Conflict to COVID-19: What I learned about learning

Minesweeping Arabian Gulf 2003

|Matt Offord

The picture above was taken 17 years ago.  I served in HMS Brocklesby all those years ago.  We left the UK in August of 2002 and returned 10 months later, having been involved in the clearance of the Kwa Abd Allah waterway in Iraq during the conflict of 2003.  It was the proudest moment of my career, I worked within the highest performing team I have ever experienced, under the exemplary leadership of Commander Phil Ireland, who earned the Distinguished Service Cross during those operations.  But this blog is not about leadership or teamwork.  I was reflecting on those times during the greatest calamity of our age: the corona virus.  What made me muse about those distant events was the role of technology and organisational learning.  When this picture was taken we were practising minesweeping operations, in anticipation of our role to clear the area of sea mines, along with other UK and US warships.  Despite all our hours of training, we never used that technology.  In fact this may have been the last time sweeps were ever deployed by the Royal Navy.

Mine sweeping in this form was used extensively in WWII, to clear seaways of enemy mines.  It involves towing long sweeps behind the ship to deal with mines suspended above the sea bed.  There are many different configurations the sweeps can be used in but, in essence, that is how it works.  Streaming all of this heavy equipment hundreds of meters behind the Ship is a dangerous and complex operation.  It requires a lot of training, the men in this picture had years of experience and the best training in the world.  Without it, the potential for injury or death is very real.  Naturally, we wanted our teams to be ready for the real thing when it happened.  But instead, the Ship was equipped with a new remote system, which didn't require the Ship to sail over the mines before the sweep could deal with them.  This new system was more or less thrown together at short notice and came with another high performing naval team to operate it.  This wasn't the only new kit we received, and our sister ships also got lots of new shiny kit.  Shortly, after those operations mine sweeping operations were ceased altogether in the Royal Navy.  There was no need to put service men and women in harm's way, Technology had removed that necessity.

It did create an interesting paradox however, that I did not really think much about at the time.  We were using new technology which had the potential to enhance our effectiveness but for which we were not trained.  HMS Brocklesby was, as I stated, a high performing team and those enhancements were quickly integrated.  The team had a learning capacity, which allowed them to quickly adapt and overcome new challenges.  To my mind this goes beyond training, which centres on specific technology.  This wave of innovation was to continue after the Iraq War and within a few years I was working with  teams using unmanned underwater vehicles, robots, to search the seabed.  The transformation was spectacular.  Not only were we using completely new methods, the technology itself was evolving and adapting constantly.

But the transition was not seamless.  There was a clash of cultures between the training and innovation mindsets.  The rate of change of technology made it difficult to create technology specific training.  No sooner than a course was completed, it was obsolete.  A lot of new equipment was bought and put straight into use, without training packages being designed.  The Navy is among the best training organisations in the world.  The nature of military operations means most employees are training for something they only rarely or never experience.   When they do need those skills, there is little room for error.  The Defence Standard Approach to Training (DSAT) philosophy has been emulated in business all over the world for good reason.  But, in the 21st Century, training is diminishing even though it still remains necessary in certain contexts.  When technology is rapidly evolving, learning is a preferable strategy to training.  Paradoxically, the technology becomes less important than the ability to adapt.

An enduring impression I had from that wave of innovation in military technology in the early 21st century has relevance almost 20 years later.  I noticed that many of the individuals who rose to prominence in mastering the new technology were not younger and less experienced.  All of our technological experts were so-called 'old and bold' practitioners.  They were not boffins, geeks or techies, but highly experienced mine warfare experts of one type or another.  Much of the technology was only known to the companies who developed the new equipment, naval leaders had to learn the technology from scratch.  This requires two attributes: to understand the principles of the discipline (mine warfare in this case); and not being scared of technology.  These factors are important.  It is never about the technology itself.  Technology is simply a tool.  Understanding what the tool is for, takes deep insights into the industry, usually accumulated over time.  And secondly, technology is usually designed to be useable, so as long as you are not scared of it, you can master it.  Fear of technology comes in part, from a training mindset.  Training aims to minimise mistakes by repeated practice and deep knowledge of the technology itself.  Learning cannot happen without mistakes.  In reality, we need both approaches.  There are many circumstances where exploratory learning is not appropriate.  But over-reliance on training can create rigid patterns of behaviour which inhibit innovation and agility.

The COVID 19 crisis is forcing many industries to make more use of technology for home working, education and remote collaboration. In many instances, businesses are switching to technologies which most closely resemble those they cannot use anymore. They hope that the training they have already invested will transfer most seamlessly to those platforms.  But in a rapidly moving situation, it is those businesses who most understand the principles of their professional discipline that will adapt most successfully.  Learning the technology is the easy part, that is how.  Understanding why  and what, that is your competitive edge.

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