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

By Dr. Chris Paparone and George L. Topic

In part one of ‘From the swamp to the high-ground and back’, Chris Paparone and George Topic questioned the methodology applied to the education of military logisticians. In concluding part one, it was posed:

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.

The article continues:

Where: Structural Inertia

Our traditional structures for military logistics education seem oriented on building schoolhouses and, more recently, centres of excellence that feed practitioners knowledge that works. With few exceptions, logistics curricula designed in military schools, colleges, and universities are structured after the hierarchical system of military decision making that involves a great deal of determining the ‘what’. This system includes the top-down control of content, governance by approvals of highly-engineered competency maps and learning objectives (geared to a technical training culture), and formal accreditations and certifications. Hence, the curricula are mired in this structural inertia.

Although VUCA situations require customization, standardization appears to be the dominant value in terms of managing the scale of productivity in our educational institutions. The fallacy promoting such industrial-age, large-scale, production-line approaches is the assumption that situations described in the classroom will repeat in the real world. The logic is that if the student can perform to standard in the classroom, the student will apply those standards in his fieldwork – that is, in the swamp.

This is a belief, particularly where standards of learning can become competency traps and our practitioners must be inventive and improvisational. Thinking of the classroom or exercise scenario as the rehearsal stage for the real-world performance is a dangerous assumption; yet, it appears that a large part of the education community embraces this belief.  Professor Donald A. Schon, in his seminal book, The Reflective Practitioner, puts it this way:

[With an] emphasis on problem solving, we ignore problem setting, the process by which we define the decision to be made, the ends to be achieved, the means which may be chosen. In real- world practice, problems do not present themselves to the practitioner as givens. They must be constructed from the materials of the problematic situations which are puzzling, troubling, and uncertain. In order to convert a problematic situation to a problem, a practitioner must do a certain kind of work. He must make sense of an uncertain situation that initially makes no sense.

Educating the reflective military logistics practitioner will involve continuously deconstructing and reconstructing the ‘where’ component of the learning function. The centre of attention moves away from engineering structures to creating organic structures that permit fluid movement of practitioners to and from the seminar (the high ground for reflection) and each unique job setting (the swamp).

Emphases on deterministic knowledge solutions (sometimes euphemistically referred to as ‘toolkits’ are diminished while ‘reflection while in action’ becomes more prominent – in essence, the swamp becomes the ‘where’. The ‘where’ of education starts to blend these traditionally separate worlds; the high ground and the swamp merge. The quality of reflection (the ‘why’) that occurs between the swamp and the high ground is vested in the critically important task of professional inquiry.

Why: Reflection as Professional Inquiry

Central to professionalizing military logistics practitioners is the shaping of their desire not only to learn but, more importantly, to strive to challenge old, accepted knowledge and create new knowledge. One thing that makes military logisticians professional is their sense of obligation to question the state of professional knowledge. Ideally, one of the objectives of professional education is to help instil this sense of obligation.

We will discuss four key ideas about the ‘why’ of educating: valuing praxis, designing (and communicating) professional inquiry, researching-in-action, and being philosophically savvy.

1. Valuing praxis. Inquiring and reporting around the idea of praxis – the unification of theory and practice – should be a preeminent professional value. Eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant summarized this idea by saying, ‘Perception without conception is blind. Conception without perception is empty.’

An ideal professional quality is to become an effective theorist, engaging in the imaginative process of linking interesting facts into relationships that are driving us toward a more holistic and integrative view. In short, theorizing is about presenting a larger context of how things are or could be.

Traditional students in military logistics educational programs tend to focus far more on practice (and searching for best practices) and far less on developing or debunking theories of practice, which is called ‘abductive reasoning.’

Over the past 50 years (since the publication of Henry Eccles prescient and classic 1959 book, Logistics in the National Defense), uniformed logisticians have relinquished control of their general theory of effectiveness and allowed outside business administrators and academics to provide much of the theory that military logisticians study. Part of the ideal state of military logistics education would include continuous updating of a general theory of military logistics.

2.  Designing professional inquiry. The profession offers opportunities for intrinsically motivated logisticians to become confident in how to approach inquiry and report outcomes with rich descriptions and concise summaries, both conversationally and in written form. The conversational form can be described as ‘consultative stewardship’ and is a skill that delivers coaching, guidance, direction, and assessment. With this skill, professionals engage in substantive discussion and debate with peers, subordinates, and superiors

Professional inquiry is important both in the realm of divergent knowledge (exploring the unknowns) and in confirming or denying assimilative knowledge (readdressing or challenging the knowns). Both of these reasons for inquiry are important for addressing the perpetual issue of avoiding professional myopia or a competency trap. As sociologist Gianfranco Poggie said, ‘A way of seeing is also a way of not seeing.’ The current state of the profession may indicate blindness or at least less than full appreciation for the value of consultative stewardship.  Development of consultative stewardship requires a substantial cultural change and especially a commitment from senior leaders in any hierarchical organization.

