Wavell Room
Image default
Concepts and DoctrineShort Read

Intellectual Discipline: The missing Core Value

“Learning organisations defeat insurgencies, hierarchical bureaucracies do not”

                                                                                                                                       Gen D Petraeus, 2006.

A Learning Culture

The British military needs a Learning Culture. This statement may confuse you, given the numerous articles on Professional Military Education (PME). Unfortunately, most of it misses the point, assuming that Conceptual component strategies and policies can meet institutional learning needs through the delivery of discrete education interventions; an example of this is the 2016 RN officers’ Through Life Education Pathway1 (the promised Rating’s pathway (para 9634) has failed to materialise). What we actually seek is the Learning Organisation; Petraeus called for such in the introduction to FM3-24 (above). Unfortunately, the British military silos that seek Senge’s nirvana (Education and Training Services (Army); Training Management (RN); Personnel Training (RAF)) are symptomatic of the cultural void they seek to fill: they are Professional bureaucratic answers to the problem of managing and measuring force development.

Fundamentally, these strategies and policies attempt to match ill-defined Ends with the available Means, without articulating the Ways. Learning is a behaviour, and behaviours are dictated by cultures. Therefore, we need to understand why a learning culture is invaluable to the military, and then think about how it can be achieved. First though, we need to know what we mean by learning.

Learning is “the acquisition of knowledge, skill or attitude (KSA) through study, experience or being taught, resulting in positive performance change”. It is active, cognitive, reflective and practiced, as Kolb, Honey and Mumford have taught us; we have to do all four if positive learning transfer (“the ability of a learner to successfully apply the behaviour, knowledge and skills acquired in a learning event”) is to be achieved. In terms of the UK military, a shift is required in our understanding of learning: it is not of the conceptual Component, but rather the foundation for all activity. A simple read across of training documentation is evidence of this: Knowledge underpins the Conceptual component; Skill the Physical; and Attitude the Moral.

Start with Why

Generating a learning culture is key to creating the agile, proactive and responsive force of tomorrow:

“the demand of discipline and rigid respect for one’s superiors – on which cohesion in battle depends -– are antithetical to the processes of adaptation, which require a willingness on the part of subordinates to question the revealed wisdom of their superiors.”2

This may seem like old hat. But let’s put it another way. On the left are the characteristics of a Learning Organisation; on the right, those of Mission Command:

Collaborative Learning (Systems thinking) Shared Understanding
Lifelong learning (Personal professional mastery) Use Mission Orders
Room for Innovation (Mental models) Exercise Disciplined Initiative
Forward Thinking Leadership (Shared Vision) Provide Clear Command Intent
Knowledge Sharing (Team Learning) Build Teams through Trust
  Accept prudent risk

Convinced yet? Learning, particularly PME, is the foundation point of Mission Command. It is no coincidence that great commanders have tended to be voracious readers, and that the top US and German commanders of WW2 were PME readers, writers and instructors. Gen Mattis’ viral email and later required reading is proof positive of this approach: his vision was clear, articulated a shared understanding and knowledge-base, and promoted professional mastery.

More than that, developing a learning organisation and culture supports the transition from restrictive, output-focussed Professional Bureaucracies to more manoeuvrable, outcome-oriented Adhocracies; more on this at a later date. It would also recognise the value individuals bring to defence, supporting motivation and retention: Gen Y and Z demand it.

So where are we?

Rommel famously quipped that “the British write some of the best doctrine in the world; it is fortunate their officers do not read it”. The problem resides in a culture that does not incentivise nor democratise scholarship. Indeed, the British military is almost unique in historically scorning soldier-scholars as dangerous intellectuals, except in moments of dire need: in 1755, Wolfe noted that ‘Our military education is by far the worst in Europe’3(at the time, he was engaged in overhauling battalion TTPs having been denied the opportunity to visit Prussian and French military schools); pre WW1, Churchill and Corbett struggled to make headway against the RN’s sea-first conception of officership, eventually establishing a Staff Corps and The Naval Review (the latter currently dwindling in membership). Plus ca change.

Plenty of stick, but no carrot? 

Think on this: The New Employment Model punished those undertaking advanced full-time study by replacing OJARs with “academic” reporting; what officer wishes to ‘lose’ a year vis a vis their competition? PME is linked explicitly to discrete career courses, injected at pre-determined points (on assignment/promotion), rather than a continuous evolution; which is why the RN require a “Critical Thinking Skills Course” prior to ACSC and the RM an “Advanced Amphibious Warfare Course” prior to ISCS(L).4 Moreover, PME is reserved almost exclusively for OF ranks: unlike the US, UK PME is not for all, with learning opportunities reserved for the top 10%. Meanwhile, the UK has retained a system familiar to Wellington and shut-down its own higher education establishment: the majority of its officers are white, male, middle-class, recruited directly from university or high-school/Sixth form college, and benefit from one of the most stratified education systems in the western world.5Those officers that do make the leap from other ranks to officer rarely progress to the senior echelons; Brigadier Ged Salzano RM being one of the few. The days when every soldier carried “a marshal’s baton in his knapsack” are well and truly dead.

So what can be done?

It does not need to be this way. The US, France and Germany boast University-style establishments (Annapolis and Westpoint, St Cyr and the Ecole Navale, or Munich and Hamburg) and actively promote learning at all levels. Whilst at both RMAS and BRNC, I actively advocated for just such a system: my academic tutors saw the value and logic; my colleagues and military instructors, not so much.6

There are green shoots: the recruitment process for 77th Brigade is proof positive of attempts to hire-in expertise and utilise a wire network of professional mastership, rather than the bureaucratic model. CHACR and Centre for Army Leadership provide top-level cognitive sponsorship and championship of PME. But these are discrete, existing concurrently rather than cooperatively. More could be done by enthusiastically embracing strategies to promote learning culture, rather than education; the latter is a product of the former. We also have, in the shape of RUSI, the world’s pre-eminent Defence and Security think-tank; but how many officers have ever set foot inside 61 Whitehall?

