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Technology Intelligence International (TechI2)

Trained as a chemist, and previously a researcher for the U.S. Naval Research Center, Dr. Geoff Malafsky has had a wide range of experience working with different military branches and research groups of the Department of Defense. Our interview with him in December came at a time of still powerful aftershocks of September 11, and provided some interesting insights to the kind of learning and knowledge challenges that our armed forces have been wrestling with in the era of global terrorism. We spoke specifically about some of the key dimensions of organizational readiness required by the ongoing effort to battle this “threat to western civilization as we know it.”

Manville: Let’s begin by talking about the overall climate post September 11th and the ongoing war in Afghanistan and elsewhere. What’s of the climate and the mood in the communities in the military that you are serving? How are they thinking about the challenges right now?

Malafsky: Since September 11, the climate has shifted dramatically as one would expect for a war situation. Frankly, much of the shift has been for the better for the military. They now have a real focal point for the efforts of what is an extremely large and decentralized enterprise; the war has forced them to agree on the near-term, mid-term, and longer-term objectives. In peace time, the military is really on stand-by and everybody has their own opinions, and with that comes in-fighting and disagreement. That’s endemic to any large bureaucracy or enterprise.

In times of peace, our military actually encourages that dynamic tension; it’s a positive thing, for it keeps options open. At the same time, what they’ve been doing is putting in place an overall infrastructure, so that whatever the objectives become, the enterprise is moving forward and ready to decide and implement the appropriate strategy. This is a big part of organizational readiness for them.

Part of the infrastructure is a major learning initiative, and bringing together knowledge management and learning organization projects. This is just an evolution for them though; the military, being an organization that has many people focused on complex and dangerous jobs, has always been a learning organization.

Manville: Why is it important for the military to be a “learning organization?”

Malafsky: They have the same dual reasons that you would find in a large corporate enterprise. Learning organization is about building and developing people: people are your best resources, and you want to have them grow and develop. Their growth and development is good for the enterprise as a whole and it’s good for them personally.

The military has always been, in my personal opinion, the best social institution in terms of taking people and really turning them into highly educated, effective, and good citizens. Because they are performing very dangerous and complex tasks, they need ample education and continuing education.

Manville: Let me go back to the contrast you made before—about the different climate and operating mindset today versus before September 11. You said that in times of peace, this large conglomerate actually encourages competition and lots of different focus areas amongst themselves; however, with the onset of war, they become catalyzed into a more collaborative mode. Did I understand that right?

Malafsky: Yes.

Manville: Is this just basic human nature that in times of crisis people put aside their differences to pull together?

Malafsky: Yes, of course. But it’s also interesting for what it does to leadership. The war situation tends to demand more from leaders, and they’re expected to become much more directive. In times of peace, there’s more debate and less pull for leadership authority.

Manville: It seems like you also implied that the chaos and diversity in peacetimes is deliberate; that it actually encourages innovation and some diversity of development of approaches for military strategy.

Malafsky: Yes.

Manville: But what makes the diversity of approaches work is that there is an increasingly common infrastructure of learning—so that different ways of thinking and acting are cross-pollinating one another?

Malafsky: Yes. The military sees the importance of a common learning infrastructure, in the broad sense of the word. They see that all the different related initiatives—learning, knowledge management, IT, need to converge—people just don’t have the attention span or the time to pay attention to all of these initiatives, and they are struggling just to get their actual work done, let alone to have all of these major initiatives come down from the senior leadership of the enterprise.

It’s important to get more focus. Now the war has gotten people to lower their guard and get together around a common infrastructure. So, for example, CIOs of various government agencies are getting together and talking to one another now more than ever before; they are really getting down to a substantive level and trying to share and build a common framework for knowledge management, elearning initiatives, and IT initiatives.

Manville: Okay. Let’s talk a bit more specifically about “organizational readiness.” The theme implies a kind of potential capability or capability in reserve if you like. And you talked earlier about developing people and that was a very big part of the whole mission of the services. But what about immediate support for the front line, whether soldiers or other warriors?

Malafsky: Here the topic between elearning, training, and knowledge management starts to blur. A big part of organizational readiness for people at the front line is access to tools, resources, and the like—and it requires a taxonomy to organize it all. You fast discover that there are very different perspectives on what things mean, and that gets in the way of organize your tools and resources. Cognitive scientists have known this for years.

Even the concept of “readiness” itself doesn’t mean the same thing to all people. It’s one of the top issues of all the branches of the military, but they define it differently.

Manville: What are some of the diversities and perspectives around the concept?

Malafsky: Let me illustrate by taking you down some of the categories that the military talks about. One classification is personnel readiness—are your people ready? Under that topic you have physical readiness—are they maintained medically, but also are they in good physical shape? You don’t want fat soldiers—but what is fat? Then you also have mental health readiness. And related to that is the important but difficult concept of morale. Generals have known for centuries that morale can make all the difference in a battle. And you’ll be branching into issue of recruitment, retention, and other issues of development.