3.  Researching-in-action. The best professional practitioners could ideally be described as researchers-in-action. They develop innovative and improvisational ways to design logistics while working, rather than using mechanistic templates (techniques or best practices) learned in the conventional classroom that assume a near-context-free application.

Inquiry developed between the swamp and the high ground should not emphasize completeness, and plans should be considered works-in-progress that are never quite complete. Such inquiry does not seek closure but rather openings to unexpected possibilities. Military logisticians should aspire to understand the value of both qualitative and quantitative research, the limits of using applied science techniques in logistics, and the importance of appreciating when to employ abductive reasoning (better for high-VUCA situations) instead of deductive or inductive reasoning (better for low-to-moderate-VUCA situations).

Abductive reasoning involves the discovery of tentative inferences and search strategies for possible explanations. Surprise is the trigger of abductive reasoning, so it goes together with being a practical sceptic about one’s belief system. According to Herbert A. Simon (in his seminal 1973 article ‘The Structure of Ill Structured Problems’ in the journal Artificial Intelligence), such critical inquiry needs a blending of luck, persistence in search, and superior heuristics.

According to modern-day philosopher Nicholas Rescher, our sense of luck involves appreciation of chaos (slight changes now can lead to amplified effects later), the unpredictability of others’ choices, the nature of chance (the unruliness of things happening), and our own ignorance (consisting of both fallacies in interpreting information and a lack of information). Despite the resulting randomness in everyday life, we can still abductively reason, which is more of an attitude than a methodology.

Abductive reasoning theorists argue that much of our creativity involves extending what we already know. We borrow meanings from a wide assortment of experiences and learn to cross lines between knowledge disciplines (sciences and humanities) to make sense of novel situations. To reason abductively requires an open search strategy that includes having a disciplined conversation with oneself, collaborating with others who have varying views, calling on past experiences that can be synthesized and evaluated as hypotheses for acting now, and extending and displacing old concepts until useful meanings are discovered for the situation at hand.

Recall Archimedes’ shouts of ‘eureka’ from the Greek verb, heuriskein, which means ‘to find out.’ Superior heuristics (from the same root word) involves creativity in reframing, finding rules of thumb, analogies, metaphors, similes, and histories that may relate to making sense of the situation at hand. The reflective logistics practitioner expects surprise as he abductively reasons about the emergent reality. An eclectic career path and multidisciplinary educational opportunities provide the practitioner superior heuristics when dealing with high-VUCA situations.

Education should involve coaching students to be researchers-in-action as they encounter problems of the real world. Students should treat their past field experiences in the swamp as hypotheses for action, not as proofs for action. Academic study should be oriented more toward learning about the philosophy behind the practice of abductive reasoning. Crossing over into non-logistics fields of study, including liberal arts, has tremendous value. Such studies serve as creative sources for heuristics and exercising professional judgment when faced with high- VUCA situations.

4.  Being philosophically savvy. Military logistics practitioners should strive to become philosophically savvy. That is, they should strive to remain open to ideas while being critically mindful enough not to succumb to (paraphrasing philosopher Lewis Feuer) clichés, catchwords, placards, parades, slogans, ideological clubs, circles, peer and populist unsubstantiated influences, orthodoxy, and overreliance on technique.

Professional military logisticians have to be sophisticated enough to recognize and resist anti- intellectualism, dogmatic beliefs, cultural biases, and ideologically-based influences and to deal effectively with inconvenient facts that may contradict prevailing beliefs. We need military logisticians who can engage in critical reviews of otherwise popular or unexamined arguments in military, academic, and business studies.

For example, professional logisticians should routinely challenge the wisdom of popular management books that uncritically espouse the worthiness of business fads, such as Balanced Scorecard and Lean Six Sigma. We also need professionals who embrace well-articulated arguments, scholarly work, the statements of talented and insightful thinkers, and those who respect fellow professionals despite rank and positional differences.

How: Connecting the Swamp and the High Ground

Rather than educating through episodic classroom experiences that are separate from actual practice in the field, the logistics community should find ways to merge the two experiences. Perhaps educators should use a virtual seminar on the Internet while injecting short (maybe 2- or 3-week) small-group sessions over a period of years. Real-world experiences should serve as opportunities for a practicum, and the educator should be the coach and discussion facilitator along the way.

Educational programs should be redesigned to use the cohort seminar as an opportunity to go to the high ground. Students should move themselves from the immersion of day-to-day problems at work to a temporary vantage point where group members help each other reframe their situations and participate in designing a way ahead.

Taking advantage of the high ground involves collaborative thought experiments and adapting to the situation at hand when no technical solution seems to work (i.e., creating divergent knowledge). The purpose of the cohort seminar, then, facilitated by the logistics educator, is to explore through dialog and inventively create divergent forms of knowledge as a group. The students return to work with a refreshing view and equipped with new insights and images of their mission.

Some in the defence community may prefer using the case study or scenario method in the classroom. Instead of students bringing their swampy experiences to the classroom, the more traditional scenario method is to present well-developed and detailed case studies that are intended to help the students become better problem-solvers.

