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.

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.

The strategic logistician and professional possibility

By David Beaumont.

As a participant of a recent seminar-base course designed to prepare logistics officers for appointments within strategic and joint agencies and commands in Defence, I was asked to consider what the traits and behaviours of the strategic ‘future logistician’ might be.[1]  The requirements for logisticians operating at the strategic level of defence forces 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 wat 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, logistician and editor of Logistics In War. 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.

Intellectual irrelevance and the ownership of military logistics

By David Beaumont.

This post is an update of a popular post from the #LIWArchives.

The professionalisation of logisticians is a topic that has once again emerged, as strategic-level organisations in a number of different militaries seek to improve, and ‘intellectualise’, military logistics.  The desire for ‘intellectualisation’ appeals to one of the three pillars of Samuel Huntington’s criteria of a profession – expertise – in addition to enabling military logisticians to articulate, educate and perform.[1]  However, modern military logisticians have tended to look outside of their own organisation for the architecture of their professionalisation. There is an belief in various circles that logistic innovation will primarily come from industry or the business sciences, as is there an assumption that the military can no longer generate truly meaningful contributions to  contemporary logistic theory or ideas. This is quite clearly untrue, but if militaries truly seek to professionalise logisticians and the ideas of military logistics, they must strive to once again intellectually ‘own’ the subject.

Although the line between industry and military has always been blurred, the basic theory and ideas of logistics came from military, and not commercial, grounds. Commerce and war has intermingled since the first club was picked up, and as we are reminded through many of the great modern works on strategy prepared by theorists such as Clausewitz, Mahan and Corbett. Certainly, as war became larger and requiring a greater proportion of national economies to sustain, the relationship between the two grew especially close. In 1917 Colonel George Thorpe explicitly addressed this topic in Pure Logistics:

‘we find modern war losing its mystery and chivalry, we find it ranging itself in close alliance with industry of the commercial kind, from which war is acquiring “business methods”.[2]

Fifty years after Thorpe’s work on logistic theory was published, this relationship between commerce and war was confirmed in global conflict. [3]  The experiences of the Allied powers, and in particular the United States, in projecting military power into the maritime environment and to continents far away ensured logistics captured the interest of many military commanders. Some, such as Rear Admiral Henry Eccles, would devote the latter years of their military careers to write about logistics and its role in war; he subsequently described logistics as ‘the bridge’ from the economy to the battlefield. This ‘bridge’, in part, comprised the supply chain, and with new technologies such as standardised containers enabling expeditionary logistics on a global scale and ideas including ‘total cost of ownership’ starting to emerge, interest in understanding the logistics exploded beyond its military use.

ww2-ammunition-stockpile

US military ammunition point, WW2 – from Ruppenthal, Logistics in support of the armies

Modern ideas of logistics began to filter into commerce, and were rapidly assimilated as the world recovered from the after-effects of global conflict. As the employment of military forces changed over time, and globalisation took root, the business sciences started to take the lead when it came to ‘intellectualising’ logistics. Initially military-oriented ‘think tanks’ seized the opportunity to command the intellectualisation of logistics through modern operational analysis.  Murray Geisler, describing the RAND Corporation’s logistic program which he headed in 1966, stated that business sciences had much to learn from military logistics and vice versa. General Carter Magruder, a senior US Army logistician of the time and subsequent RAND recruit, also commented on the importance of considering ‘new and successful commercial management practices’ as well as examining the importance of militaries revising, or abandoning, current practices.[4]

But it was the efforts of the management doyen Peter Drucker in the 1960’s that saw the study of logistics transition to a corporate matter. Drucker fundamentally redefined supply-chain management into a form usable in modern commerce, and in doing so, the business community subsumed military ‘ownership’ of the logistic problem. By the time General Gus Pagonis wrote Moving Mountains, his experiences as the senior theatre logistician of the 1991 Gulf War, military histories and biographies concerned with logistical efforts were actively promoting their worth to a business audience.[5] Militaries had begun to increase the emphasis on modern business principles and technical skills in their professional military education. Among logisticians business courses became increasingly popular. I should know – I was one of those who took such opportunities to obtain a business degree as part of my professional development.

