How does PME in Australia stack up against the UK?  It’s time for the PME Ashes…

PME isn’t a competition. However, as the Ashes repeatedly show, friendly competition can raise the performance of individuals to ever higher feats of excellence. Which got me thinking: how would the PME prospects of Australia and the UK fair in a 5 test series? As The Cove’s recent UK exchange officer, I would like to present the PME edition of Test Match Special.

*Que the steel drums* Welcome to this special Ashes series. Rather than the usual cricket wicket, this series will be played on the pitch of PME between two invitational sides from the Australian Army and the British Army (yes, ok, the Ashes is played by England, but against current form there is some British unity on show here). The sides will play 5 tests in key areas that affect the effectiveness of PME in the hope of identifying where each can change and improve.

The Rules of the Series

Before the teams come out, a little housekeeping. First, we need to consult the Wisden (PME) Almanac for a definition of PME that the series will use:

            'Any activity outside of mandated training that seeks to improve the individual’s ability to take part in their profession.'

This may seem like an unusually broad definition - there’s not a single mention of 'Battlefield Tours' or 'Fireside Chats' - but this is intentional and will prove important in a number of the tests in the series.

Our second housekeeping point is that whilst the Australian Army uses PME to describe these activities, the Brits also commonly use Continuous Professional Development (CPD). Different phrasing, same meaning. For ease we will stick with PME, but for any other Brits out there, it’s the same thing.

So why is a PME Ashes important?  As an Education Officer it can be easy to trick yourself into thinking that the Army is an organisation constantly yearning for PME.  Even a casual Twitter user may start to think the two armies are awash with intellectual members endlessly PME blogging and promoting debate. However when a senior Australian Army Warrant Officer casually remarks, 'Let’s be fair, no one actually reads The Cove', then the limitations of this PME cultural revolution become quite clear; there’s good things happening, but for officers and soldiers alike across both armies this is not the cultural norm. Much like cricket in the UK when England aren’t winning the world cup or levelling an Ashes series’, PME is only really practised by a niche audience.

The rise and fall in interest in cricket is fine; England aren’t exactly known for their consistency of form, and a surge in listeners to Test Match Special might make Agnew, Vaughn and Boycott a little nervous. However, PME and the skills it imbues are a vital part of the professionalisation of two armies who can no longer rely on the advantages of numbers, resources or technological superiority. If PME fails to become an engrained part of the culture of both the Australian and British armies, there may be serious implications for the success of complex and ambiguous operations in the future.

So on to the Test series….

The First Test

Now the stage is set, it is time for the first test which will focus on the major organisations driving PME in the two armies. Both Australia and the UK have a number of PME organisations doing great things, so for this test I will use the two most recognisable 'household names': The Cove for Australia and The Wavell Room for the UK. These two websites demonstrate one of the major differences between how the two armies approach PME, namely whether PME (including blogging and discussion) should occur within the organisation or outside of it.

The Cove was established in 2016 as an organisation within TRADOC (Training and Doctrine) with four full time personnel headed up by then Maj Tom McDermott. As an official part of the Australian Army, The Cove was staffed by a full-time team and could lean on internal resources. This enabled it to grow quickly to include hundreds of articles, resources and custom-made videos. It has also enabled other parts of the Australian Army to lean on The Cove to support PME activities and share these with the wider organisation, such as the live streaming of CoveTalks.

In contrast, The Wavell Room was established outside of the organisation by a group of officers keen to promote PME who were then promptly threatened with disciplinary action. As an organisation outside of the Army, its founders and editors are only able to work on it part-time and it has been forced to apply for Charitable Incorporated Company status to support itself through donations. Especially early on, this outsider status meant senior personnel were unwilling to show public support. Even now it’s official work with the British Army is limited to short briefs given to serving members on officer career courses. While The Wavell Room creates valuable content despite these difficulties, in comparison to The Cove its organisational effect is limited.

One of the major questions around the inside vs outside debate revolves around independence of content and an ability to make constructive, yet critical, comment of the organisations they seek to support. The outsider status of The Wavell Room, and the common use of author anonymity, should allow it to make comment without fear, and it does.  Yet, so too does The Cove (who almost never use author anonymity) and as long as the article abides by the Cove Charter (which emphasises respectful debate), and focuses on improving the intellectual component of fighting power rather than questioning policy, then The Cove actively supports a robust contest of ideas. Indeed, having worked closely with The Cove team during my exchange I have not seen a single example of censorship for the sake of parroting the party line or keeping the organisation happy.

