In the Highest Tradition

By Alchemmy’s Ben Wilcox

Traditional military culture, despite its strengths, could be leaving the MoD vulnerable

Of all UK government departments, the one with the greatest need for digital transformation is the Ministry of Defence (MoD).  Of all UK government departments, the MoD is the least able to make the changes.

The MoD demands a vast array of cutting-edge technologies to identify, counter and adapt to the ever-changing nature of confrontation in the 21st century.  But it remains behind the curve in digital transformation, while running a procurement overspend on technologies and equipment that are often obsolete shortly after (or even before) adoption.

This isn’t about a lack of desire, ambition, or individual ineptitude.  The MoD has some of the UK’s best minds.  But they operate in a culture that gives them less than they need to thrive.

Historically, operational effectiveness and mission success in warfare have demanded a hierarchical leadership philosophy, characterised by unquestioning obedience to orders from soldiers and officers.  This culture permeates the MoD to this day.  It is reinforced by process.  Superiors control promotion and advancement.  Not ‘putting your head above the parapet’ and preserving the status quo are accordingly rewarded. But these essential operational disciplines can induce a wider ‘risk averseness’.

The danger is that the MoD’s cultural assumptions could leave it underprepared for new and ever-changing realities.  Our world is now characterised by many more threat vectors.  The technological landscape is rapidly evolving and ever more complex.  Service personnel are often better educated than previously.  They demand more responsibility and autonomy, even in junior ranks.  They want shorter deployment cycles and at-reach operational capabilities in the homebase.  They need a broader set of skills and dynamic leadership to meet increasingly complex operational challenges, to innovate and exploit the potential of digital transformation.

Of course, this isn’t a uniquely British conundrum.  Zachery Tyson Brown and Kathleen J. McInnis’ insightful Foreign Policy article The Pentagon’s Office Culture is Stuck in 1968 highlights similar issues for our US partners.  They emphasise that to fulfil its defence mission the Pentagon needs to keep pace with the private sector workplace revolution, transforming working environments and practices to attract and keep the best talent.  This is no less true for the MoD.  It has also ignored “everything we’ve learned in recent decades about human and organisational philosophy.”  And it too needs time and investment in intrapreneurship, the ability to act as an entrepreneur within large bureaucratic organisations.  The MoD should understand, resource and exalt this specific skill from basic training onwards.

There are laudable pockets of innovation in the MoD already.  From Strategic Command’s JHUB, the Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA), to DSTL and the Rapid Innovation Centre, great teams are doing amazing and impactful work.  But these instances of intrapreneurialism, largely out of operational and tactical reach, are the exception not the rule.  The technologies supporting innovation should be dominant and available for all levels of command.  There should be more widespread use of intelligent automation, as well as greater exposure to private sector capabilities.  This would facilitate the transfer of highly technical skills to the people that need, and deserve, them most.  To have lasting and meaningful impact on operations these technological advances must be coupled with organisational ones. People-centred change and dynamic leadership must be at the heart of this revolution.  Target operating model process and design should be reviewed to ensure they empower innovators.  People, process, and technology.  One will not work without the other two.

There are cost-effective technologies and skilled people who can help make the military machine more agile, flexible, and impactful.  All it takes is the will from decision-makers to rock the boat a little.

This is not a new problem, but with Great Power competition back on the agenda and technology evolving daily, it is especially pressing.  Across every domain, the MoD needs the most up-to-date toolkit to face contemporary challenges.  Does this mean discarding a traditional military culture, essential for mutual support and protection in the field?  No.  It’s about unlocking the potential and creativity of the MoD’s great people by sponsoring a complementary culture of innovation, which can coexist with, and even support, the highest traditions of service.

Written by

Georgina Shaw

Published on

31th July 2022

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