Then you get to the more classic readiness:  equipment and facilities—making sure that everything material is fixed and ready to go, whether it’s an aircraft or a ship or a submarine or vehicles, and that includes runways, roads, bridges, and the like. Then there are buildings for equipment and people; there’s maintenance that has to occur in buildings. And it gets into inventory. When you have a war, inventory becomes a big issue whereas in peace you may not need that large of an inventory. In fact, that’s one of the things that geared up in the current war; the Defense Department had to immediately go out and procure large quantities of bio-chemical warfare equipment.

Another readiness is just funding. It’s hard to keep your system ready if every month you have to go back to Congress and fight for your budget, or the money is not allocated. Then you get into logistics, which is how you actually move and keep track of all that stuff. Then the new area, which has become important in the Defense Department, is environmental readiness. The military is no longer allowed to just go out and do things. The Navy is not allowed to dump lithium batteries in the sea or to discharge oil into the ocean. They have to be ready to do the right things for the environment.

Manville: So all this then falls under the “meta tag” of readiness?

Malafsky: That’s right. And the learning challenge is how to establish a common understanding. When you say “readiness” you’re likely talking about something different than the next person. In a war this is not just a library-science kind of debate.

In fact, you find differences of interpretation at every level of the Defense Department. You’ll have branch level meanings, as in Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, and then within any one of those branches, you’ll have a completely different perspective depending upon what they actually do. If you are up at the Pentagon level, you will obviously have a broad view of readiness, but if you are actually down in a command in South Carolina, then your view of readiness has to do with what you do day in and day out.

Manville: Given that you want to, as a goal state, have the entire Department of Defense operating in a coordinated and responsive way, how do you build that kind of shared interpretation?

Malafsky: That question gets into a larger issue of intense interest today in our military—something that’s called “commander’s intent.”

Most people don’t recognize that the military is not one monolithic system where the highest ranking officer issues a command and everybody down below does it. Rather it works more along the lines of people make their own decisions within their framework of guidance and training. Establishing the framework of “commander’s intent” is what the game is all about now. And it’s becoming a more poignant issue all the time as the size of the battle space of our military becomes truly global. How do you make sure that the Marine who’s setting up mortar bases on the beach somewhere knows what the commander thousands of miles away intends for him to do? When there’s no way he can be told explicitly?

Manville: So, how are they handling commander’s intent today? What is the approach to building that kind of understanding for the guy on the beach?

Malafsky: Part of the approach is old fashioned internal communications—training people to do a better job of communicating the overall picture before you engage in the operation.

Another part of the approach is more high tech—finding ways to embed the commander’s intent into the message streaming and information presentation of communication tools. And so that is extremely similar to the knowledge management goal which is, “I just don’t what this information staring me in the face; I want to know what it’s all about.”

Manville: How does “commander’s intent” get built into learning initiatives?

Malafsky: For example, Marines are trained to systematically ask, “Am I sure I understand the Commander’s Intent?” That could also be training for the commanders to understand, “You can’t just issue this directive to your deputy because the Marine doing the actual shooting may not have a clue what it is you are trying to accomplish.” There’s interest in elearning to help promote and speed the learning of these kinds of things.

Manville: Let me ask you a related question. At the risk of over-simplification, we can talk about a fundamental bifurcation in the realm of human development for organizational readiness. One is just-in-time learning, front-line support—“I know nothing, but in 30 seconds I need to know something.” That’s the classic province of many knowledge management initiatives and increasingly elearning, information and knowledge, and learning-on-demand. The other whole half of the pie is the just-in-case building people’s skills, knowledge, and experience, knowing that at some future time they might get shot at by a particular kind of airplane, or whatever. How does the military, in your experience, think about the balance between the just-in-case training capability building (on the one hand) and the just-in-time front-line support (knowing that you’ll never be able to train people for everything) and that, however much they learn in advance, you’ve got to be able to give them instant information to take an action or decision.

Malafsky: The way the military handles it is to decentralize that decision making so that the group that has to deal with the front-line stuff, they have to make the decision, “What is the best way for us to execute our mission,” and if that includes setting up an elearning capability or a digital library or just having a bunch of books and magazines, then they have to grapple with that issue. Leadership groups like the Department of Navy CIO sees their job as putting out good information, tools, and resources in things like knowledge management, elearning, technology, etc.—to enable decentralized units to build the capabilities they need, and draw from best practices.

Manville: So in other words, throughout the military different units are either explicitly or implicitly making a choice about how to find the right blend between just-in-case and just-in-time, and they’re being exposed to technologies and best practices to aid them in that decision.