However, with greater operational experience, there has come increased scepticism of the slavish adoption of business practices and ideas within the military environment. The closer one gets to the tactical level of war, the more palpable the scepticism becomes. In most cases, the doubt springs from the misapplication of the many ideas concerned with achieving greater supply-chain efficiency; these include  the now familiar ‘just-in-time logistics’, ‘lean logistics’, and ‘distribution-based logistics’. Such concepts have had a vital role in introducing supply chain improvements in militaries. However, it hasn’t helped the level of faith logisticians have in them when they are introduced or imposed at times when logistic organisations bear the brunt of organisational rationalisations or manpower cuts. But it is the operational examples that stick the most in the minds of most military logisticians, and their commanders.

Without wanting to infer too much by basing this discussion on few examples, history doesn’t treat an over-enthusiastic importation of business ideas into war well. While always well intended when implemented in peace-time, a business-like efficiency in military logistics has, in numerous examples, inflicted upon deployed forces a self-induced austerity. This austerity can have significant operational consequences. Major General Hartley, Australian Land Commander, on viewing the extremely austere situation on the ground during the Australian deployment to East Timor in 1999, Operation Warden, made particular effort in the last paragraph of his visit report to emphasise that logistic initiatives such as ‘just-in-time logistics are not working’.[6] Similar conclusions were made in studies of Operation Iraqi Freedom where the attempt to eliminate Desert Storm-esque ‘iron mountains’ led to numerous logistics issues. It is, however, important not to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ when it comes to such ideas, and others, from the business domain. When implemented in the right way, and in the right environments, great achievements in lowering logistic costs can be achieved and resources better distributed across a deployed force.

To better employ ideas imported from outside military institutions, it is useful to logisticians that they first devote their time to understanding the military theories, and the insightful histories, which more directly apply to their profession. This enables them to better judge what can work, and more importantly, when it will work. In most cases, they will find that there is nothing intrinsically flawed with the ideas of business practice. In reviewing the military literature of logistics, logisticians will soon see that many key business practices now taken for granted were in fact first developed and practiced by military logisticians! However, very few of the key works in military logistics are commonly read nor referred to, let alone widely taught in military schoolhouses. It is therefore understandable why militaries have looked beyond the military environment with respect to validating their attempts to professionalise logisticians, or in search of new ideas.

In the past defence forces have relied upon training, typically conducted in the junior years of a soldiers and officers career, followed by an accumulation of experience through routine, exercises and operations, to prepare their logisticians. Most look to the future and contend new forms of training and education will be required to chance the complexities the contemporary logistician faces in war ad peace. The fact that a many of these forces are now actively seeking ways in which to improve the ‘intellectualisation’ and ‘professionalisation’ of their logisticians is a highly positive next step for the future. But there are numerous obstacles that must be overcome.

In-house education opportunities for logisticians remain few in all but the best resourced militaries, and logistic leaders have yet to fully break from outdated paradigms of thinking about how to develop a professionalised logistician.  The practice of cycling military staff through business degrees, outplacements in the commercial sector, or engaging them with a professional certification within a civilian logistics professional body or authority must give way to better alternatives. As difficult and costly as it may be to implement, it is my suspicion that militaries will only ever be truly satisfied with the intellectual direction of military logisticians if they conduct all aspects of the training and education themselves.

It was from the military that logistics emerged, and it is time that military logisticians strive to regain an intellectual ‘ownership’ of the topic. The development of the theories and ideas of logistics should not be outsourced to other groups and institutions. Nor should ideas optimised for business circumstances be the keystones of all logistic thought. But logisticians can’t afford to assume they know all the answers either. The sheer complexity of the logistic process means we won’t find professional mastery in the isolated works and ideas of the military, industry, or in academia. Instead, it is the diversity of opinion that is important, as is the manner by which the military logistic community catalyses these various opinions and ideas into tangible, and effective, logistic concepts. It is not sufficient that we have logisticians with skills learned from commerce; we need logisticians that can translate business best-practice into military best-practice. This requires logisticians to be respectful of the tenets and theories which military logisticians, in times past, have taken the time to write. Such ideas enable effective and useful comparisons or inclusions to be made.