With no clear downside to the insider status, but with some clear benefits to being run in-house, Australia take the first test of the series; the foundations of The Cove as a PME organisation are stronger.

The Second Test

With Australia 1 – 0 up in the series, the second test is played on the grounds of 'Who' is tasked in each army to support the PME effort on the ground. Do either of the armies actually have someone who is directly tasked to support this within their organisation, or is PME given as an extra duty to a random smattering of NCO’s and junior officers?

The Aussies won the toss and chose to bat first. As the official PME organisation, The Cove steps up to the crease, but with only four permanent personnel it’s not long before they’re bowled out.  As much as they try, four people can’t be everywhere to deliver PME. The problem for the Australian Army in this second test is there isn’t a huge amount of depth yet, so while they are all out for a positive score with some impressive individual knocks, the team score is lower than they would have liked.

The Brits are up to bat second and here they have an advantage.  While there is not a Cove-esque organisation within the British Army to support general PME (notwithstanding the Centre for Army Leadership for specialised leadership training, although they are also small), there is the 250 strong Educational and Training Services (ETS) based in regional Army Education Centres (AECs) across the country.  These AECs are generally well staffed with Education Officers and civilian staff who also support learning, development and administration. These 'Edjo’s' are able to champion PME within the soldier and officer career courses they teach, as well as support local units with bespoke PME activities.  While cuts in numbers have stopped their ability to be embedded as Unit Education Officers (UEOs), they are able to act as all round educational beacons.

While the Royal Australian Army Educational Corps (RAAEC) provides a similar role, due to smaller numbers, less support within their AECs, and the geographic distribution of the Australian Army, their superb work often has limited reach.  They are working on innovative ways to move beyond these challenges, but as this is the 2019 PME Ashes the UK take this second test in a close-run thing.

The Third Test

With the series tied at the half-way mark, the upcoming tests look at some of the finer points of PME. Firstly, what is the end goal of PME in organisation?  Here the balance is between qualifications (generally the collection of pieces of paper to certify a certain set of skills) and traits based 'soft skills' (such as creativity, curiosity and problem solving).

Both the Australian and British armies are beginning to focus on the development of critical thinking and cognitive agility, but realistically these initiatives are in their infancy.  There are some very interesting ideas coming over the horizon, such as the nascent Australian Army Professional Development Framework, but these aren’t up and running yet. So what are the two armies doing right now?

For the Brits there is a strong connection within the widespread conduct of PME and the collection of qualifications. One of the most frequently undertaken 'PME' activities is to apply for civilian qualifications mapped to military training and education courses that the individual has already done. This scheme is called the Army Skills Offer and has allowed huge numbers of British service personnel to gain leadership and management qualifications to add to their CV that they would otherwise have not had, or would have had to pay huge amounts for. While this is a positive, if PME is supposed to enhance the individual’s ability in the profession of arms, then this doesn’t really met the organisational goals.

The current Australian system of PME also has a heavy focus on academic qualification attainment. Through various funding options, personnel are able to undertake bachelors and masters degrees with a range of universities across a number of subjects. There will be personal growth associated with this, and gaining qualifications is important to supporting the transition out of the Army, but just how far business law modules support a non-law officer in the Army conduct their profession better is debatable.

The resulting drawn test should serve as a warning to both Australian and British armies that while qualifications may be important, 'knowledge without understanding is meaningless'. If PME is going to have a positive effect on the individual’s ability to contribute meaningfully to the profession of arms, and ultimately make their organisation more effective when undertaking operations, it needs to have a better focus on understanding.

The Fourth Test

The series is still tied then as we enter the fourth test. The focus for this match will be: Moving forward and Adapting. We are always told that the operating environment is constantly changing, resulting in the future operating environment being more ambiguous and volatile. It stands to reason, then, that the way PME is conducted should also be ever changing to confront these new challenges. How willing or able are the Australian and British armies to effect change?

