Army lessons learned
Junior officers sharing battlefield experiences in near-real time adapt faster than the Army’s top military leaders
- By Greg Slabodkin
- Jul 17, 2006
As military leaders try to answer questions about failures and mistakes committed during the war in Iraq, few people are paying attention to how warfighters must adapt to succeed — and survive — on the battlefield. That process has often been a matter of trial and error — a luxury that an army at war cannot afford.
Since the war’s beginning in March 2003, each day in Iraq has been a learning experience for U.S. forces trying to identify the best ways to ensure success on the battlefield. By applying the principles of knowledge management, U.S. troops can study and benefit from others. The Army is harnessing the experiences of individual soldiers and units and using that knowledge to support more informed and timely decisions.
Knowledge management has become an integral part of the Defense Department’s 21st-century transformation process. DOD has discussed the concept for years, but Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put widespread implementation on a fast track in 2001. DOD’s goal is to capture, integrate and use organizational knowledge to gain an advantage over the enemy. The department is using knowledge management to address, in Rumsfeld-speak, the problem of “unknown knowns” — information that DOD doesn’t know that it has.
No military service has embraced knowledge management as strongly as the Army has. The service’s strategy to become a knowledge-centric organization — a program called Army Knowledge Management that the service launched in 2001 — appears to be taking hold and reaping benefits in Iraq.
Tip of the spear
The war in Iraq has lent additional urgency to DOD’s efforts to get warfighters the information they need. The constantly changing dynamics in Iraq — including insurgents’ rapidly shifting tactics — makes knowledge management an indispensable asset for U.S. forces. To survive, they must learn as quickly as the situation in Iraq changes.
“Learning has to be rapid enough that we don’t repeat bad outcomes, because the insurgents’ ability to transfer knowledge and learn from events in Iraq is very quick,” said Ron Dysvick, president and chief executive officer of Triple-I, which designed and implemented the Army’s Battle Command Knowledge System (BCKS). “If we don’t mirror the insurgency with our social networking and rapid transfer of knowledge, then soldiers’ lives are put at even greater risk. Insurgents watch our forces very closely and learn what tactics are effective. We must do the same.”
Dysvick cited a case involving the detection of an improvised explosive device (IED). Those bombs have caused more than half of the casualties inflicted on U.S. troops in Iraq.
In this particular case, Iraqi insurgents placed an IED behind a poster with anti-American slogans. A soldier noticed that the poster looked different from others he had observed, so he entered information about the suspicious sighting into BCKS. A threaded discussion developed online while specialists evaluated the potential threat. When they confirmed the soldier’s suspicions, the Army sent a message via the system to alert other units about the insurgents’ new method of concealing IEDs.
That anecdote epitomizes BCKS’ intended use and its purpose in Iraq, which is to generate and apply solutions faster and more effectively than adaptive enemies can devise challenges. Before BCKS’ creation in 2004, the process of gathering, validating and distributing knowledge to soldiers in the field often took months. The goal now is to share lessons learned in near-real time with all levels of command.
“Ideally, what you want to do is be able to learn from what’s happening at the tip of the spear in order to align behavior operationally and vertically so you separate out actionable knowledge,” Dysvick said. “BCKS is about learning from current activity at the tip of the spear bidirectionally, so that the tip can draw upon what’s been learned before…and the rest of the organization can likewise learn both across stovepipes and up the chain of command for strategic purposes.”
BCKS connects information and the warfighters who need to use it, said Army Col. Jim Galvin, BCKS’ director.
The system’s Logistics Network facilitates a similar knowledge flow for the logistics community. The Army launched LogNet in January 2005 as a way for maintenance, supply and transportation soldiers at the brigade level and below to share knowledge servicewide. It has caught the attention of logistics experts at all levels.
“Units are needing to get better at what they do, and as that happens, you have a natural social evolution that occurs where you have informal social networks that are transferring knowledge all the time,” Dysvick said. “But the true success of BCKS is in the facilitation. Without facilitation, we would only be another portal where people hang messages and keep their fingers crossed someone will come there and find” them.
Galvin cited the story of an Army Reserve major in Wisconsin who wanted to develop a training capability for logistics units deploying to Iraq. The officer contacted a LogNet facilitator and discovered that the Army had no written doctrine or useful instructional materials, so he summoned the logistics community via LogNet. The responses pointed him to a major at Fort Hood, Texas, who had set up a logistics support area in Iraq. The two connected, and the Wisconsin officer found the insight he needed.
“Had this virtual logistics community not been available, he may never have connected with logisticians,” Galvin said.
Communities of practice
As another knowledge management resource, the Army is developing global communities of practice. Rather than top-down hierarchies, such communities are networks of peers who share information electronically and learn from one another’s experiences.
The explosive growth of social networking and online collaboration tools have produced a groundswell of activity among the Army’s younger officers, many of whom grew up with the Internet. Communities of practice are rapidly spreading knowledge across the Army in ways never before possible.
Two communities in particular — CompanyCommand.com and PlatoonLeader.org — blazed a trail for other virtual Army groups to follow. Nate Allen and Tony Burgess, both Army majors and graduates of the U.S. Military Academy, created the Web sites to serve as professional forums because they recognized the need for soldiers to share critical knowledge that they could only attain through real-life operational experiences.
Army Maj. Steve Schweitzer, a professor at West Point, said the communities’ purpose is simple: to engage company-level leaders worldwide in a conversation about leading and building combat-ready teams. “The peer-to-peer knowledge exchange that occurs in [specialized professional forums] allows the Army’s soldiers to quickly adapt to the rapidly changing situations that exist in today’s world,” said Schweitzer, who is also chief technology officer of the U.S. Military Academy’s Center for the Advancement of Leader Development and Organizational Learning.
CompanyCommand.com, created in 2000, is a professional forum for Army captains, who command companies of 100 to 200 soldiers. PlatoonLeader.org was developed a year later for lieutenants, who lead platoons of about 30 soldiers. Allen and Burgess launched the sites on their own, without the Army’s financial support.
“Very soon after these sites were up and running, the Army recognized that there was a need to create these knowledge networks because soldiers were out doing this on their own,” Galvin said. “As a result, CompanyCommander.com and PlatoonLeader.org became part of the Army.mil network of collaborative communities we now call BCKS.”
In 2002, the Army began providing server space and support to maintain the sites, turning them from unofficial endeavors into components of the service’s information network. Since the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, both sites have received heavy traffic from captains and lieutenants who want to share advice based on their experiences in Iraq.
Thanks in large part to the success of those communities, Army Maj. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, then-commander of the 1st Cavalry Division, launched another site for sharing combat information. Now an official Army site on the Secret IP Router Network, CavNet made its debut at Camp Victory, Iraq, in 2004.
A user-driven system for transferring knowledge, CavNet distributes emerging tactics, techniques and procedures as company-level leaders develop them. It gives those leaders the ability to tap into the collective best practices of their peers and incorporate them into their decision-making.
CavNet was created to “prepare for the next patrol, not the next war” by giving soldiers the means to easily and quickly share knowledge about the enemy, the situation on the ground and themselves, Chiarelli said.
“Out in the operational part of the Army, especially with the war going on, there’s been an innovative leadership out there,” Galvin said. The leaders have “recognized that you can create Web-based collaborative sites that allow soldiers, after they go out on patrols, to report back to a division-sized unit of 20,000 or more soldiers [and] to have a virtual gathering place to share the latest knowledge of what’s going on out on the battlefield.”
Slabodkin is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis. He recently returned to journalism after working for several years in corporate public relations.