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CHIPS Articles: Understanding the Naval Learning Ecosystem

Understanding the Naval Learning Ecosystem
By Robert P. Kozloski - July-September 2018
The topic of organizational learning garnered much attention since Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson stated his high velocity learning and ready relevant learning initiatives. Similarly, Commandant General Robert Neller made education a top priority for the Marine Corps. These programs resulted in new programs to help improve the ways the naval services educate and train their personnel. These changes naturally attract the attention of Marines and Sailors because they will be affected directly. However, less attention is paid to how the organization itself learns and this is a very important and complex process. This article seeks to provide a brief overview of organizational learning, provides a description of the Naval Learning Ecosystem, and identifies challenges that naval leadership must address to ensure success in the future.

Models of Organizational Learning

Organizational learning has been studied by America’s top social scientists for decades and as a result, many differing theories of learning exist in the academic literature. Two models will be examined briefly here. In Weick and Daft’s Towards a Model of Organizations as Interpretation Systems, the authors assert that organizations are open social systems that process information from its external environment. Because the environment is uncertain, the organization seeks information and then base organizational action on that information. To do this the organization must develop mechanisms for detecting trends, events, competitors, markets and technological developments relevant for their survival. An organization uses a three-step process of scanning, interpretation, and learning to overcome uncertainty (Figure 1).

Scanning is the process of monitoring the external environment and providing data to managers within the organization; this can either be done formally through information collection systems or informally through personal contacts. Interpretation is the process that gives data meaning. Here, human cognition is engaged and perceptions are shared and cognitive maps are constructed. The organization experiences interpretation when a new construct is introduced to the collective cognitive map of the organization. Learning involves a new response or action based on interpretation. Organizational learning is defined as the process by which knowledge about the action outcome relationship between the organization and the environment is developed. Organizational factors such as beliefs, politics, goals and perceptions complicate this process.

A second model of organizational learning is taken from James March’s Exploration and Exploitation in Organizational Learning. March’s mutual model of learning has four important features. First, an external reality exists and is independent of various beliefs about it. Second, at each time period, beliefs about reality are held by each individual in an organization and by an organizational “code.” Organizational code is comprised of languages, beliefs and practices. Third, individuals modify their beliefs continuously as a consequence of socialization into the organization and education into its code of beliefs. Fourth, the organizational code adapts to the beliefs if those individuals whose beliefs correspond to reality on more dimensions than does the code.

In order to facilitate this process, an organization must rely upon its organizational memory and retrieval processes to continually access and update its code. Failure to adapt the organizational code to changes in reality puts survivability at risk. The mutual learning model is particularly relevant to military organizations, as it takes into consideration personnel turnover and turbulence in the external environment. Personnel turnover often involves loss of current knowledge but provides the opportunity to bring new perspectives of the turbulent reality into the organization, as shown in Figure 2.

What both models overlook is the concept of path dependence. Path dependence is taken from the study of economics and holds that conditions observed in an organization today are affected by past decisions. In military organizations, path dependence is very strong and often serves as bureaucratic resistance to organizational learning. It is important to note before proceeding that positive and negative learning occurs in both models, therefore organizational leaders must take an active role in the learning process of their organization to ensure positive results. These two generic learning models can be adapted to the naval services.

Applicability to the Naval Services

Unlike most organizations studied in the academic literature, the naval services have long histories of continuous learning. The naval services have operated continuously at sea for over 200 years and on each deployment, every naval unit has had to learn from and adapt to its external environment. Over this time, generations of Americans have entered the naval services with new perspectives and experience and exited the organization, some making the ultimate sacrifice, leaving a contribution to our organizational code. In military organizations code manifests itself in service culture, traditions and unit histories. Code and learning processes stimulate in new doctrine, technology, and weapon systems.

As naval leaders observe challenges or opportunities in the external environment, solutions are developed by the organization to respond to a threat or create an advantage. The creation of new doctrine often involves new operational concepts and technology, which requires new training and education programs, new facilities, or even new organizations. For example, consider the evolution of cyber warfare. Nearly three decades ago naval leaders recognized the proliferation of internet connectivity, information systems, and computing power in society and determined this had military significance. The naval learning process resulted in new platforms, new tactics, new career fields, new organizations, and new education programs.

Another unique aspect of the learning process of the naval services is that we must rely upon creating our own vision of a future reality to ensure readiness. In The Sciences of the Artificial, Herbert Simon stated that “artificial” referred to that created by man rather than by nature. He further went on to distinguish artificial from synthetic, as the latter is a result of an engineering process to create artificial products for a specific function or goal. Simon recognized that artificial representations of reality served as a valuable means of creating knowledge, mainly through the use of simulations.

