Over the coming month, many Australian Army units will be planning their Professional Military Education (PME) program for 2019. Such programs often include asking Officers and Senior Non-Commissioned Officers to write essays. This article will outline why an essay may not achieve the aims of PME and alternatives that may be more appropriate. As such, it will argue that while long-form written communication is not the only form of PME, if a written product is required then an essay is the least useful format for the individual and the unit.

Instead, this article will propose that a report (or written brief) achieves all the aims of an essay but also much more, especially if accompanied by an oral presentation. Reports and oral briefs are how problems are solved in the Army. Writing a brief or report trains staff for subsequent appointments and enables work that contributes to solving real-world problems.

Current use of essays as PME

Essays are a common form of PME in the Australian Army; imagine if all the hours spent writing essays were put towards identifying, defining and solving problems!

However, based purely on personal observation I suggest that essays are most often used to improve the writing skills of contributors, to fill time, and to provide a sense that PME was conducted. Essays almost never inform conduct of actual work within a unit or wider Army, and may only be read by one or two people, ever. This begs the question - if members of the PME audience are not going to do anything differently after conducting PME, why do it at all?

Reports and presentations: a practical alternative

Written communication is an important skill, but the outcomes achieved through writing an essay can also be accomplished through the use of a report. Reports, especially if accompanied by a short presentation to a group, are more focussed on solutions while developing the same skills as an essay.

Importantly, the work completed in PME can flow onto actually addressing an issue within the unit or even wider. The report produced can be sent to those working on the problem at higher headquarters or in other parts of the Defence Force. The work completed in PME can assist in implementing a solution, especially with involvement from the author.

The table below provides some broad comparisons between essays and reports to illustrate why I suggest a report with a short presentation to the PME audience is best practice for written PME: .  



Report Report with presentation

Success defined by:

Writing a prescribed number of words e.g. 2000.

Identifying, defining and offering recommendations to a problem as succinctly as possible.

As per a report, plus clear and convincing oral communication.


In a final paragraph, if at all.

Usually upfront in an executive summary.

In writing and orally.

Read, viewed or discussed by:

One to three people in the unit.

Staff involved in solving the real-world problem.

As per a report plus the whole PME audience.

Topic selection:

Encourages an 'easy' topic to fill the required word length.

Encourages identification of a workplace (or wider) issue.

Encourages a defendable, well researched position.

Consultation required:

Academic sources encouraged, with experience or expert opinion discouraged.

Academic and expert sources, plus staff involved in the problem.

Greatest encouragement for consultation, to add credibility when presenting.

Relevance of skills to the workplace:



Most. This combination is how problems are solved in the Army.

Potential for the work to go towards solving a real problem: Least. More.

Most. The report and presentation can flow to higher headquarters or functional experts.


So, when was the last time you solved a problem with an essay?

Best practice for written PME is a report or brief followed by a short presentation to the PME group. There will be times where an essay is suitable, such as for studies of history or issues far wider than the organisation. Usually though, a report or brief will achieve more for the individual and the PME group.

Let's drop the pretence of needing exactly 2000 words to communicate an issue. Instead, let's succinctly define a real-world problem, suggest what to do about it, and get that information to people who can use it. That way, PME will not only develop us as individuals, but contribute to improvements across the organisation.