Defence Writing – where ideas and motivation go to die?By Aaron Thomas August 4, 2020
The Australian Defence Force (ADF) is making significant strides towards becoming more agile, adaptive and capable of making full use of the technology that is available through various projects and programmes. Parliament quite rightly requires Defence to appropriately account for fiscal requirements, and so the ADF modernises; utilising modern project approaches such as agile project/programme management.
This process of modernisation screeches to an abrupt halt when it comes to unit administration; we find soldiers having minutes red-penned more times than necessary, whether it is just to utilise their own vehicle to travel to course, or if it is a Corporal, Sergeant, Warrant or junior officer attempting to voice their opinion to ‘the enterprise’ that is Defence. It is at this point that ideas disappear, along with the motivation to submit them. Is there really a need to review a document for the umpteenth time as we gradually escalate our thoughts from Platoon Headquarters (PHQ), to the sub-unit, eventually to the Commanding Officer (CO) or relevant person at Battalion HQ (BHQ)?
It’s important to note, that often our end users (soldiers and equivalent) are hired by Defence as people that perform tasks and are taught to learn quickly. While writing ability comes with age, exposure and experience, it is important to realise that this is not the purpose for which Defence brought them into the fold. Furthermore, their ability to perform tasks makes this group Subject Matter Experts on defence materiel, cultural practices and more. This means that their ideas are often valid at higher levels of Defence and arguably crucial to effective risk management and training design.
Our military leaders are encouraging collaboration and steering soldiers towards having an intellectual edge, inviting soldiers to provide input into ideas and creating communities of practice which enable this. Further encouragement from Defence leadership, such as the development of a future ready training system, refer to pillars of agility, simplicity, and capacity. At the enterprise level, applications which encourage collaboration such as Microsoft Teams are slowly starting to be utilised, particularly at the higher levels of Defence.
This article does not contend that Defence Writing and its associated standards do not apply in the modern military environment. The Defence Writing Manual is incredibly useful in gathering ideas into a logical sequence for a decision brief as well as for more formal writing purposes, such as inviting dignitaries to attend a military event. However, these are not mechanisms that are expected of our end user at platoon level; yet we utilise Defence Writing as a PME activity year after year, to expand our soldiers’ ability to write.
Arguably, when we assess the ability to write, the author is expected to utilise preferred words likely to attract the attention of higher authorities, or are required to redesign their thoughts based on their own higher commander's thought process, just to enable clearance. At times, this may dilute the original idea or deflate the author, as their primary concern is not the verbiage but rather that the message is delivered to the intended audience and in a timely manner. Achieving this outcome would increase the feeling of soldiers having a voice - or ‘skin in the game’ - which would surely act as a retention benefit to Defence.
Could it be that we have reached a point where an idea, no matter how long, could simply be emailed through to the intended audience, through the appropriate chain of command via use of the Forward option? This allows similar functionality as a cover sheet which provides an email chain with support (or not) for the author and a BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front) prior to arriving at the intended destination with the respective Commander's recommendation? Arguably, this reinforces that the message content is what military leadership is after and would also decrease the time it takes to deliver the message. This in turn, allows the author to submit the message rapidly and then get back to the business of the day; providing capability.
If Defence, and Army in particular, is to achieve successful transformation in its training system, it needs to demonstrate to the end user what this looks like (how do we apply agile principles to a traditional hierarchical organisation) as an approach to reducing change friction, a common element in successful change management. Would revising the purpose of the Defence Writing Manual, which was designed largely with pre-email communication methods in mind, and providing guidance to the military bureaucracy as to the focus of messages from the end user, result in an increase of ideas and stimulate further innovation?
 COMD FORCOMD DIRECTIVE 17/20 DEVELOPING THE MILITARY PROFESSIONAL IN AN ERA OF ACCELERATED WARFARE: THE FORCES COMMAND PME PLAN 2020-2025
 https://cove.army.gov.au/article/time-the-future-ready-training-system; The Future Ready Training System: Transformation Program Strategy, March 2020