BlogInnovation - DEF Australia

The Perils of Centralising Defence Innovation (and how to overcome them)

As innovation gains momentum throughout defense forces, a common theme seems to be emerging. Militaries, in particular Western ones, are increasingly seeking to centralise their dispersed innovation cells into single innovation ‘hubs’ in order to better coordinate and deliver innovation to the whole organisation. This centralised approach allows for better engagement with both academia and industry. All over the world militaries are drawing in bright young minds to come up with new ideas on how to develop/improve our profession of arms more effectively and industry is always providing us with new technologies to better engage on the modern battlefield.

So, is centralisation the saviour of defense innovation? While it does offer significant gains, there are also major drawbacks that are not always apparent upon initial investigation. The most significant impact of bringing innovation into the center is there is an immediate loss of engagement with the ground level of the organisations. As I have discussed before (Crowdsource for Defence), the ground level of our organisation are the true hot-beds of innovation. While there is certainly some benefit to come of engagement with students and academia, it should never occur at the expense of engaging without our own people. Having an outside voice is always best practice but there is a significant risk of ideas being developed that simply cannot be implemented within our structures and procedures. As components of government, militaries lack the organisational flexibility of major tech companies and so trying to emulate their practices inherently runs the risk of generating ideas unsuited to our organisations. Ideas that cannot be implemented are not innovations, they are simply good ideas.

Another justification of centralisation is that it enhances engagement with industry. Industry engagement is an incredibly powerful tool that enables militaries to rapidly acquire capabilities. A good example of this partnering occurred last year with the U.S. Army partnering with General Dynamics to rapidly upgrade its Stryker fleet with 30mm cannons in under 18 months, in order to combat the emerging overmatch of Russian armour[1].  However, there is also an inherent risk to this relationship, there is a complacency that comes with over-reliance on industry to solve problems. Nowhere is this clearer than the emerging threat of Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) drones. The vast majority of the discourse around the problem has focused on technological solutions to the problem, rather than addressing changes in tactics. Innovation dies when we rely on industry to produce more and more technological solutions without effective ground-up problem identification. The real utility to be gained from partnering with industry is in the implementation of ideas posed by ‘intrapreneurs’ from within our organisations. Having industry able to rapidly develop and deliver these technical solutions allows us to keep pace with an ever more unpredictable enemy.

Centralisation is a key enabler but it must not result in a reduction in engagement with the organisation itself. So how can this organisational engagement be maintained while accessing the benefits of centralisation? The solution to mitigating the vulnerabilities of a centralisation is ensuring that it is linked into a network of personnel placed throughout the organisation. While these personnel report to the leadership of the innovation hub they physically sit within the HQs of formations and units. They are in constant interaction with people at all levels of the organisation, a proverbial finger on the pulse of innovation. These people at ground level are responsible for collecting and refining innovation ideas from all ranks across their area. If these ideas can be tested at their level then they trial the idea and assess the results. If it proves to be beneficial then it can be implemented across the rest of the organisation. This way the risk for minor projects is contained at sub-unit level until the concept has been proven. This minimizes the disruption that innovation can have, while bringing an implementation focus to the innovation space. Larger ideas, particularly those focused around conceptual organisation change are brought to the central hub where the partnering with industry allows for rapid prototyping and testing. Engagement with academia is conducted centrally through the hub but works closely with the formation/unit level innovation practitioners. These people, with their fingers on the pulse have a far better understanding of the ‘pain points’ faced by people on the ground. They are also able to provide an all-important ‘relatively check’ for people with no military experience, especially in regards to the implementation phase.

This is by no means a criticism of the centralisation of innovation; this centralisation is something that NZ Army Innovation has sought to move towards over the last 12 months. Centralisation is a powerful enabler of defense innovation; it provides the coordination and resourcing to rapidly deliver innovation. Like any concept, it has significant drawbacks, however these can be effectively mitigated by developing and managing physically dispersed networks that feed up to the centralised hub. Remember, the most innovative ideas sit in the heads of our own people, centralised innovation needs to be able to locate, assess, develop, test and implement these ideas in order to deliver maximum benefit to the organisation. Centralisation should never be viewed as ‘fix all’ for innovation, it may be the foot on the accelerator, but the engine of innovation is the people who make up our organisation.

About the author

Tim Jones is the New Zealand Army’s Innovation, Business Improvement and Efficiency Manager.


[1] Defence World.Net “US Army Receives First Upgraded Stryker Vehicle with 30mm Cannon”, dated 01 Nov 16.