If the Army Can Put Its Doctrine Up On a Wiki, You've Got No Excuse

Posted on December 8th 2009


A few weeks ago I had the privilege of watching an astounding event - a room full of Soldiers typing Army doctrine onto a wiki so that Soldiers in the field could make changes as they were discovering new and better tactics in the midst of fighting a war.

There were a couple of amazing things about this event. One was that it was happening at all, because to the Army, doctrine is close to sacred. It is written by doctrine specialists and then verified and authenticated at many levels within the hierarchy. So opening doctrine up to Soldiers is a very big deal. The second amazing thing was how quickly it happened — just three weeks after the General said, “Make it happen.” the first eight manuals went up. A hierarchical organization, of one million plus employees, just shouldn't be able to move that fast!

But let me begin at the beginning of the story.

TRADOC, the US Army Training and Doctrine Command, has the task of writing and maintaining more than 600 field manuals that specify how the Army is to fight as well as conduct the many support tasks needed to keep soldiers going. Everything from how to drive a humvee to how to throw a grenade has doctrine that specifies the approved way to do it. TRADOC oversees the doctrine, but it is the Proponents, each of which has responsibility for some vital process (Fires, Armor, Acquisition, Chaplin, Field Artillery, etc.), that have the SMEs with the in-depth knowledge. So they have the last word on doctrine about their subject.

Conditions change very fast in Iraq and Afghanistan so it has become increasingly difficult to update the manuals as quickly as change occurs. Faced with overwhelming change as well as diminishing resources, the newly appointed Commander of TRADOC, General Dempsey, made a bold stroke. He declared that not all of the 600 field manuals needed to be doctrine produced by professional doctrine writers. Many of the manuals, he suggested, contained tactics and procedures that could be more easily kept current by the soldiers in the field. And the best way to do that was with a Wiki! The Army had recently developed a trio of social media, milWiki, milBook, and milBlog — so had already got their feet wet with Enterprise 2.0.

General Dempsey assigned the Combined Arms Doctrine Directorate (CADD) the task of determining which of the 600 needed to remain as field manuals and which could go up on the wiki as Army Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (ATTPs). CADD was able to differentiate the “how to” knowledge, for example how to set up a checkpoint in Iraq, from the more conceptual knowledge that provides enduring principles for the Army. CADD quickly determined that 230 of the 600 field manuals could become ATTPs and be available on the wiki for Soldier input.

So then the question was how to get the ATTPs up on the wiki and more importantly how to get Soldiers contributing. The answer, a cooperative effort between The Battle Command Knowledge System (BCKS) and CADD, was a series of Kaizen events. The Kaizen events were a focused, intense, week-long change initiative where change in the organization began to happen during the event.

Business as usual for the Army, or for that matter for most organizations, would have been to pull together a tiger team to identify the issues that needed to be resolved, figure out how to fix them, and then handover the solution to Leadership to be implemented.

The Kaizen events the Army ran were not “business as usual,” rather they were “learn your way to the answer.” The event brought together the people who would ultimately have to implement the solution — the TRADOC and Proponent doctrine writers. They knew more about where the problems would crop up than anyone in the world, so it was that group that spent the week identifying the issues and making a list of what they and the leaders they reported to needed to do next to get the ATTPs working on the wiki. Top leadership including Lieutenant General Caldwell, Commander, Combined Arms Center, and General Dempsey were there - but for guidance and support - it was the group of implementers that did the heavy lifting. Doctrine is interwoven with nearly every part of the army — a classic example of a complex adaptive challenge. There are legal issues about records management, exceptions to policy that will have to be made, implications for having hard copy for a Soldier to take into the Battlefield where there is often little computer access, how to do search, and on and on.

During the event, legitimate concerns were raised about the feasibility of Soldiers changing doctrine. There were many “What Ifs” brought up: What if the ATTP says, “Be at least 15 feet away from where the grenade lands” and some Soldier decides to change it to 5 feet and then his comrades die because of his change? What if some Soldier that didn't graduate from high school, writes in something with poor grammar and spelling? Or worst yet, what if that Soldier has important knowledge to contribute but doesn't because of embarrassment about his/her writing skills? “What Ifs” are not to be taken lightly, but for many of these concerns the Army will have to “learn its way forward.”

