What we need to be. Building the Defence logistician – Part Two

By David Beaumont.

This transcript is the final half of a speech given at the 2018 Australian and New Zealand Defence Logistics Conference. The session was titled ‘The Future Logistician’.

The first half can be found here.

What we need to be

The fundamental nature of logistics and the complicated organisational history of Australian Defence conspire against the development of logisticians. They are reasons that none of us will ever truly master logistics. None of us can be trained to the depth we require; the attempts that Defence has made over the last thirty years of effort have achieved the best that could be expected, but we all know that it is still not enough. As a Chief Instructor of a training institution, I can vouch that we are doing as much as is practically possible with the resources we have to prepare logisticians for the future.

Looking into the future, there are four key traits I believe are highly relevant to our future successes.

Firstly, and as I am sure you all expect, our logisticians must have a wide variety of experiences across the logistics enterprise. Of course, we must accept that even our most general officers and public servants will have some areas of expertise. Without experience we fail to appreciate context and nuance, and remain technical specialists of an important, but ultimately niche, function.

Secondly, logisticians must be able to analyse the system in both operational planning and in program development. We are in a paradigm that seeks to replace inventories with information – stock on hand versus a supply-chain responsiveness enabled by knowledge management. Technologies such as enterprise resource planners, machine learning and AI offer us considerable opportunities. But we must not forgo the capacity for systemic thinking to machines or make information management so specialist a function it is no longer possible to provide advice based on judgement and set by the context.

Thirdly, because effective logistics requires collective effort, logisticians must be consensus builders. This applies to the interactions among ourselves as well as with those we support. This has proven difficult to achieve in environments and times where authorities have been spread throughout the organisation, and where priorities and emphasis in responsibility have not been given.

Finally, logisticians must accept their professional, intellectual, responsibilities. We must own our own problems, be responsible for our solutions and proactive in intellectual leadership and engagement. There are many instances where we have not and have paid the price accordingly. Passion and courage of conviction are essential to preserve, if not enhance, capability.

I would also like to offer a few more qualified thoughts on professional requirements. Lieutenant General William Tuttle, a former US Army G4 during the ‘revolution of military logistics’, describes five principles for the professional development of logisticians in his book Defense logistics for the 21st century:

  1. Accountability. Logisticians must understand logistics deeply and be held to be account. This the basis of a professional approach. Accountability should not be feared as it is an opportunity to take ownership of a problem that might otherwise have been confounded by complex inter-organisational relationships.
  2. Continuously shared knowledge. We should be clamouring for shared knowledge and should be equipped and trained to make the most of technology and efficient processes. Yet, and as I have stated earlier, we must also ensure that we remain capable of being systemic thinkers, to be prepared through experience and education that enables us to rely upon an insight or a ‘hunch’.
  3. Know commercial business practices. This should be self-evident to any logistician conscious of the dramatic changes in acquisition and sustainment. I propose that training needs to be less idiosyncratic, and well-designed in its own ‘professional continuum’. Logisticians don’t just need a procurement course; they need a PME environment which informs them about issues such as industry policy and requirements, national support, acquisition and sustainment, different types of commercial relationships, relationship building and management.
  4. Exploit comparative advantage through coalition logistics, but also through working with one another. Logistics is, as I have argued, a shared endeavour.
  5. Simplicity. This should follow from all other professional development experiences, all of which should contribute to simplify management, command and control and funding arrangements. Whatever we do, we must focus on simplification because if the logistics process we are responsible for is complex, it will become inefficient and ineffective.

What we might become

Although a ‘professionalisation’ agenda is not new to logisticians, with training, education and professional standards a topic for logistics leadership within Services, Groups and the Joint domain, there have been several reasons we have been unable to capitalise on a gaining momentum and interest in logistics. Insufficiency of resources is an obvious factor and the priority of effort in Defence significant influences our capacity to deliver outcomes for the benefit of Defence capability. However, just as there are desired behavioural attributes for the future logistician, so too are their potential areas of risk which might impede change and development.

Firstly, we have routinely resorted to organisational change and discussing the profession without reshaping processes to suit the proposed new order. This allows sources of power to be maintained, ultimately leading to a reversion in behaviour. There have been circumstances where we have sought to reshape processes and create efficiencies without changing the organisation or profession enough.

This leads onto my second point. If we are going to use technology to improve our performance or enable efficient processes, we must be prepared to change organisational culture. Workarounds rarely create efficiencies. For example, abortive attempts to introduce logistics information systems technology and tracking in the past have resulted from choices made by logisticians based on our own comfort. One wonders if the same will happen when new enterprise resource planning software is brought into use.

Thirdly, we might choose not to invest the considerable time and effort required to support a nascent approach to joint PME, or support reform in individual training conducted throughout the organisation. It is easy to generate a framework to support professional development; it is much harder to sustain the conduct of courses. Without doing so, however, training will be largely idiosyncratic, and we will maintain an over-reliance on experience and career management to solve professionalisation issues.

Fourthly, without a shared and consistent approach on major issues affecting logistics we are likely to see a deterioration of capability. There are few opportunities to intervene in strategic decision making, and for the benefit of ADF capability, when logisticians are engaged, they must ensure that the engagement is made meaningful.

Finally, and perhaps because of these risks, we may simply remain unmoved as the rest of the world changes. What is the point of any attempts to better position the future logistician if we don’t consider the future? What is the environment we are going to operate in? What does the future combat force look like, and what is the consequence of this outlook on logistics performance and requirements?

