The strategic logistician and professional possibility

By David Beaumont.

During a logistics course in late 2017, I was asked to consider what the traits and behaviours of the strategic ‘future logistician’ might be.[1] It was a difficult question to answer without straying into explanations about strategic leadership in general. In both cases, like the rocket in the picture above, strategic logistics and leaders are ‘shot’ into the wide-blue sky with surprisingly little preparation. The topic of the ‘future logisitian’ will be discussed during the upcoming Australian and New Zealand Defence Logistics Conference in just over two weeks, and I thought it would be worthwhile touching on the points raised last year.

The requirements for logisticians operating at the strategic level of militaries has been an explicitly addressed topic by senior leaders on Logistics In War, noting many posts implicitly support the conclusion that logisticians must adapt in some way to face what is known about the future. Skills must be taught, modern technologies introduced and mastered, and logisticians exposed to business ‘best practice’. Alternatively, a number of posts (see parts one and two on educating logisticians) tackle the problem of preparing logisticians in an abstract manner and contend that because the future is unknowable, the ‘future logistician’ must be conditioned to operate where nothing is certain. Preparing the ‘future logistician’ with this in mind will not be easy.

Whichever way you look at it, there are many competing demands being placed upon the logistician expected to perform at the strategic level of defence forces. This article will attempt to describe a some of these demands, as discussed during the seminar, to highlight the complexity of the professional challenge.

Perhaps the most notable change for a strategic logistician comes with an expansion of their role within the logistics process – the process which takes national economic resources provided to Defence by Government, translating them into preparedness outcomes or operational effect. This is a process that incorporates everything from acquisition to operational sustainment, and involves uniformed personnel, public servants and industry partners. The increasing importance of commercial enterprise in sustain operations in a deployed environment, as well as increasing levels of integration of industry into acquisition and materiel sustainment functions, confirms how diverse the contemporary strategic logistics environment is. While a logistician acting in a Service tactical or technical position might influence a discrete function or activity, a strategic logistician is expected to have an effect across the many boundaries within the logistics process. In most cases, accordingly, they will not own nor control the people or capabilities that will lead to their success.

The acronym ‘VUCA’ – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – is a worthy term to describe the environment in which a joint or strategic logistician must act. In some ways, however, VUCA is a euphemism. At the strategic level, logistics problems are simply too large for one person, irrespective of their rank, influence or training, to be able to resolve them independently. With more people and agencies involved in logistics problems, and given the nature of human and bureaucratic interactions, a VUCA environment is a virtual given. The biggest philosophical problem for logisticians as they approach the strategic levels of the organisation is not that they must adjust to an ever-changing environment. Rather, it is in admitting that there are limits to their capacity to control events and processes. Just as one increases in seniority and experience, attaining the credibility and capacity to independently address the typically Service issues that have defined the earliest stages of a career, logisticians inevitably conclude that the most significant, strategic, problems in Defence can only be resolved by a whole of enterprise approach.

Logisticians at the operational and strategic level must therefore become expert mediators, be pragmatic and team-oriented, with ‘soft skills’ that contrast to directive approaches that may be successful other appointments. They need to balance their own technical specialty and cultural biases with the generalist traits necessary to engage others who may have differing approaches to problem solving. They must be oriented towards joint outcomes, and able to interact effectively with public servants, government officials and members of industry. This will require them to possess what is loosely described as ‘commercial acumen’, but also have a more valued ability to form sustainable relationships with industry that are mutually productive and cost effective.

It will be impossible for logisticians to be trained and educated so to address all facets of logistics, yet they must be able to get the most from the highly capable logisticians and technical support staff that support them. Furthermore, strategic logisticians must bridge the divide between operational logistics, and capability, acquisition and sustainment. This means they must be adaptable, their self-awareness such that can identify their own knowledge gaps and subsequently seek appropriate advice from elsewhere in Defence, with a relentless attitude to achieving efficiencies which preserve effectiveness, and be able to demonstrate vision and leadership. The leadership required will be bureaucratic in nature, which is not an approach many military leaders apply natively.

Is it actually possible to adequately prepare logisticians for all of these requirements? Are our expectations of strategic logisticians impossibly high?

Militaries certainly try to develop their logisticians to operate effectively at all levels, and have been very effective at ensuring logisticians are ready for operations. Yet there is still a way to go with respect to preparing strategic logisticians, especially at the mid-career level where most will make the transition into an unfamiliar environment. Education and training opportunities at this level are limited by virtue of the lack of a clear ‘owner’ of the problem, in contrast to the domain-based logistics schools operated by different Services and groups. Mentorship is a highly useful alternative, as are the experiences by which personnel are periodically posted into strategic agencies and organisations at various stages of their career. Both, however, should complement a broader strategy which addresses the education and training requirement in more general terms. An unstructured approach involving courses, self-paced education and learning, mixed with much-desired industry outplacements is not ideal for producing best results.

Solutions may be difficult to define, but they are being discussed. The conversation around this topic is a good indication that there is a level of dissatisfaction concerning the way in which logisticians are prepared for more senior roles. Some might view that addressing the problem is a case of ‘logistician exceptionalism’ which argues for the redirection of limited resources, funding and time, towards senior logisticians at the expense of other elements within Defence who are also called upon to operate at the strategic levels of the institution. It is, however, undeniable that as a prerequisite logisticians must be able to perform effectively in pan-organisational environment; such performance is essential for the achievement of efficiencies and effectiveness across all aspects of the logistics process. More optimistically, the fact that this discussion exists is a good sign that logisticians – certainly within the Australian Defence Force – are collectively interested in improving their own performance, their profession, and that of the broader Defence organisation. This sense of professionalism is vital to any future solution.

David Beaumont is a serving Australian Army officer. He can be followed on Twitter @davidblogistics. Image by Australian Department of Defence.

[1] The activity was the Royal Australian Air Force ‘Logistics Officers Advanced Course’, a seminar based opportunity to engage with senior Australian Defence Force logistics leaders and to prepare for appointments at the Lieutenant Colonel (and equivalent, both military and civilian) level.

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