While conducting research for Econsultancy’s How Marketers Learn report, I spent some time wondering about what company or industry represented best practice in terms of providing development opportunities to its staff which in turn would result in a more effective organisation.

Fortuitously, at around this time I bumped into a retired member from the British Armed Forces. It turns out that there's quite a lot that professional organisations can learn from the military.

Iain Herron, retired Warrant Officer Class One in the Adjutant General’s Corps and now Operations Director of consulting and recruitment firm J1, had some interesting insights about the strategic importance of providing access to structured learning and development opportunities to personnel. 

On structured careers in the armed forces 

Common Military Syllabus 

Iain explained that everyone who joins the British Army completes a 14-week training course known as the Common Military Syllabus (CMS). This means that everybody has the same foundation training and that no matter what role somebody eventually finds themselves in, every person in the military is a trained soldier. This makes sense. According to Iain, “the organisation is set up in such a way that everyone is on the same playing field”.  

Command, Leadership and Management Programme

Recruits don’t just complete the same foundation training. To progress in the military, members need to complete standardised courses. For example, Iain explained that those selected for promotion to the rank of Non-Commissioned Officer must complete a Command, Leadership and Management (CLM) programme. The CLM programmes develop leadership and management competencies as soldier’s progress through the ranks.

Successful completion of different parts of these programmes are a key element of qualifying the individual for immediate or subsequent promotion by giving them the skills and knowledge they will require in order to operate effectively in leadership positions. Each course builds on the previous one, while introducing new material as appropriate.

What’s interesting about these programmes is that as well as developing military knowledge, these courses cover leadership, management, communication, professional and personal development.

Iain went on to explain that the structured training programmes and pathways offered by the military equip members with a shared understanding of the organisation, solidify culture, encourage teamwork and provide a sense of camaraderie.

Further education and career development in the military 

In his 23-year military career, Iain estimates that he received as much as four years of leadership training. This consisted of formal training including the CLM programme as well as structured on-the-job training. “Every day you are being taught something,” he said.

In fact, Iain explained that not only are members of the defence forces encouraged to change roles every few years, but that they have to change roles every two to three years.

In order to be successful in those roles, members are equipped with the skills to do the new job via structured training courses and are given six weeks to learn the new job. They will be expected to become a subject leader within six months of starting the new position.

Q. What is the rationale behind ordering people to change job every two to three years?  

Iain: “The idea behind changing job every 2-3 years is basically to keep people and the organisation fresh. People can bring fresh perspective into roles. Also, the structured training and handover phase ensures a smooth handover, removes unnecessary stress and prevents people who aren’t equipped with the knowledge and skills finding themselves operating in a position where they are out of their depth.

"If you think of civil servants who may find themselves in the same role for a long time, they may unwittingly become jaded and find themselves following old procedures purely because they were ‘always done that way’.”

Q. This suggests that there is room for bottom-up ideas as opposed to following rigid procedures. How can new thinking be introduced? 

Iain: "We used terminology called ‘Mission Command’ which basically means that once the goal of a mission is made clear, it is up to you to come up with the plan. The point is that the achievement of the task is the priority, not necessarily how that task gets completed. This means that the military is a lot more collaborative than you would think.

“For example, usually when a young officer has learned how to lead, they will be assigned with a mission. They will then surround themselves with their best soldiers to gather feedback on the best ways to complete that mission. There is a clear recognition that subordinates may well have good ideas based on their own operational experiences. These subordinates are encouraged to share their thoughts and ideas to the officer. Ultimately, it is the officer who takes responsibility for the mission.”

With so much being written about the need for organisational agility, it is clear that this concept already exists in the military, whether it is called agility or not. Everyone, regardless of their rank, has been equipped with the same foundational knowledge (Common Military Syllabus). Those same people have been supported via structured and relevant training.

This means that everyone in the organisation understands the context and complexities involved in introducing a new idea or procedure, and can use their own learning and experience to make recommendations as to how their mission can be achieved.

As well as ensuring that the organisation doesn’t become stifled by top down rigidity, such an approach supports autonomy, empowerment and initiative, all basic tenets of a culture that supports employee engagement.

Iain also advises: “The military has a process for capturing good ideas called GEMS. GEMS is a Ministry of Defence Scheme which encourages ideas with the aim of improving the organisation. The scheme allows members of the defence forces to submit innovative ideas to save money and improve procedures.”

The GEMS Scheme was introduced in 1996 as the single defence-wide suggestion scheme and in that time dozens of suggestions from all over defence have saved the department millions as well as improved the working lives of thousands. According to figures published by gov.co.uk, the scheme generates savings of an average of £13m per year. It is considered the third most successful of its type anywhere in the world and more than 2,000 ideas were put forward to the GEMS team in the last year.

Managing job rotation every two to three years

According to Iain, the military has a very robust approach to resource management in order to allow people time away to train and also to support them to move into new positions every few years. In fact, the British Army has an entire team of Resource Managers whose job it is to manage this very issue.