Professional logisticians have a responsibility to steward the ideas found in business theory into a ways that are operationally useful, to actively promote discussion and critique, mentor others to do the same, and develop the new ideas of logistics that will find their way into doctrine and concepts. A failure to do this now will undo efforts currently being undertaken in different militaries to ‘professionalise’ logisticians, will likely promote an unhealthy culture of imitation of concepts designed to work in non-military environments, and will ultimately lead to intellectual irrelevance.  Truly professional logisticians shouldn’t let this happen, and most will certainly try their hardest to avoid it. But they shouldn’t feel that there are no guides to help them in this task. Most of the key works of logistic literature contain chapters or sections specifically addressing the issue of professionalisation; a problem that appears to be virtually timeless and unsolved. Given most things in military logistics are not new, perhaps it is a good time to revisit these works and apply the lessons within.

David Beaumont is a serving Australian Army officer, logistician and editor of Logistics In War. Like many other military logisticians, he earned a business degree early in his career.  He can be followed on Twitter @davidblogistics.

Follow us at Twitter: @logisticsinwar and Facebook : @logisticsinwar. Share to grow the network and continue the discussion.

[1] Huntington, S., Solder and the State, Harvard University Press, USA, 1957

[2] Thorpe, G.C. (reprinted from 1917), Pure logistics, National Defense University, USA, 1986, p 4

[3] Cowen, D., The deadly life of logistics, University of Minneapolis Press, USA, 2014, p 30

[4] Magruder, C.B., , Recurring logistic problems as I have observed them, Center of Military History, United States Army, USA, 1991 (reprinted from 1970), p 73

[5] Pagonis, W.G., 1992, Moving mountains: lessons in leadership and logistics from the Gulf War, Harvard Business School Press, USA

[6] Hartley, J., LCAUST Post-visit report: Operation Warden, November 1999 (currently in the process of being registered into the Australian War Memorial)

Learning and training to get it right – what environment are we preparing Army logisticians for?

By Michael Lane.

It has been said that origins of modern logistics were adopted from the military. This implies that at some point in time military logisticians were the leaders in logistics thinking and by extension logistics training. However, where the military were once logistics thought leaders it can be argued that this is no longer the case. Logistics training   and education seems trapped by outdated scenarios and concepts that prepare logisticians for major war, but not the operational environment they are most likely to face. So how do military logisticians regain the initiative in logistics thought, training and education in order to renew their relevance and set them up for success in the future battlespace and logistics environment?

In order to promote the future of military logistics thought, training and education it is necessary to understand the here and now. I write here with the perspective of an Australian Army logistician, and my comments will be contextualized by my own experiences. Equally, what I propose is shaped by the needs of the Australian Army although I believe the views hold relevance to a wider audience.

Formal training and education for Australian Army logisticians is essentially comprised of three professional development courses. These courses are the Logistics Officers Basic Course, the Intermediate Course and the Advanced Course.  Each course reflects the requirements of an Army logistician at relatively junior ranks; Lieutenant, Captain and Major respectively. These courses deliver the basic concepts of compartmentalized logistics theory i.e. supply, distribution and maintenance and the aggregation of those concepts as coordinated logistics activity expressed within a formation environment (brigade in the Australian Army’s case).

The flaw with this approach is that generally speaking, as a logistician moves through their training continuum they are exposed to increasing scales of what is inherently the same tactical problem. While this system allows the logistician to deliver scalable logistics solutions across the unit to formation spectrum in a conventional warfare environment, I believe that it does not promote the knowledge or skills required to prepare logisticians for the complex tactical environment of the future.  I therefore advocate an alternate scenario by which advanced logistics activities are taught, and concepts are developed.

