18 April 2014

A Highly-Resilient Army?

Karl Weick is a brilliant scholar and researcher of organization. His latest work, co-authored by Kathleen Sutcliffe, is about high-re;iability organizations (HROs), among which he includes the sailors on an aircraft carrier. They use the term resilient in the subtitle of the book, and the two R words are almost synonymous in their parlance. I've written about reliablity before, so the idea applied to an organization instead of an individual is provacative.

HROs display characteristics that distinguish them from typical organizations-- things like a willingness to track small failures, a resistance to oversimplification, and a sensitivity to operations.

A carrier crew might be the prototypical HRO, but Army units offer a more practical case study, at least for yours truly. I'll be in such a unit in Afghanistan within a fortnight.

The goal of any organization, reliable or not, is high performance. Effective organizations are organized so as to negotiate changing environments. Certainly the military has a need to be so organized. Uncertainty has a way of auditing these organizations. In a market, the organization that fails the audit goes bankrupt. In war, it suffers defeat.

According to Weick and Sutcliffe, they have identified a particular class of organizations that reduce "the brutality of audits and speeds up the process of recovery."

News from Afghanistan suggests a relatively stable operating environment for the Army. Compared to the deadliest years of 2009 - 2011, over 60 percent of all OEF casualties occurred, 2014 is shaping up to be the year of Afghanistan security. That means dramatically different missions for US troops. Whether the Army can shift from an offensive combat posture to stability operations will be a real test of its organizational resilience.

Weick and Sutcliffe offer some advice to those organizations looking to stay resilient and adaptive to a changing environment: defer to expertise. Not all commanders, and certainly not all Soldiers, are experts at the type of operations coming down the pike. If the powers that be can identify who the real experts are, then the Army should be able to manage the coming changes.

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