DEFx + NCC: developing a culture of innovation and learning in the Army
24 Jan 2017|

Late last year I attended two events in the Canberra area that offered encouraging signs of a developing culture of innovation and learning in the Australian Army. The most prominent in this regard was the inaugural two-day Defence Entrepreneurs Forum. DEF Aus is a subsidiary group of the US Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, and is the first group of its kind in the southern hemisphere.

DEFx, as the gathering is called, clearly draws some inspiration from the hugely popular TED talks, and kicked off with a case study on innovation in war presented by Professor Dan Marston. That was followed by a VTC session with August Cole, co-author of the novel Ghost Fleet—a fictional account of a future war between the US and a Sino-Russian alliance that has caused something of a buzz in the Pentagon and beyond. Also in the line-up was a panel discussion on ‘The Future Fight’, and two ‘Inspiration Sessions’ bringing together a distinguished group of presenters to address topics in their fields of expertise.

For all of TED’s influence, the true progenitor of DEFx is the reality TV show Shark Tank. The DEF Aus raison d’être is, at its core, about encouraging innovation in the ADF, and DEFx does this most centrally by providing junior leaders with a platform from which to ‘pitch’ ideas to senior decision-makers, including the Army’s Professional Military Education Czar, Brigadier Mick Ryan, and the Deputy Chief of Army, Major General Rick Burr. The ‘pitchers’ were mostly Army Lieutenants and Captains, with a smattering of Majors. Notable exceptions were Sergeant Harry Moffat, the only NCO to pitch an idea, and FLTLT Emily Chapman (RAAF), who made the only non-Army pitch. While a number of the pitches focused on harnessing new technologies—from less lethal shotguns to hoverboards and hypersonic flight—to improve Army’s capabilities, others sought to address issues of training, education, work culture and human performance. The quality of the ideas and the presentations was high across the board, with some—such as Harry Moffat’s call for a ‘Digger Bill’ akin to the US GI Bill—striking particular chords.

While DEFx was creating a tweet storm in Canberra’s South, over in the North at the Majura Training Area the National Combatant Centre was quietly bringing its five-week pilot to a close. The concept of the NCC was first hatched eight years ago in discussions at SASR’s Battle Wing, which is responsible for providing small arms training to the Regiment’s members. In a nutshell, the NCC is to be a hub through which the concepts and techniques of small arms training employed in Australia’s special operations units, developed through long experience and study, can be efficiently rolled out across the ADF using a ‘train the trainer’ approach.

Through the five weeks of the NCC pilot guests from various branches of the ADF, as well as law enforcement and other government agencies, were invited to observe some of the training and have the core philosophies of the NCC explained. I was fortunate to be one of the few non-government civilians invited along, and it was impressive to see a group of Army soldiers transformed from uncertain trainees to confident trainers. Some of the training was quite spectacular to watch, including a mock ambush—part of the ‘reality based training’ concept that’s at the core of the NCC—that included high-end and highly realistic Hollywood style pyrotechnics. Notably the true innovation on show was not the ‘what’ of combat shooting, but rather the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of training in general. What the newly-minted trainers took away with them was, fundamentally, a far better understanding of how human cognition works, and what it takes to enable another human being to learn a new skill or concept. Drawing on key lessons gleaned from psychology and cognitive science research, the experienced trainers who led the pilot (most of whom were members of the SASR Battle Wing when the NCC concept was first developed) took every error of technique as a teaching opportunity, employing Socratic questioning as they guided their trainees towards competence. I never once heard a raised voice or angry tone. It was educated and informed professionalism at its best, and it was obvious that all involved both enjoyed the training and learned an enormous amount.

I found these two examples of innovation and learning in the Army to be enormously heartening. But Army mustn’t rest on its laurels. As Brigadier Ryan rightly notes in his reflections on DEFx 2016, maintaining the momentum is key. New ideas are risky, and will inevitably face resistance. The true test of whether Army is a genuinely an innovative and learning organisation will come when the rubber actually hits the road—otherwise these are all just good ideas and, as George R. R. Martin has taught us, ‘words are wind.’