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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
Why is it important for the military to be a “learning organization?”
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.
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.
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?
Is this just basic human nature that in times of crisis people
put aside their differences to pull together?
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
What are some of the diversities and perspectives around the concept?
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
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
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.
So all this then falls under the “meta tag” of readiness?
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.
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
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?
question gets into a larger issue of intense interest today in
our military—something that’s called “commander’s intent.”
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?
So, how are they handling commander’s intent today? What is the
approach to building that kind of understanding for the guy on
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.
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.”
How does “commander’s intent” get built into learning initiatives?
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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
Developing context and degree of confidence must be very important
for knowledge and learning work for the military.
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.
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?
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.
Is the U.S. Department of Defense the world leader in research
on learning and organizational readiness for our military?
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.
The old story, right? Fear the ultimate motivator?
one, that’s for sure. I’d like to believe we keep pushing the
envelope ourselves for lots of other reasons, too.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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