While all this was happening, in a nearby room Soldiers were busy putting the manuals up on the wiki — the idea being, we won't really know what the problems are until we start using the wiki. General Dempsey dubbed these first ATTPs as a pilot, to give everyone the freedom to make mistakes and to learn from those mistakes as they went along. The beauty of not having a perfect plan is that you don't have to stick to it - it can change as you learn.

The second Kaizen event, with another group of Proponents, occurred three weeks later and at the end of that event there were 16 ATTPs up. And one more event is planned so that every Proponent will have at least one ATTP up. They will have all experienced how long it takes to get an ATTP up on the Wiki — before the event that was a great unknown. And as the weeks go by Proponents are beginning to learn how to monitor changes and what kind of monitoring is needed. The complex issues raised at the events are beginning to be addressed by the many parts of the organization that own them.

Being the Army, of course there was an AAR at the end of each event. The comments were not surprising, but were clearly heartfelt. One Colonel said, “Those of us who write the doctrine and manage the process are here in this room, being asked for our thinking about what would work and what would not work — and that puts us way head of the game.” The event uncovered how very many parts of the system this change will impact, which was helpful, if a bit overwhelming. Most importantly, the implementers in the room left with a clear perception that Leadership, because they were in the room, had a clear understanding of the complexity of this change effort and of the difficulties the Proponents will face — Leadership was learning along with everyone else.

One of the open questions is whether Soldiers will take the time to go to the wiki to enter a new tactic or procedure they have found helpful. I asked Jim Benn, Deputy Director of CADD, whether the soldiers in the field wanted a voice in the doctrine. Had they been asking for a wiki or some way to participate in changing doctrine? His response was that soldiers recognized that what they were doing in theatre was not what they were taught in the schoolhouse based on the current field manuals— so thought TRADOC ought to do its job better — but didn't think of themselves as needing to be the ones to change it.

Since the beginning of July there have been 15,000 visits to the site — so Soldiers are curious and coming in to see what's going on. There have been about 80 content changes across the 16 ATTPs that are up on the Wiki. And there have been some 40 discussions.

Those figures raise the question, Is that enough? If you look at the typical participation rate of communities and wikis, that is, 90% readers, 9% users who contribute periodically, and 1% making most of the contributions — it seems okay. But the Army is hoping for much more participation than that. However, my guess is that most Soldiers will not contribute from the battlefield; they'll wait until they're back. They'll think of something that ought to be changed while writing up their AARs or attending training between deployments, or even when they look something up and see that what they read doesn't match their experience. I do think they will contribute, but the Army may have to put some active knowledge management process in place to facilitate contributions.

With doctrine on the wiki the Army will achieve two major benefits. Deputy Director Benn gave voice to one, “If the process works as we conceived it, we will have a body of professional military people that are more engaged in codifying their operational principles - taking some ownership. We will get all the benefits from that expanded involvement, that is, we would become a smarter and more educated force.”

And the second benefit will be the Soldiers' increased confidence in the viability of the ATTPs they are reading because their colleagues, just back from deployment, wrote them and those guys know what they are talking about.

And I predict the Soldiers will find other ways to benefit from having the ATTPs up - benefits not yet conceived of by General Dempsey or Deputy Director Benn. Because that is the nature of social media that once it is available, uses for it emerge that the promoters would never have imagined.

This has been an amazing change initiative to watch. Each time I reflect on what the Army is doing, I am brought back to the conviction that if the Army, with the all inertia it has to overcome, can make this change happen within a few weeks, then all of us ought to take a hard look at what we can and cannot make happen in our own organizations. Certainly this initiative has a lot going for it, the Army's strong commitment to transformation, a General who had the courage to commit his organization to a course of action in the face of some legitimate concerns, and a group of very savvy change agents in BCKS who knew this could not be just a top down effort.


NancyDixon

Nancy Dixon

Dr. Dixon is a researcher and consultant working with clients to understand the impact of change initiatives they have employed. She conducts qualitative studies using in-depth interviews and ethnographic tools. She is the author of eight books as well as over 50 articles that focus on how organizations learn. Books include, CompanyCommand: Unleashing the Power of the Army Profession (with Burgess, Allen, Kilner and Schweitzer), Common Knowledge: How Companies Thrive by Sharing What They Know, HBSP and Perspectives on Dialogue, Center for Creative Leadership.
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