So, what can be done?

Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Lead by Example. This should go without saying. However, how many of our senior officer cadre hold advanced degrees? Only one graduate of the Cambridge MPhil scheme has ever gone on to achieve CDS, and I do not know of any PhDs. And how many of our seniors take time for education? By way of example, I was once told by my Career Manager that he had “always wanted to do the MPhil, but the timing was never right”. Make it right for yourself, and for your people.
  • Promote Intellectual Discipline as a Core Value. D&I objectives are mandated in support of the Core Values, promoting active rather than passive behaviours; why not learning? The expansion of “Discipline” to include its intellectual meaning, and the annual reporting on extra-curricular learning objectives, will promote, encourage and reinforce learning as a continuous activity.
  • Annual Submissions. One of the key components of the German army (Heer) reconstitution in the 1920’s and 30’s was the culture of denkschrift. Essays proposing or critiquing doctrine were encouraged from all levels of the General Staff, and circulated widely. Officers were encouraged to publish publicly; Guderian was one of a raft of officers to do so, and less prolifically than others. An (anonymised) annual requirement to submit one-page submissions improving TTPs or business, in any area, would force individuals to think about behaviours and actions, laying the ground work for a constructive challenge culture.
  • Celebrate failure. The Heer exhaustively analysed the tactical reasons for their defeat in 1914-1918. In 2017, I took the RMYO batch to Yorktown for their Staff Ride; an amphibious failure. Psychology has demonstrated the positive health effects of corrective learning. Training provides a safe space to test, adjust, and build resilience. Bismarck may have said that “any fool can learn from their mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others”, but the point is to experience failure, own it, and build from it. Think about it this way: who has shown greater grit and resilience in training: the recruit who passes everything first time; or the individual who has had to fight to make the grade?7
  • Liberalise Learning Credits. The regulations for SLC and ELC usage are restrictive, dogmatic, and the funding has not improved in over a decade. As a result, most personnel do not access either SLC or ELC schemes in-Service, and few utilise them fully during resettlement. If people are “our greatest asset”, then put money behind that and invest in their holistic development, not just in meeting the immediate organisational need, and allow them to be used in furthering professional memberships; RUSI may be a good start.
  • Learn up. In the 1920’s and 30’s, the Heer did not train platoon commanders, but battalion commanders. We need to stop training people solely for the job directly in front of them, and start educating them for the job in 5, 10 or even 20 years’ time. This might also mean de-linking promotion from time-served and completion of selection courses; other industries, services and businesses have fast-track schemes, so why not the military?8
  • Democratise PME. Military and Naval Analysis courses, ICSC and ACSC are the sole preserve of officers, and then only of certain rank; the same for many of the university post-graduate schemes. But rank is not the sole arbiter of knowledge or potential.9 Open the doors to all who demonstrate the potential, not just those needing the right tick next to their name for progression. It will create a better and more diverse pool of decision makers and influencers.
  • Time for learning, not time off. We ring fence Phys time to ensure we are “fit to fight”. Why not learning time? Surely “thinking to fight” is as important, or are all those exhortations mere words?

This is by no means an exhaustive list, nor are the scribblings above the last word on the matter. However, it is a starting point to re-orientate the ever-evolving and ongoing discussion of how to build and prepare the military of the future. At our core, humans are learning beings. It is only right that we place that advantage at the centre of our military, through intellectual discipline.



  1. Now referred to as the Officer Learning and Development Pathway (OL&DP), BR3 Vol 1. Ch 96. Ironically, my 2013 Naval Review article had advocated just such a “Pathway”.
  2. Murray, W. Military Adaptation in War, Cambridge University Press, 2011 p.3.
  3. Lt. Col. Wolfe, quoted in Harvey, R. Mavericks, Constable, 2009, pp.24-25
  4. If you need to be taught how to think on promotion to OF4, then you’ve really missed the point of Leadership, although the fact that the RN uses rote recital, rather than understanding, to test its Bridge Watchkeepers should tell you all you need to know about its Conceptual component. And if you need a 4-week beat-up to refamiliarize yourself with your principal warfighting purpose, then I suggest that you are probably not a professional “thinking-man’s soldier”. 
  5. Of which I was a major beneficiary, courtesy of my parents’ own Service. I have no discernible accent.
  6. I must have been a complete pain in the…
  7. I once had this conversation with the Selectors at POOLE when I was assessing Officers’ Week; it changed my perspective, and built on my own experiences of Lucknow platoon to be a better, more Servant-oriented leader.
  8. And if you think this is unfeasible…how many Lt Col’s, Wing Cdrs and Cdrs in 1944 were under the age of 32? They won a war and the following peace, and many were hostilities only. When was the last time we did either? 1982?
  9. I was once told by a RN OF4 (Logistics) that, as a Lt (TM), I had no business thinking and writing about strategy. My own branch actively denigrated War Studies as a worthwhile degree (see Naval Review article); a fellow WS post-grad resigned prior to joining the Branch, rather than be “set up to fail”. These are not the behaviours of a learning organisation, nor of one that views PME as Continuous Professional Development.

Related posts

COVID-19 and the Masters of War (Part 1)

Jordan Beauregard

Leading From Home

Damian Flanagan

Pragmatically Countering China

Matthew Ader

Leave a Comment