Since the commencement of the 21st Century, there has been a paradigm shift in the type and nature of warfare. The last 17 years has demonstrated a move away from conventional warfare into asymmetrical warfare against an increasingly sophisticated and unidentifiable enemy in locations that do not support conventional approaches to military logistics. This was recently captured by Chris Paparone who questioned the way in which logistics, and its requirements, were considered. Combined with the complexity of emerging, unpredictable and asymmetrical battlespaces, militaries have increased ‘blue force’ complexity by emphasising the use of ‘imported’ contractors for logistic support – often to fill capability gaps, and to meet the need to conduct logistics in a way that achieves social development objectives and contributes to local economies. This is especially relevant to the type of operations a nation such as Australia might be expected to lead independent of others – a stabilisation operation. If strategic policy is a guide, there is good reason for Army to focus on these problems in its training of logisticians.

The future mapped in Australia’s most recent Defence White Paper (2016) gives good cause to take this approach. Concentrating upon the Indo-Pacific Strategic Area (IPSA) and given current world affairs, it confirms several reasons Army logisticians should prepare for stabilisation operations, humanitarian responses and other operations. It confirms what many international organisations such as the United Nations, the Global Policy Forum, the Council on Foreign Relations, the World Economic Forum believe conflict and war will be associated with: diminishing water resources, climate change, economic factors, natural disaster and extremism to name just a few causes.

When we combine potential locations and possible causes some common themes become evident. The Army will be expected to operate in a littoral zone, in a region that is likely to be underdeveloped, chaotic and very highly urbanised. The operational area will change considerably as urban environments grow larger and the number of mega-cities [1] continues its rapid expansion within the IPSA. Furthermore, the IPSA is a region prone to natural disasters, registering more than 60% of the world’s natural disasters each year [2].

All of this leads to the conclusion that the logisticians of the future will need to be able provide logistics services in an environment where they cannot rely on HNS, where there will be no, limited or even damaged infrastructure, will be extremely densely populated and probably include maritime and land based activities in a complex environment of competing conflict and humanitarian disaster. At its most extreme, what we see in the current conflict in Syria reflects an example of this type of complexity.

These factors suggest that our current logistics training continuum does not orient us towards the most likely activities the ADF, and Army, will undertake. Arguably, we are preparing for the least likely type of operation we will face. However, if we choose to take a different approach to the scenarios depicted in our training, we can certainly learn from others. There is a field of logistics service delivery that experiences many of the same features as does military logistics, and within the environments described above. Those features include: demand uncertainty, location uncertainty, commodity uncertainty, a lack of infrastructure, limited contractor support, time criticality and the need to achieve social development objectives. That field of logistics endeavour is humanitarian logistics.

 

HA Canberra

HMAS Canberra and LCM1E, Operation Fiji Assist 2016. Photo by Department of Defence.

 

Given the very similar natures of the military and humanitarian logistics enterprises I find it very surprising that military logisticians are not frequently exposed to humanitarian logistics enterprises as part of their professional logistics education. There is good reason for Army to exploit the knowledge and experiences of Government and non-Government humanitarian agencies and organisations. Furthermore, effort should be taken to improve the professional education of military logisticians by seeking the experiences of business that also operate in remote and complex environments. This means that military logistics should be examining innovative ‘best-practice’ approaches such as those used by HK Logistics, currently supporting the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s humanitarian responses, and Agility Global Integrated Logistics.

Whatever the case, any evolution of military logistics education, development must not be limited to additional guest lecturers or classroom based activity. Participation and experience are key drivers of learning and as such should be maximized. Examining case studies, or potential complex scenarios as depicted here, should form the basis of our approach to training and education; particularly at the advanced level.

When working in China, I was struck by the ubiquitous blue 3-wheeled electric motor scooter used as the primary mode of commodity delivery in the very narrow and similar looking streets of Shanghai. Understanding the difficulties involved in undertaking logistics within a city that has more than the entire Australian population compressed into a land area half the size of Sydney is not something that cannot be adequately discussed and understood within the confines of the classroom. Imagine what it might be like in a time of conflict, or natural disaster. When adding in factors such as conflict, cultures and uncertainty it is those who can draw upon relevant experiences and training focussed on such complexity that will enable future success.

[1] A megacity is defined as city of more than 10M population.

[2] ICRC 2013, World Disasters Report: Focus on technology and the future of humanitarian action, Geneva, Switzerland.

Michael Lane is a serving Australian Army officer. The views here are is o

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.

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.