Staff Functions

The Person with the Spreadsheet

By Sam Baumgarten September 2, 2021


Introduction

The divine spark that underpins all imaginative military action has the reductionist tyranny of simple and un-inspiring lists as its antithesis – usually communicated by spreadsheet. This paper is about contrasts and aimed at all who plan military training and operations. Army is set to benefit from substantial organisational enhancement over the next 10-20 years. This carries significant risk, and the greatest of them all is the person wielding the spreadsheet. The aim of this paper is to demonstrate the problem of becoming fixated on relatively easy to measure training outcomes at the expense of true readiness. This fixation on lists was identified in The Ryan Review and has as one antidote - Professional Military Education (PME). True professional mastery will require novel solutions in an era where operating budgets are likely to remain relatively constrained. I propose an unusual alternative, but one that may be in keeping with the themes of some of the key documents on Australian military preparedness.

Who is the person with the spreadsheet?

The person with the spreadsheet is they who seek to reduce military preparedness and professional mastery to a schedule of figures and objective conclusions. All who plan training can envisage that ominous arrival over their sub-unit of a schedule in spreadsheet form substituting innovation with banal lists. The person with the spreadsheet robs Army of inspiration, appearing like a pall to block the sunlight and replace innovative training with drab, repetitious baseline competencies or governance. Spreadsheet management is familiar and comforting to military personnel: all soldiers commence their duty with an entry against their name on a roll book. They may then complete a basic fitness assessment (BFA) or physical employment standards assessment (PESA). Meanwhile their staff officers seek to reduce all of their logistic, operational and intelligence planning to a bewildering array of tables and graphs. But what is familiar to a military force also makes it predictable. A soldier’s obligation does not conclude with their entry into a roll-book. The BFA and PESA is a baseline, and the staff officer’s tables will ultimately be a reference point for change. The personification of the person with the spreadsheet is potentially ‘Bob and Bob’, the two-man razor gang in the Mike Judge film Office Space. They hold the personality and culture of the software firm Initech in contempt. A feature of the movie is a satirical perspective of many of the data contradictions of late 1990s software and office culture. But numbers become a form of torment with ‘Bob and Bob’ as they seek to eliminate staff based on obtuse interpretations of productivity and superficial and condescending interviews.

How does the person with the spreadsheet torment us?

Spreadsheet management at its worst is the creation of perceptions. One of these perceptions is prediction of the next conflict. Sir Lawrence Freedman observed the trend to apply an analytical, predictive method to the study of armed conflict in his book The Future of War. He noted: “The scientific ambition depended on reliable, objective evidence on war. Collecting and interpreting this evidence was by no means straightforward. Just because numbers were involved did not make a statement more correct than one expressed in a more literary form, and there was a danger that spurious statistics could gain currency and even influence policy.”[1] The predictive nature of conflict preparation manifests itself in the concepts of contingency and preparedness. ADDP 00.2 – Preparedness and Mobilisation states, “While the generic contingencies have an historical basis, they are not meant to be predictive or prescriptive.”[2] Preparedness is the ultimate purpose of Army’s training and it is uniquely vulnerable to reduction to objective analysis.

Why is the person with the spreadsheet currently a problem?

The Australian Army’s pace of change over the next twenty years will increase substantially. The Defence Strategic Update 2020 details a plan to replace almost all major capabilities within the next ten years whilst simultaneously growing a number of new ones.[3] Army has ongoing experience of change, the recent introduction of the combat behaviours and new personal weapons and communications equipment has provided a sample of the disruptive effect of new capabilities. Simply meeting the conditions of raw data will not give Army the operational advantage. The Ryan Review examined some of the prevailing issues with Army’s training and education continuum. It was critical of the pervasiveness of Recognised Training Organisation requirements and civilian-style training methodologies.[4] Of particular note was an observation that competency-based training was occurring at the expense of more valuable cognitive based skills.[5] Further, the design of employment specifications is often divorced from workplace performance requirements.[6] Each of these training systems is demonstrative of a proscriptive training process divorced from the cognitive development denoted by the parallel process of education. This is emblematic of the implicit tension between measurable training outcomes and the intangible utility of PME. The Ryan Review was critical of the superficiality of some current PME efforts, noting, “the erosion of professional military education as an individual and command responsibility.”[7] PME is the opposite of proscriptive, top-down training promulgated by spreadsheet. It is best generated within units and its spark is the creative impetus of the unit’s individual members. Ideally it is not measured but demonstrated in outcomes of professionalism such as innovative ideas and tactical and operational prowess. PME is popular and enjoyable at its best, seamlessly integrating the training program into an associated social agenda. It also builds mutual confidence between teacher and student, who learn more about one another.