Those that are already part of the PME revolution will have been guffawing and tutting at my dismissals so far of the state of PME. 'There’s loads of PME happening' I can hear them mutter, and they’re right. Every year commanders put out reading lists full of war stories ranging from the Great War through to Afghanistan, that include dense academic treatises on the state of global politics, and even maybe some pop-psych like The Chimp Paradox or Thinking, Fast and Slow. If they’re really cool, they might include Legacy about the All Blacks. All good books, all interesting, and all done to death.

There may be cosy 'Fireside Chats' where a senior leader imparts their wisdom on eager ears, owned by junior officers who proceed to forget most of what they were told after the fourth beer that has been put on to tempt them in. Or possibly a unit has put on a 'Leadership' or 'Study' or 'PME/CPD' day, or week, where a couple of speakers have come in and imparted their knowledge before everyone went for a coffee. These are all better than nothing, but are they having that professional acceleration effect? Are they ensuring our people will make better decisions or solve tough problems in ambiguous environments that they can’t train for? I would argue not.

This lethargy affects both the Australian and British armies, but there are exciting exceptions. The new Australian Professional Development Framework will encourage a pull effect from the grassroots towards PME rather than pushing it onto unwilling participants. Similarly, the introduction of Hacking 4 Defence style problem solving into some parts of the British Army will also support that creative process. But these, for now, are still fledgling initiatives. It’s a second draw and the series goes down to the last test.

The Final Test

For this final test the teams will playing on the wicket of ‘participation’. Readership stats and clicks may be one measure of popularity, but that’s not what this wicket is about. Rather the measure is based on those communities that are actively engaged with PME, who are leading the way and taking the fight to those who dismiss it all as just too much cultural change.

Twitter is an easy way to participate and both Australia and the Brits have personnel engaged through this platform from across the ranks and corps. People can highlight resources, like the Tweets of others, and possibly even voice an opinion and have a debate. Twitter is not the ideal platform to judge participation though. The limitation of 280 characters, and the use of endless threads to get a point across, can quickly create a #miltwitter echo-chamber with little or no challenge to preconceived ideas and consequently little development of thought.

So where can this final test be won? At Sandhurst the concept of lead by example is ever-present.  The cap badge reminds all Officer Cadets to 'Serve to Lead'. The L in the Army Leadership code is 'Lead by Example'.  So, you may expect a command structure that Tweets its support of PME to be leading the way in participation too? 

Yet, the establishment of the Wavell Room was initially met with consternation by the hierarchy of the British Army. And I have yet to see a British Army PME blog or video (as oppossed to internal or external messaging) with a senior service person as its author.  There is still no organisation within the British Army dedicated to supporting PME. Having stepped in to bat, the Brits are bowled out quickly.

The Aussies step up to the crease and from the first ball their senior officers lead by example across PME. Their Chief of Army writes personally for The Cove, one of their most prolific writers is a senior RSM, and their Major General’s are live streamed talking candidly about events. Indeed, there are enough senior officers and warrant officers visibly actively participating that you cannot help but feel they are serious about PME and the benefits it provides both individuals and the organisation. This leading by example has had a knock on effect across the Australian Army. Over 25% of all articles published on The Cove in the last 18 months have been written by Other Ranks, from Private soldier through to RSM-Army.

So while the British team Captain tells their players to give it their all, and then takes off their pads and their whites to sit in the stands to see how it unfolds, the Aussie Captain is at the crease demonstrating how it’s done. It’s a big final win for the Australians.

Time for Tea

It’s been a hard fought PME Ashes between two sides who want to improve. That desire needs to be turned to action; changes, however minor, can be made by both the Australian and British armies to continue the PME cultural revolution that has begun. My time here with The Cove has showed me the power that even a very small team can have when there is a genuine dedication to the cause, a desire to consistently improve and the bloody mindedness to push through the barriers that the old culture can still throw up.

The Cove as an organisation, and the individuals working within it, can be seen as an example of where so much of the PME culture is going right and we Brits could do well to learn their lessons.  Equally, the mechanism for bringing that cultural change to the Field Army is critically important, and the UK is lucky to have a branch of dedicated Education Officers with the institutional support to get out to almost all units wherever they are in the world.  We are armies with so much in common that the more we learn from one another the better. For as we saw at Headingley, benchmarking ourselves against friendly competition often serves to raise our people to ever greater things.