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Professional Military Education and Innovation – An Historical Perspective

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After recently embarking on a new phase of professional study I have developed a renewed appreciation of the importance that historical lessons can play in understanding the future of war. History presents us with many lessons relevant to the role and impact of innovation within military organisations. Indeed, a range of historical events and now long-deceased military figures have particular relevance to modern militaries and provide a fascinating insight into the importance of professional military education upon innovation.

Gerhard von Scharnhorst (1755-1813), for example, was a Prussian officer widely credited for championing military education and fostering a culture of learning among the Prussian Army. His profound legacy has inspired and influenced military organisations for many generations since his death. Scharnhorst was heavily committed to education and learning, assisting in the writing of an officers’ handbook and a field manual in the early stages of his career. After seeing the defeat of the Prussian Army in battle by the French in 1806 he dedicated his future work to learning from experience, later enacting a range of reforms as the head of the Military Reorganisation Commission in Prussia. Importantly, Scharnhorst also served the Director of the War Academy (Kriegsakademie) in Berlin, where he influenced a range of great military minds, including the renowned theorist and strategist, Karl von Clausewitz. Scharnhorst’s desire for developing and mentoring junior officers and his dedication to lifelong learning remain important concepts today. The article, ‘Lessons from the Kriegsakademie: A reflection of the present? A road map for the future?’, provides a good overview of the extent to which Scharnhorst’s legacy remains relevant to contemporary militaries.

Many historical lessons demonstrate the importance that innovation plays – and will continue to play – in preparing for the future of war and warfare. There are a number of key themes to be drawn from these historical lessons, a few of which are as follows:

  • Leadership matters: Strong and intelligent leadership is important to nurturing innovation. The recent Australian Army Journal article ‘Enabling Army Innovation’ by Brigadier Chris Field summarises this fact nicely: ‘Through leadership, divergent thinkers create an environment conducive to the adoption of new ideas’. Notably, Scharnhorst was recognised for his leadership skills and the way that he upheld the highest standards of any military officer of his time.
  • Culture matters: Creating the right culture is also important to ensuring that innovation is able to thrive. In the Australian Army context, Land Warfare Doctrine 1 – The Fundamentals of Land Power provides an insight into the significance of education and intellectual rigour upon innovation: ‘The intellectual component of fighting power provides the level of understanding necessary for success in the complex battle space and is supported by an organisational climate that enables creativity and innovation, analytical excellence and continuous learning.’ Scharnhorst’s work at the Kriegsakademie is demonstrative of his commitment to the creation of a culture of education and learning.

The importance of considering the past when looking for answers to future problems is no new or bold concept. It is important to note that not all lessons from history can be applied to developing an understanding of what lays before us. However, the creation of the culture of learning, enabled by strong and intelligent leadership, will help ensure that the right environment exists to empower innovation.

About the author

Anthony Lias is an officer in the Royal Australian Corps of Signals. He has a passion for professional education and has an International Relations degree and a Masters in Information Technology. As a current student of Australian Command and Staff College he is learning the valuable lessons of military history and their applicability to the future of war and warfare. 

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.

3 thoughts on “Professional Military Education and Innovation – An Historical Perspective

  1. Anthony, great article – thanks.

    There is a clear difference between training and education. Training is about developing a particular skill set; education is about developing intellect.

    Therefore, do we actually educate our junior leaders, or simply train them?

    1. Hi Wade, thanks for your comment. In response to your question I would suggest that, in the Australian Army context, we do both (or at least strive to do both). The Army has a relatively robust training, education and doctrine system that enables the professional development of our junior commanders. At a minimum, I would contend that the Army is highly capable in training our junior commanders to effectively operate at a tactical level. In terms of education, as alluded to in my article, a commander should strive to develop a culture of learning as this will support professional development and this can be achieved in a number of ways. Encouraging self-development and self-reflection, providing opportunities within the existing Army education system, and supporting learning endeavours outside of the Army framework are all great ways to ensure the educational requirements of our junior commanders are met. That said, the recently published ‘Ryan Review’ provides a number of recommendations for building an improved Army education, training and doctrine system. The report is guided by an understanding of future human capacity needs and aims to connect the broad span of activities that Army conducts internally and with its joint and Defence partners within the extant system. I understand the recommendations included in the report have wide support from senior levels within Army and I am excited by the prospects that implementation of these recommendations will have in the coming years. I commend the report to you, which can be accessed at:

      1. I don’t think the Army (I can’t speak for other services) does any formalized education until Majors attend command and staff college. Until then, it is really up to individuals to educate themselves (self-study in units), or maybe the junior leader is lucky and has a good boss who drives education in the unit/sub-unit. Do you think there is a cultural issue towards education in units? Unfortunately I have seen commanders not overly keen for their subordinates to undertake study as it has the potential to detract from their actual jobs.

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