Malafsky: Right. For example, in the Navy, they have gone on to distance learning and distance support so that a mechanic on an aircraft carrier now can get access to different sources of learning and knowledge. He or she can get a web-based training system, or they can get access to the manual and be able to find easy ways to search for what they need, or there can be a training course, either on land or hosted on the aircraft carrier itself. Sometimes this young sailor needs to reach out and touch a wise expert who is based on the shore so now there is also a program like the sailor-to-engineer program which allows them, live from their training module on the aircraft carrier, to contact an expert for synchronous collaboration.

Manville: In the corporate world I think the trend is towards more front-line, just-in-time. The promise of elearning and its convergence with knowledge management is to provide more high-impact, cost-effective support and with it a diminished investment in classic just-in-case, particularly classroom training. Would you say that’s a comparable trend in the military?

Malafsky: No. I think that the military is pursuing a dual approach; front-line just-in-time is very, very important and is a large initiative, but equally important is the continuing desire to cultivate the people-resources of the Department of Defense. That focus is on things like career development paths, and using elearning to complement and augment on-the-job and classroom training.

Manville: Well, I may have overstated the trend even in the corporate setting. Though I think the balance is tilting much more to just-in-time learning, much of the new strategy is really about so called “blended learning”—combining both just in time and just in case, as well as different media and modes of education. Another aspect of the new technology-driven approaches is user profiling—being able to tailor learning to different needs, styles, and knowledge gaps—and thus increase both efficiency and effectiveness. Do you see that as a trend in the military, too?

Malafsky: Yes exactly. I think that is one of the values of the elearning capability is that you can start to target the specific types of needs of specific types of learners. There has already been some work to have things defined by user roles and user types, and elearning also allows training to be done and broken out more individually by learning styles. In fact, elearning CDs, that the Department of Navy CIO are putting together right now, have an entire chapter on how people learn, their learning concepts, and learning styles. It has sections on learning theories, styles, strategies, cultures, systems approach, intuition, and it gets into some theoretical aspects like sense-making, forgetting, and memory formulation. It’s a way to drive all of these types of things because again to be effective you need to know who your user base is.

Manville: There’s some related research that’s getting attention in the corporate world about so-called “reusable learning objects,” the notion that learning can be modularized and that you can chunk learning into pieces that can be recombined and reused flexibly. Do you see much of that in your military work?

Malafsky: I think that’s an interesting concept, but personally I’m skeptical because of the context issue. It’s not been a big topic that I’ve seen so far. If you look at it mathematically then it’s no longer just a combination issue, it’s a permutation issue, which means the number of permutation grows exponentially. The danger of getting something that’s only 80% right because it lacks context is not trivial for a military situation. I worry that it’s more theory than practical.

Manville: Developing context and degree of confidence must be very important for knowledge and learning work for the military.

Malafsky: Those are some of the very key challenges. Trying to take electronic information and bundle it and package it so that it is truly usable for humans is all about these kind of things. Much of the R&D is how to do that in an electronic world of war.

Manville: Is there one branch of the service or piece of Department of Defense that’s at the cutting edge? Is there a part of the military which is more the academy for the others in terms of innovation and smart thinking about technology and learning for readiness?

Malafsky: I don’t think there is one that stands out in all areas. The Department of Navy is at the forefront of many of these new areas and really doing great work about collecting best practices and lessons learned and disseminating them, for example in elearning and knowledge management. But the Department of Army also has a very strong position in knowledge management and learning in the field. They have long had a Center for Army Lessons Learned which does path-breaking work. The Air Force tends to be a little bit more technically complex; they’ve become quite sophisticated about just-in-time distributed learning for aircraft maintenance.

Manville: Is the U.S. Department of Defense the world leader in research on learning and organizational readiness for our military?

Malafsky: Well, not necessarily. We are very advanced, but several of our NATO allies are also quite sophisticated. I had the opportunity last February to go to Sweden as part of a Defense Department initiative. The Swedes, even though they have a tiny military, are actually extremely advanced in these concepts and in some ways they are more advanced than we are. They have the benefit of being small, which for certain kinds of field-based research are an advantage. They can take some of these advanced concepts and experiment with them aggressively, for example combining command and control centers with advanced knowledge flow technologies. Being at the back door of the former Soviet Union was a real incentive to push the envelope on some of these things.

Manville: The old story, right? Fear the ultimate motivator?

Malafsky: It’s one, that’s for sure. I’d like to believe we keep pushing the envelope ourselves for lots of other reasons, too.

Geoff Malafsky Ph.D. is the CEO and Chief Scientist of Technology Intelligence International (TechI2), a Virginia-based consulting firm that specializes in technology strategy, knowledge management, cognitive sciences, and related organizational issues. Trained as a chemist, and previously a researcher for the U.S. Naval Research Center, Dr. Malafsky has had a wide range of experience working with different military branches and research groups of the Department of Defense. Contact him at




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