From the ‘swamp’ to the ‘high-ground’ and back – educating logisticians to operate in complexity: Part One

By Dr. Chris Paparone and George L. Topic

The difficulty and complexity of the post-industrial military profession at all levels is so profound and widely recognized that it is almost cliché to mention. This is true for all specialties, but few are more challenging than the field of logistics especially as leaders reach higher levels of responsibility. Across the vast array of administrative and operational missions and functions that extend from the strategic headquarters to the farthest corners of the world, the professional military logistician must be skilled in dealing with highly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) circumstances. Logisticians are faced with the paradox of providing support that must be consistent accurate and timely in VUCA situations that make such support especially challenging.

The education communities of numerous defence forces are working hard to meet the challenge of preparing future leaders for a high-VUCA world, including establishing several specialty schools, colleges, and universities to help shape the necessary skills. Yet curricula designers and faculty members remain challenged to move beyond ‘traditional’ and we would argue ‘archaic’ institutionalized educational philosophies that are intended to drive student learning experiences.

Traditional educational design focuses on the ‘what’ that is, developing competency maps, determining curricula content, setting measurable learning objectives, and publishing intricate plans of instruction that are believed to control the education process. The ‘what’ is assessed by comparing desired standards of performance to actual student performance.  This is certainly logical in a modernist logic, but hardly in a postmodern sense.

Other qualitative aspects of professional military education seem to be of lesser significance, if considered at all. In many cases, the education experience appears to be focused primarily on providing students with highly-structured ‘knowns’ and applying them in the classroom or laboratory. While lessons of the past are thought to be a necessary ingredient to learning, embracing lessons learned may be dogmatic, counter-productive, and even dangerous in unstructurable situations.

In two posts, we would like to open a conversation about educating logistics practitioners, focusing more on three other qualities of education: the ‘where’, ‘why’,  and ‘how’. Through our normative stance (by taking a ‘should’ perspective), we hope the community of educators and senior logisticians are spurred to better appreciate what we argue are the more desirable professional qualities. To that intent, we admit we argue provocatively rather than seek to ratify the status quo. Our intent is not to suggest current practices in military logistics education have no place in the future, but that they must be subordinated to, or at least considered in concert with, greater scopes and methods.

What may become apparent to the reader is that we use language and concepts that (we hope) may lead to deviance – that is, a paradigm shift. Paradoxically, while we would like to communicate to the institution using familiar language, we appreciate that an emergent paradigm cannot translate well to the one at present. At times, we will have to reframe meanings and invent new ones to attempt to communicate these ideas.

For example, throughout these two posts, we will employ the metaphors of ‘the swamp’ and ‘the high ground’ to capture the messy reality of logistics practice and the role of education in assisting that practice. We organize the two posts to talk first about the nature of working in the swamp and then about how to create learning conditions that can serve logisticians as the high ground for professional reflective practice. Our principal argument is that reflective practice is essential to becoming a professional, yet we acknowledge that one can never quite arrive at the ideal state, as that state changes continuously.

VUCA in the Swamp

VUCA is a particularly useful acronym to describe the swampy situations in which military logisticians operate. Practitioners would like to make decisions while knowing all of the variables involved in a given circumstance, but this is impossible in the swamp. In effect, they are always bound in their ability to be rational, except in rare situations where VUCA conditions would be very low – like in a very controlled simulation laboratory.

Nevertheless, a logistician can make judgments concerning the degree of VUCA present in the swamp and consider when rational-analytic (laboratory-like or scientific) approaches are appropriate. Assessing the level of VUCA associated with unique decisions or actions is a key aspect of the reflection process we propose. In that regard, we think it useful to examine what each word in the acronym means while remembering that they overlap.

Volatility. Volatility (or instability) is the degree of turbulence or rate of change we perceive or experience. Some have argued that every generation seems to think its era is the most volatile. We are neutral on this debate, but we argue that the swamp metaphor – like a bubbling, muddy, primordial mess – assumes countless dynamics at work, making it difficult to define the problem or even appreciate the situation because the context quickly morphs before we can address it.