Military organizations learn from synthetic environments. Military organizations rely heavily on sophisticated models of future combat scenarios to make planning and resourcing decisions. Military organizations also create synthetic environments for learning, for example, flight simulators, combat towns (mock small towns created to practice urban tactics), and war games are commonly used at all levels of military command structures. The U.S. Naval War College has continuously used wargames as a method of learning since 1887.

Daniel and Musgrave examined the extent to which synthetic experiences influenced perceptions of international relations. They described synthetic experiences as “impressions, ideas, and pseudo-recollections about the world derived from narrative texts. These synthetic experiences reinforce, induce, and even replace identities and beliefs that affect how audiences behave in the real world.” In effect, synthetic experiences appeal to one’s imagination to facilitate learning. Their preliminary research examined the effect popular fiction, such as that of Tom Clancy, had on policy-making in the Cold War and concluded there was evidence that there was some effect in the Reagan and Bush administrations.

An examination of the recommended reading lists for both the Navy and Marine Corps reveals both lists include several works of fiction, such as The Caine Mutiny, Ender’s Game, and Starship Troopers. As military members are also members of a larger society, we must recognize that popular culture permeates the organization through movies, television, video games and websites. Commercial board games, such as chess, or military simulations of historical battles and works of fictional literature, can also contribute to learning.

Unlike private firms where survival and profits are often considered to be primary concerns, military organizations strive to be successful in war and during times of peace, to maintain the appropriate state of readiness. In Military Readiness, Richard Betts states that military readiness pertains to the relation between available time and needed capability. Further, he explains that the aim of strategy and policy is not to achieve readiness in a single sense but rather to answer three key questions over a long period of time: Readiness for when? Readiness for what? Readiness of what?

Thus, the learning model of the naval services is one that must continuously attempt to interpret the present and anticipate the future using both reality and synthetic environments, as depicted in Figure 3.

The Naval Learning Ecosystem

Organizational learning has been examined to this point from the perspective of a single unit of analysis. However, in reality the Department of the Navy is a much more complex system. In Organizational Learning, Levitt and March outline the concept of ecologies of learning. They posit that organizations are collections of subunits learning in an environment that consists largely of other collections of learning subunits. I prefer to use the term ecosystem to describe the organizational learning model in the naval services, as it connotes a living, complex adaptive system. Just as natural ecosystems must have nutrients and oxygen to sustain life, so to the naval learning ecosystem must have a continuous flow of knowledge within its vast network to remain healthy and vibrant.

The Naval Learning Ecosystem must be viewed as a strategic asset for the naval services, as it contains some of the greatest institutions our nation has to offer, with connections to similar organizations in the Department of Defense, National Labs and private research institutions. The Naval Learning Ecosystem is comprised generally of seven types of nodes: operational, historical, research, training and education, policy, threat and doctrine. Many organizations contribute to several of these categories by creating subunits for a specific purpose. Figure 4 depicts the general concept of the Naval Learning Ecosystem.

While Figure 4 simplifies the different types of entities within the ecosystem, it is actually an incredibly complex adaptive system in a continuous state of flux. It is comprised of thousands of subunits or nodes, with over 900,000 people in the network, collecting the equivalent of the capacity of the Library of Congress’s worth of data each day. There are formal and informal vertical, horizontal and diagonal connections throughout the network. It is in constant interaction with its external environment and pumps new knowledge back into the ecosystem. Most entities within this ecosystem are both creators and consumers of knowledge.

Understanding organizational learning for military organizations is not a trivial matter. Recent research, Grauer’s Commanding Military Power: Organizing for Victory and Defeat on the Battlefield, for example, shows that learning and information flow within military units often determines the outcome of battle. This concept of a learning ecosystem is also valuable for analyzing individual nodes in this ecosystem. For example, figure 5 conceptualizes the complex learning environment present on a single Navy ship.

The commanding officer of this notional ship is responsible for converting information to knowledge and synthesizing knowledge from a variety of sources into a cohesive operational picture, from which to make critical decisions. Military historian Martin Van Creveld observed that improvements in information processing technology during World War II resulted in increased demand for information. This demand in turn increased the complexity of organizations. Increased complexity certainly has an impact on organizational learning and that relationship requires further research. Ideally, knowledge would flow freely throughout this ecosystem but as mentioned previously, numerous barriers restrict optimal performance.

Issues for Leaders

Effective learning is essential for organizational survival in the information age. Despite the importance of the complex Naval Learning Ecosystem described here, it cannot be managed in the traditional sense. However, naval leaders can address several issues that will maintain or improve the overall health of our learning ecosystem.

Bounded Rationality: Herbert Simon famously observed that humans, and organizations comprised of humans, are limited in their ability to process large amounts of information. This is due to limited cognitive capacity, time constraints, and not fully understanding the results of all options available. This condition results in making decisions that satisfy the minimum requirements rather than making optimal decisions. We face a dilemma today that because of environment uncertainty, we seek more information. However, some nodes in our learning ecosystem may be facing the limits of human cognitive capacity; a condition commonly referred to as information overload.

