The Flu Bug Made Me Blog This

I have just returned from a 1-week army reserve training stint. Like the last time, I came home with the flu bug, and several questions about how the army could better manage its knowledge. 

Before I tread further, I’d like to say to whoever from the army reading this blog that I’m aware of the sensitivity of the topic. But the lines are arguably blur when it comes to what’s shareable and what’s not. There’s a radio station here dedicated to military personnel that encourages its listeners to share their military experience on air. But last week, we were informed that a soldier got into trouble for uploading onto his personal blog a photo of him and his mates in their barrack. I googled for related topics, and was surprised to discover that you can in fact find a lot of info online. For instance, the Defence Science & Technology Agency of Singapore published an article on a new concept of command and control called Command Post Anywhere, which they tested on an armoured brigade in Australia in 2004. The US Department of Defence also publishes a lot of info online. If those folks who breathe defence security day in day out can publish what they publish, then I think I can lower my own standard on self-censorship. Now that I have covered my backside (sufficiently I hope), let me start my blog proper.

The recent training stint, a map planning exercise, was a terrifying experience. I had to cover for my superior officer in his absence. This meant having to present my support plan to first the brigade commander and then the division commander. In order to produce my support plan, I had first to understand the operations and intelligence plans. Many times, I doubted my own intelligence when I couldn’t comprehend them. The funny thing was, when pressed by the division commander, several other officers admitted that they didn’t understand those plans either. That assured me that I wasn’t dumber than the next bloke, but it certainly raised questions about the efficacy of the collective planning process that we underwent. It seemed that only the commander, S2 and S3 were cognizant of their own plans, while the rest of us struggled to follow their thought process.

To me, there are two reasons why some of us struggled to understand the main plans. First, the setup of the command post is such that the commander, S2 and S3 are at the epicenter of the discussion. The rest of us sit away from the epicenter, either to their flanks or behind them. This sometimes results in the trio talking amongst themselves or worse to the map in front of them, and the rest of us in the periphery slowly become disengaged from the discussion. One possible solution is to forget the rows and let us all sit in a circle (no head, no tail), and then orientate the planning aids around the optimal sitting arrangement rather than the other way round.

Second, nobody wants to appear stupid by asking what must be elementary to the trio. Asking questions also slows down the planning process, and nobody wants to be regarded as the one who delays the book-out time for the rest. This has to do with our culture. The commander tried to get people to speak up, but he wasn’t just fighting against the military culture, but also the national culture. Solution to this thin skin syndrome? Demonstrate the reward for being thick skinned and the price for being thin skinned. For instance, every officer gets a finite set of toy soldiers at the beginning of an exercise. With each non-understanding, he gets a few taken from him, the number of which would depend on the severity of his ignorance. At the end of the exercise, what he has left would give him an indication of the potential loss of life that he might have caused in a real war.

Now for a more onerous challenge. The commander was the fourth who had lead us in the last 7 years that I have served in the reserve. The KM challenge is an obvious one – how do you ensure knowledge continuity in an organisation that rotates its commanders every 2 or 3 years, and where every one of them (especially the scholar class) makes it a point to do something remarkably different from his predecessor so as to stand out? Part of the answer lies in the echelon that is relatively constant, that layer of staff that does not get rotated as often (think civil service to governments). But a bigger, more important part lies at the policy level. What if every commander was obligated to leave behind some form of documentation of what he has learned during his tour of duty, to act as a baseline for his successor? What if failure to transfer knowledge meant a delay in his promotion?

Have I crossed the line with this blog? Not sure. If I have, and get punished for it, that would be something to blog about, wouldn’t it?

2 Comments so far

Harold Jarche

I spent almost half of my life (it seems like it, anyway) sitting in some sort of Command Post. I don’t think you’re out of line at all, and it’s this kind of fresh thinking that the reserves should be promoting. Reservists see aspects of life and different ways of doing things that Regular Army staff miss out on. There is no doubt in my mind that the military is a sub-culture which is very difficult to penetrate or change. But change it must, especially for what is now called network-centric warfare.

Rob Paterson also notes the problems of rotating commanders too quickly:

PS: 3rd time submitted (I hate captchas)

Posted on June 12, 2007 at 07:29 PM | Comment permalink

Edgar Tan

Thanks for the reference, Harold. I was merely contemplating from a knowledge management perspective, the loss to the military organisation when commanders get rotated without a knowledge retention strategy in place. Now, I see that there’s potentially more at stake. I fully agree with Dr Shay that trust is a combat strength multiplier. But trust takes time and the right conditions to build. Looking back at the military exercises that I have been through, I dare say that there was hardly any emphasis on building trust with the commander. I speak for myself when I say this, but it was more about doing things to get on his right side and, in the words of a fellow officer, “catering to his personality”. I daren’t think what it would be like to have to fight side by side with a commander with whom I had scant opportunity to learn to trust.

Posted on June 13, 2007 at 01:42 PM | Comment permalink

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