Criticisms of the scenario method are many. First, case studies tend to be developed around preconceived themes and theories of action that provide opportunities for deductive reasoning (developing solutions from a potentially illusive framework, such as military doctrine). Few, if any, opportunities exist for theory building and testing-in-action (which are associated with abductive reasoning). Under the swampy conditions of high-VUCA situations, abductive reasoning is the preferred skill. The benefit of using real up-to-date situations (that are indeed messy) is that students are required both to criticize prevalent theories or doctrines that appear irrelevant and to promote the ongoing design of new theories.

Second, scenario-based exercises imply that there are context-free lessons to be learned. That is, one assumes the conditions will repeat in the real world and the students will now be familiar with them. But Soldiers are unlikely to experience the same logistics operation repeatedly. In high-VUCA, real-world, military logistics situations, the logistics scheme cannot be static, so knowledge of military logistics must always be transforming.

The traditional search for historic lessons learned must be continuously evaluated, and efforts have to be taken to unlearn them; the knowledge of military logistics is, and has to be, ephemeral. History’s greatest role in military education is to confirm that every operation is unique. While the context provided in case studies can never match the context that recent student experiences provide, history serves to be a rich source for building heuristic depth in practitioners.

Third, scenario method learning reinforces the idea that we can find root causes and define problems through analysis and other forms of scientific reductionism. In highly complex, interactive situations, practitioners may at best appreciate the unique situations they are in. Interpretation is making subjective judgments of fact about the state of the entire system. It is a view of oneself and one’s organization as part of a larger enterprise in an even larger global context.

Unlike case studies, where causality can be more clearly determined in retrospect and aspects of causality appear isolatable, projecting on the current situation is better stated as an exercise of ‘retrospection anticipated in fantasy’ (as social philosopher Alfred Schutz says in his Collected Papers). One should seek to twist this abductive reasoning idea with this maxim: ‘If you set out to invent the future now, you are not inventing the future; you are instead being inventive in the present.’  This is a much greater skill than untangling historic case studies into neat, oversimplified, proximately causal terms.

Studying history is not the problem. On the contrary, we advocate a detailed approach to studying history. Our objection is about how cases are designed and biased toward proving a point or developing scientific techniques. These are illusory goals. We advocate affording practitioners the opportunity to go to the high ground in the midst of their day-to-day struggles in the swamp, where no one knows how things will turn out. Educating military logistics practitioners should be more about critical reflective practice than the deterministic search for best practices or lessons learned.

In the face of high-VUCA conditions, traditional educational structures for military logisticians are maladaptive because they focus on the ‘what.’ Our goal in this article is to suggest the need to deconstruct and restructure our conceptualizations of education toward the questions of:

  • Where: Reframing education away from the locus of deductive reasoning and standardized ‘technical’ structures toward more abductive reasoning and contextual, adaptive, sensemaking
  • Why: Orienting on praxis, designing, researching-in-action, and philosophical
  • How: Creating a cohort-based seminar approach that continuously connects the swamp to the high-ground

Given these concepts of logistics education, a collegial body of reflective practitioners can opportunistically create emergent and often ephemeral forms of knowledge that, under high- VUCA conditions, are more important than knowing ‘what’ the military logistics community already knows.

The most significant ingredient in this transformation must be a renewed emphasis on the quality of educators as facilitators of the proposed reform – particularly to foster abductive reasoning skills in practitioners. In their role as ongoing seminar facilitators, these carefully selected educators should be, above all, highly skilled in shaping the conversations and creating opportunities to gain perspective on the swamp (VUCA experiences) from the high ground (the classroom).

The focus of the senior educational administrator is no longer on controlling the content (the ‘what’) but on ensuring that cohort seminars are resourced in the form of excellent faculty, well- designed seminar rooms, and opportunities for virtual seminar experiences as needed. The quality of the connections among the members of these proposed collaborative groups depends on these resources and those expert facilitators.

Our defence logistics schools, colleges, and universities must shift attention from seeking context-free knowledge (‘best practice’ or technical rationality) to facilitating open-ended, context-rich knowledge (the realm of reflective military logistics practice). Traditional models of military logistics education focus on students being able to recognize situations and know what to do. Our proposed philosophy assumes practitioners will be making sense of novel situations, inventing what to do as they are doing it, and reflecting on the situations as they are happening and in retrospect.

The swamp/high ground approach to education will provide a cohort venue in which the practitioner can become more professional, not as measured on performance of predetermined tasks, but on the emergence of tasks in context. We recognize the tremendous challenges – intellectual, structural, and resource – that such a shift would entail within the institutionalized Defence educational enterprise. Some people will have reasons why we cannot or should not change our traditional approach, and many will not entertain even experimenting with a new method. However, in the high-VUCA world, it comes down to a single inescapable question: What educational philosophy will best prepare our logisticians to meet the challenges before them in the years ahead?

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 presented here.

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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