Making the future Defence logistician 

We must accept that overinvesting in one group is not the answer. Talent management is undoubtedly important to any organisation. But our efforts in mentoring, leadership and our training and education regime must not be focussed on the select few. A few, brave, logistics heroes will not overcome problems caused or perpetuated by an undertrained and underprepared workforce. One of the leading factors in operational underperformance – if not the expansion in the number of logistics personnel required on operations – is that the workforce lacks the skills to perform their tasks as efficiently as they can.

It is unsurprising that I might advocate that a synchronised approach to PME is essential. Joint courses, at the very least, offer an opportunity for logisticians of different backgrounds to learn to work together. There is momentum gathering with respect to joint education and training for logisticians; we should support this endeavour as it is a real opportunity to do something beneficial for the future.

Any approach must focus on setting behaviours, and providing experience, training and education. Mentorship must be offered, and leadership given. Technology should be embraced, but we must also provide the skills and approach to use it appropriately. It must emphasise collective effort, for the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Finally, it must all staff to be mobile, but also well prepared for different roles within a incredibly broad logistics enterprise.

We have a bright future, and it is always a good time for us to consider how we can shape it for our own benefit, and those that follow on from us. In this venture it is not important for us all to be the same. Different proficiencies, different subjects of professional mastery, different expertise; these bring with them a distinct perspective that is relevant in finding the best ways to solve problems. What really matters is how we make the most of these differences from a professional perspective. Logisticians must bring together the technical experts, synthesise their efforts, and guide their tasks to completion.

The logistician

‘In each of the functional categories there is an extensive technical literature. In each, the technical staff specialist is essential. However, there is a subtle distinction. The technical specialist is chiefly interested in perfecting the importance of that particular speciality in which he makes his professional career. On the other hand, the commander and logistics officer must always be thinking of how a variety of specialised functions can be most effectively combined in accomplishing the mission of the command. It is not a question of exclusiveness in thinking, it is rather a question of relative emphasis and primary responsibility.’

               – Rear Admiral Henry Eccles, Logistics in the National Defense, pp 55-56

Being a logistician is difficult. As logisticians we have faced innumerable organisational pressures and felt the brunt of decades of rationalisation and cost cutting. As logisticians we deal with an immensely challenging pan-organisational and operational problem that can only be dealt with through trust and competency. As logisticians we know we need to invest in training and education but are faced with too many choices about where our attention (and the little resources available) should be directed. We are told how volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous the contemporary operating and enterprise environment is, yet an approach to adequately prepare seems elusive or impossible. The problem seems so vast, the prospect of success so small, or the future for logisticians believed to be so bleak and unappealing, that the effort to progress might simply be viewed as a waste of time in our already busy lives.

Being a logistician is difficult. Yet we can make it easier for ourselves, and as leaders we are obliged to make being a logistician easier for those that follow us. If you cut the hyperbole, this is what the professionalisation ‘journey’ is about. Just as effective logistics is a shared endeavour, so should our approach to professionalisation – the creation of the future logistician – be a collective effort. Common language, concepts and ideas will be vital. Leadership will be vital.

As we think about the future, and our role within it, I ask you to consider a few things.

It is of vital importance to us to understand that regardless of how logistics functions are assigned or divided, or categorised by naming conventions in doctrine, they remain logistics functions and they must be performed by qualified personnel. These functions must be supervised and coordinated by senior officers and Defence logisticians who not only understand the full implications of their responsibilities, but also the relationships involved therein. For those with leadership responsibilities within logistics, you must not be exclusive in your thinking, and be willing to give emphasis and primary functions to those elements within the logistics process that need it. To do this requires a broad experience of the enterprise and a capacity for systems thinking, but also self-development and a desire to learn about the organisation. It requires our logisticians to be consensus-builders, and while we may not always agree with one another, we should do so respectfully and accept the reasons why we think differently from one another.

Secondly, I fundamentally believe we are in an environment of considerable opportunity. Logisticians are being listened to, and logistics issues are being addressed with greater seriousness than ever before. This has not always been the case. Two decades ago, logistics was certainly discussed – but it was in terms of rationalisation and unhealthy levels of commercialisation, and it was not necessarily because logisticians were driving the agenda. Similarly, Defence logisticians have long discussed professionalisation, training and education but had either been un-resourced or had difficulties in leading and implementing change. Sources of leadership were disempowered by organisational confusion and change on a level that surpasses what we are experiencing today. We are much better prepared to engage with military commands, partners from other areas of Government or industry given nearly twenty years of continued operational experience which has improved Defence-level awareness of logistics issues.

So, we must be more than professional stewards. We must be professional leaders. This requires us to distinguish what being a logistician is versus what a technocrat might be. It requires us to assess and understand the environment in which we exist so that our knowledge can be applied. It requires us to adapt the professional standard to meet the environment, but also those we support. Finally, it requires us to align our professional development systems to produce experts with the right experience at the right time.

In answering the question ‘how we got here’, I hoped to inculcate a sense that now is the time to act on those issues we know need fixing. There is time available to think through what we need to prepare ourselves as Defence logisticians. We shouldn’t squander this operational pause and relative organisational calm. It is an exciting time, the future is promising, and we should treat it as such! Apply the effort now to meaningfully advance on issues relating to collective professionalisation, training and education. Make the most of the step-change in capability that will come with new tools and technology. I have no doubt that if this opportunity is not taken, the moment will prove fleeting and any transformation we intend will ultimately be compromised.

David Beaumont is a serving Australian Army officer. The thoughts here are his own.

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