A key challenge that many commercial organisations have around sending people for training and even encouraging employees to change positions within the organisation is that of maintaining service levels and ensuring that work continues to get done.

Because they may not have the right structures in place to manage these challenges, organisations may stifle staff opportunities both to upskill and to add value to the organisation by not allowing them access to training or secondment. On a macro level this may impact organisational culture including morale, turnover levels, organisational agility and ultimately profitability, although this is difficult to measure.

Iain discussed how he worked with an international audit and consulting firm that seconded consultants to client offices for the duration of those engagements. He described that clients would regularly request that the same consultant return for each engagement.

While this gave the client confidence in terms of ensuring projects were delivered on time, it also meant consultants’ own careers were being stifled by enabling this approach. The consultant returning to the client was prevented from working with new clients and expanding their knowledge and skills. Also, other consultants that would benefit from such an engagement were being precluded because their pathway was being blocked by the existing client/consultant relationship.

Iain worked with this firm to centralise all resource management into a single location so as to get a clearer picture of the synergies available by deploying consultants more strategically. This meant politely but assertively communicating with clients that they couldn’t always demand that the same consultant return for each engagement. When this was communicated appropriately, clients were happy to accept this arrangement.

What can commercial organisations and marketers learn from the military approach to L&D? 

The strategic importance of investing in staff 

Military organisations need to invest in staff for obvious reasons, but on a more macro level, providing learning opportunities for staff keeps them engaged and stops them from stagnating in their position, losing motivation and becoming unwilling to accept change.
 
On this level, providing learning opportunities also lets organisations be dynamic and able to deal with the exponential change that characterises today’s economy.  

Competence

In his book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Commander Chris Hadfield discusses the importance of competence. In any task, the absolute minimum that staff should be is competent. The challenge that marketers face is that as consumer behaviour changes and technology plays a bigger role in their job, what represents competence today may not represent competence next year. This means that marketers require access to learning and development opportunities.

One of the things that makes the military so good is understanding capabilities and providing structured opportunities to develop those capabilities via training. According to Iain: “Hard-won competence via training and practice provides military personnel the knowledge and skills that they need to not only remain calm in high stress situations but also the ability to focus on only the outcomes that will lead to success.”

If marketers and their organisations can learn one thing from the military, it is the importance of providing access to and actively encouraging and rewarding training. By doing this, marketers and their organisations can remain competent and be better able to respond to challenges presented by new business models, changing technology and consumer behaviour.

Trust

Competence is not only about being able to do one’s job well. Trust is also a key element of high functioning teams and organisations. In the military, trust in your peers is a matter of life and death.

The establishment of trust and underlying competence in commercial organisations means that business leaders can be confident that their staff have the skills they need to do the job and to make decisions relative to their role.

US General Stanley McChrystal, in a Harvard Business Review article titled ‘What Companies Can Learn From Military Teams’, said: “I try to exhibit trust in small ways. In a briefing, if somebody asks me for a decision, I might turn to a subordinate and ask them to handle it. I don’t ask for specifics, and I’m very overt – almost theatrical – about it. Everybody else sees it. The message is: ‘I trust you guys to handle this stuff,’ and that can grow virally throughout an organisation. Trust is essential in any high performing learning organisation.”  

Engagement

The value of learning and development opportunities familiarises people with new concepts, equips them with new skills and opens up their minds to new possibilities. What it is really doing is building up individual and organisation flexibility to adapt and avoiding the trap of people becoming jaded in their roles.  

Control points

Finally, Iain Herron discussed what he called ‘control points’ in people’s military career. These are points in an individual career where if a person hasn’t met certain criteria or displayed a willingness to develop themselves then they will be asked to leave the organisation. ‘Manning control’ is a policy in the British Army which allows the army to terminate the service of soldiers at the end of three, six, nine, 12 or 15 years’ service.

‘Manning control’ was created to allow the army to maintain a balance of experience and to ensure that there were opportunities for talented soldiers to progress through the ranks.  This is reminiscent of one of the key insights derived from the research of Jim Collins. In his book Good to Great, Collins writes about how the right people in the right place are the foundation of greatness. He also writes about removing people who don’t add value. 

Readers might be familiar with a famous quote from the book: “Get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.”

How Marketers Learn

Econsultancy's How Marketers Learn report will benefit leaders and managers in organisations of any size or sector by providing insights into the importance of having a learning and development strategy.

It provides an overview of how marketers are currently managing their learning requirements. The research in this report will also help marketing leaders by highlighting the value of L&D in marketing and demonstrating its business case. 

Subscribe to Econsultancy to gain access to a wealth of Digital Best Practice content, or learn new skills by booking yourself onto one of our training courses.

Seán Donnelly

Published 2 November, 2017 by Seán Donnelly @ Econsultancy

Seán Donnelly is a Senior Research Analyst at Econsultancy. Connect via Twitter or LinkedIn.

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