It appears that our competitors have recognized this human limitation as well. A Feb. 4, 2018 article in the South China Morning Post noted that China plans to use artificial intelligence to improve the thinking skills of its submarine commanders. As we develop AI and machine learning systems, we must not forget its original intent – to improve human limitations and help make better decisions. Understanding that learning occurs in an ecosystem is an important start to determine where machine learning should be integrated.

Knowledge Attenuation: No system is perfect, and knowledge will be constrained or lost as it flows through this ecosystem. However, we must take an active role in preventing the loss of knowledge. Leaders at all levels of the organization can do their part capturing, storing and transferring important knowledge. Locally, this can be done by updating SOPs, organizing shared files, maintaining turnover procedures, and promoting a culture of information sharing. Commanding officers can reinvigorate formal knowledge management programs to help with this effort. Preventing knowledge loss should be a priority for higher level commands and the Naval Audit Service should make effective knowledge transfer a part its routine audit process.

Rate of Learning: In the private sector, firms become extinct if they fail to learn and adapt to their external environment. This is also true in warfare. We must make learning at a faster rate a departmental priority. This sentiment was recently expressed by Under Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly, “Any success we may enjoy in the future will be enabled by an ever-more-agile force – led by agile people who thirst for knowledge and who are adept at thinking, learning, and processing information quickly.” While this is certainly true for individuals, organizations must adopt these same characteristics.

In order to meet this challenge, we must identify the barriers that inhibit learning and eliminate them. If this is not possible to do without violating laws or regulations, we must build an effective governance structure to raise these problem areas to decision-making authorities. Signals from the current DoD and DON leadership indicate that the time is right to implement agile processes and accept risk where prudent, which will result in higher rates of organizational learning.

Collective Intelligence: Leading academic programs in the country, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnage Mellon University, are researching the emerging concept of collective intelligence. Simply put, this occurs when the output of group decision-making is greater than that of any individual member of the group. When considering the individual experience, training, and education of individual members of our Naval Learning Ecosystem, we as an organization do poorly to harness their full potential. This must change.

Organizations can adopt practices that improve collective intelligence. This can be done by examining the composition of decision-making forums to ensure cognitive heterogeneity is present to avoid group think, fully consider those views that challenge underlying assumption as time permits, and provide structured forums where stakeholders are given ample time to express their views beyond the PowerPoint level of thinking. Further, our naval organizations value and study our rich history. We need to place as much emphasis on studying our future as we do studying our past and anticipate the warfighting challenges that lie ahead of us. This will require incorporating more foresight techniques, such as wargaming, scenario planning and Delphi foresting, into our learning ecosystem.

Defending Our Ecosystem: Attacking a target’s epistemology, or learning system, is the essence of information warfare and psychological operations. We must expect that our adversaries will attack our learning ecosystem in the future, if they are not doing so already. We simply cannot delegate this responsibility to those that build firewalls for our information systems. We must mount an active defense for preventing misinformation from entering the ecosystem and when it occurs, we need to identify it and take measures to prevent it from spreading.

While this is a difficult process, leaders must ensure all hands are aware that the information environment is a contested one and they must question information from unreliable sources and social networks. China, Russia, Iran and North Korea each have military organizations designed to influence targeted populations by manipulating online content or spreading misinformation to undermine trust in U.S. institutions. Military personnel are certainly a vulnerable target. Further, while there is an ongoing effort to train our naval personnel in basic concepts of cyberwar, we must also train personnel to identify incongruencies of information. Leaders must be able to detect false information or information that deviates significantly from what is known and accepted within the organization, in other words, we should be developing leaders who are healthy skeptics.


Understanding how an organization as vast as the Department of Navy learns is difficult. However, learning is critical to every aspect of how the naval services prepare for and conduct warfare. Every weapon system, operational concept, and new tactic is a result of learning from changes our external environment. We must ensure our learning keeps pace with external changes and anticipates future demands. To gain a deeper understanding, learning must be examined at the unit level and as part of a complex adaptive system. Fortunately, the Naval Learning Ecosystem includes some of the world’s finest institutions that must be leveraged fully to ensure success in the future.

No one person or organization can manage an ecosystem. Just as ensuring the health of our natural ecosystem is beyond to control of any single state, each member can do its part to promote the health of the system. Maintaining the health and vitality of the Naval Learning Ecosystem will require everyone to take ownership and do their part to maintain a high state of readiness. Naval leaders must recognize the importance of our learning ecosystem and make organizational improvements, as doing so is essential for the success of our naval mission.

Mr. Robert Kozloski is a Department of the Navy civilian employee.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense or the United States government.

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