disruptive technologies, there must exist an ability for experimentation. The environment suggested must be, by design, low risk where mistakes are expected and encouraged and the results inconsequential. There must have a culture where mentors are no longer obsessed with correct answers based on narrow data sets but encourage exploratory thought, where failure is examined for all to learn from, and where improvement can occur rather than absolute rejection. Collaboration on a single problem through virtual sandboxes with multiple inputs, creates harvesting of ideas and innovative solutions. These spaces could be designed to expand individual skills and knowledge through focused learning, whilst simultaneously contributing to a greater Army solution. These environments should operate in parallel to Army and its people’s core function as a complimentary endeavour accessible by those who want to contribute.
There are, however, necessary preconditions which must be met to enable the learning zone to be economically advantageous for innovative growth and improvement. To be successful, there must be an organisationally-endorsed culture of innovation and improvement, enabled through a growth mindset. Those members participating in Army (or lower level) initiatives must inherently want to improve, be innovative, and develop, and it is vital that the focus areas engage participants. In doing so, the emphasis should be on developing skills that lie outside the current performance zone and seeking to achieve objectives through innovative methods. Importantly, this approach must yield a testable outcome, constructed virtually or physically, which can subsequently be assessed for viability, suitability, and opportunity for future investment.
Using this model, academia and industry (along with organic subject matter experts), will be engaged to provide frequent and relevant feedback throughout the process. Prototypes of innovative ideas can thus be rapidly produced, and a test-model-test methodology applied. If viable, engagement with small-medium enterprises partnered with the innovator can further develop the prototype for applied specific testing aimed at implementation. The desired outcome is the implementation of innovative solutions ‘for Army by Army’ where everyone is a potential innovator. As previously stated, however, the innovation must meet an Army need and be achievable (to the point of demonstrating viable conceptual proofs). Supporting learning and performance zones with clear governing mandates to improve the capacity for organisational innovation provides numerous benefits. The challenge for Army is how to actively engage its human capital from the lowest possible level and ensure managerial support and facilitation at the command level.
Figure 1: Scrum methodology
A comparative and employable industry methodology, Scrum (Fig. 1) could provide a solution by being used to rapidly prototype a product after conceptual design to the point of testing. The Scrum is a problem-solving team characterised by, and operating on, the premise that a cross-functional team can work on all aspects of the project at the same time, as opposed to traditional modular approaches; with regular group synchronisation, dislocated teams can thus collaborate on a project. The Scrum consists of a Product Owner (PO), a Scrum Master, and a cross-functional team of Army, academia, and industry construction, the functions of which are well-illustrated by comparison to a car. The ‘scrum’ team of cross-functional individuals is the car itself; each member contributes whatever skills they possess to complete the work required in each phase, and the car is ready to speed along in whatever direction it is pointed. The PO is the driver—specifically the customer or user—who steers the car, guiding the team by creating and conveying a compelling vision. The Scrum Master is the chief mechanic, a non-traditional project manager who ‘keeps the car well-tuned’ by sheltering the team from external distractions, ensuring focused application, and bringing the necessary specialists into the scrum at the appropriate time.
The current problem with innovation through human capital is not necessarily the absence of innovative thought but the overarching rigidity of bureaucratic governance that engulfs it. The apparent organisational disinterest—with opportunities for innovation dismissed as ‘wasted time’—coupled with cultural perceptions about failure prevent the pursuit of most innovation through to a testable outcome. This is compounded by overwhelmingly cumbersome bureaucratic processes which, should an idea be deemed valuable and worth of development, prolong conversion of idea to action to prototype. The innovator, now faced with the policy dictating procurement, employment, and permission to proceed, is daunted to the point of abandonment. The status quo is thus maintained and Army, in many cases, is forced to invest in an autocratic industry solution. An Army consisting of a collection of innovative dreamers and conceptual designers is not, however, compatible with the mission, nor is every member suitable to, or interested in, participating in these endeavours. Therefore, the solution lies in balancing the core functions of Army with the need to remain agile amidst disruptive technologies in the digital age.
The unrelenting, exponential advancement of the fourth industrial revolution will continue to challenge Army and its people. The cultural focus on perfected execution, and time dedicated to operating in the performance zone, will inevitably prevent large scale innovative exploration and resultant agility to emerging disruptive technologies. To encourage and facilitate innovation through its human capital Army must create clearly mandated opportunities designed and dedicated to learning and professional growth. These opportunities must exist in a low-risk environment where both successful and unsuccessful explorations are considered equally valid outcomes. Applying Scrum frameworks and virtual sandboxes that accommodate rapid progression from conception to testable prototype are ways in which Army can facilitate soldiers becoming an innovative resource rather than just a labour force. Incorporating frameworks in which innovation and collaborative exploration by its human capital can be supported allows the transition from a reactive Army to an Army agile by design.
About the Author:
Mathew Wann is an Unmanned Aerial Systems Operator and SNCO who is currently working with Future Land Warfare Branch. The article has been influenced by discussions with LTCOL James Davis, the Army Liaison Officer to the UK Land Forces, and MAJ Scott Holmes who is currently a Chief of Army Scholar.
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