Uncertainty. Uncertainty is the recognition that what has happened before is not an accurate predictor of what will happen later. So, pre-existing answers or solutions (including technologies) are not available and maybe never will be. The contexts, foes, missions, systems, and processes we face are complex and highly interactive. In the swamp, cause-and-effect relationships are impossible to isolate from others, and the massive interactivity of variables make assessments, judgments, and decisions about the future more like a gamble – especially when considered in a global context or over long periods of time.

Complexity. Complexity in the swamp refers to the countless events involved and the degree of interconnectedness among them that result in randomness and unpredictability rather than certainty. The higher the complexity, the less certain logisticians are that the situation can be studied in an objective way. Not every action shows immediate feedback. At best, delayed, confusing, unforeseeable side effects develop.

Studying a state of high VUCA in the swamp is like trying to study anarchy. How can you develop a framework to study chaos? Indeed, the paradox is that, by definition, no laws govern cause-and-effect relationships in anarchic systems, so outcomes are random. One can at best reflect on the circumstance – a subjective endeavour – rather than objectively determine how variables will interact. Interpreting complex situations will always result in some level of equivocation, which is our next topic.

Ambiguity. When logistics practitioners admit that they cannot be scientifically objective because of the anarchic nature of high levels of volatility, uncertainty, and complexity, their attempts at explaining what is happening in the swamp are infused with ambiguity. Mindful that multiple meanings are competing for making sense in the swamp, reflective practitioners acknowledge that expected lack of clarity. On the other hand, unreflective practitioners might have a false sense of clarity – a bias – and force the illusion of a shared understanding and seek closure rather than contemplate the almost endless possibilities of interpretations.

In the VUCA-laden swamp, reflective practitioners understand that additional information does not necessarily add clarity but often generates more questions and more possible meanings. A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a poverty of attention adds even more ambiguity (paraphrasing Nobel laureate Herbert A. Simon).

Logistics practitioners should be familiar with the concept of ambiguity in daily life. Almost every word has more than one definition – and for good reason. Definitions vary across languages, editions, types, and cultures (even local or closely related social structures). Meanings are derived from context, culture, and interpretations of past events. One will likely find different definitions of the same phrase in other groups who have had different experiences and have contextualized those experiences in diverse ways.

Meanings are not as objective as one might think; yet, semantic history has tremendous influence on how situations are framed. Indeed, the hermeneutic method (the interpretation of others’ text) to study the contextualization of the past can help gain a broader view about making sense of the present.

For example, most service members have attended a meeting where the senior ranking official declares that the first task at hand is to agree to terms of reference (meaning, agree with multiple agencies and international participants in the room). In the swamp, accepting multiple, diverse meanings may benefit the collaborative ‘sensemaking.’ It may be more valuable to remain open to different meanings than to risk animosity in attempts to force agreement on terms.

In the swamp, actions must be taken and logistics must be provided. Reflection without action is useless, and action without reflection is careless. Educating the military logistics practitioner to work in the swamp conflicts with the conventional belief that the way to that education is best determined by developing what should be taught. Such a deterministic model of education will not be very helpful to those who must operate in high-VUCA situations. Once again, the paradox of the requirement for precision in logistics support and communication can impede broader, creative and possibly better solutions.

We need to focus much less on the ‘what’ of education (that should occur more naturally) and more on the ‘where’ of education (the metaphoric high ground), and recognize the dynamic and continually changing context.

This is a significant update of an earlier article published in a 2011 issue of Army Sustainment. It includes hyperlinks that may provide a deeper dive into some of the concepts we present here. The following post, to be published this Monday, will describe the ‘where’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ in educating military logisticians.

Chris Paparone, COL, US Army retired, served 29 years as a logistician and since 2002 has been involved in the US Army military education system. He has a PhD from Penn State University.

George L. Topic, Jr., is a retired Army colonel and the vice director for the Center for Joint and Strategic Logistics located at the National Defense University, Fort McNair, Washington, D.C.

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