How can we do better than the person with the spreadsheet?

If PME is the opposite of proscriptive directed training, then ‘Bob and Bob’ have their own opposite. Field Marshall Archibald Wavell described a character who demonstrated this contrast amidst a preparedness program in the Punjab in the early Twentieth Century. The 2nd Battalion – The Black Watch – was a happy, social unit whose tone was set by their Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Henry ‘Chumpy’ Maxwell DSO[8]: “a fat, heavy man, barely mobile. He was shrewd, pleasant, witty, no bad judge of men, an able and impartial dispenser of justice, clever with his tongue or pen. But as a trainer of a battalion for war or a tactical leader, he was an anachronism.”[9] On Wavell informing his CO that he intended to apply for Staff College, Chumpy stated: “Very good idea. Excellent idea. Never went to the Staff College myself, but I’m sure it’s a good thing.”[10] Chumpy held the military preparedness schedule instituted by Kitchener in special contempt. Wavell, then a Lieutenant, was provided an opportunity to support his CO when the assessing general perceived correctly that the Black Watch had not conducted an advance correctly and Chumpy was lying. To Wavell: “A General meant nothing to him, but his own CO meant a good deal. Without hesitation he supported Chumpy’s statement.”[11] Bidden to his CO the next day he was told, “I was pleased, boy, with the way you spoke out at that conference. Never be afraid of Generals and always tell the truth, and you’ll get on. If you should want ten days’ shooting leave at Christmas, I’m sure the Adjutant will approve it.”[12] The battalion performed poorly in all of its assessments throughout Chumpy’s tenure. His popularity remained intact.

Chumpy was not dismissive of knowledge or process but drew a perverse pleasure in taking the easiest path, often by cheating. Chumpy for all of his faults understood that the true essence of training and preparedness lay not in tangible assessments but in the culture and enthusiasm of his own military organisation. Importantly, Chumpy understood that the key to this was unit culture. This was embodied by loyalty, selflessness and the willingness to reward positive behaviours. Further, the adoption of subversive conduct was demonstrative of ‘grey-zone behaviours’, a trend for which the ADF has been directed to develop responses in the Defence Strategic Update.[13] Finally, Chumpy eschewed careerism and self-promotion. Wavell himself would command the military forces that undertook Operation Compass in 1940-1941. Those forces were the opposite of Army in Motion; devoid of modern equipment, its scales of issue did not even meet the standards of the last World War. They had undertaken minimal collective training and were a hodgepodge of national considerations. But they were almost all volunteers, motivated and benefiting from the unique training solutions developed by their own organisation.

Conclusion

Data and standards have a role in training, and it would be folly to embark on military preparation without these benchmarks. However, professional mastery requires innovation and imagination that can only be harnessed when a unit seeks to build upon their benchmarks. Perhaps ‘Bob and Bob’ and ‘Chumpy’ could be reconciled and find some common ground. The Ryan Review determined that the balance is too far in favour of the person with the spreadsheet and not far enough towards the creativity of PME. The Australian Army must build upon its PME and its unique characters if it is to be more than a catalogue of expensive equipment.

End Notes

[1] Sir Lawrence Freedman, The Future of War, (Penguin Random House UK, 2017), p 114.
[2] Australian Defence Doctrine Publication 00.2 – Preparedness and Mobilisation, (Defence Publishing Service, 2013), 1.6
[3] Department of Defence, 2020 Defence Strategic Update, p 39; Department of Defence, 2020 Force Structure Plan, Chapter Seven: Available at <2020 Defence Strategic Update & 2020 Force Structure Plan | About | Strategy & Policy | Department of Defence>
[4] Brigadier Mick Ryan, The Ryan Review – A study of Army’s education, training and doctrine needs for the future, (Commonwealth of Australia, 2016), pp 74 – 75.
[5] The Ryan Review, p 53.
[6] The Ryan Review, p 32.
[7] The Ryan Review, p 46
[8] There is frustratingly little information on ‘Chumpy.’ He subsequently served as High Sheriff for County Cavan in 1909, at which time he was domiciled to his family estate at Arley, Mountnugent. This property was purchased by Will Ferrell in October 2018 - <Will Ferrell buys stunning 400-year-old lakeside home in rural Ireland | The Irish Post>. He served in the First World War and died in 1919.
[9] John Connell, Wavell, (Collins, London, 1964), p 46.
[10] Connell, Wavell, p 56.
[11] Connell, Wavell, p 50.
[12] Connell, Wavell, p 51.
[13] Defence Strategic Update, p 25.


Portrait

Biography

Sam Baumgarten

MAJ

Major Sam Baumgarten is an infantry officer who has served in a diverse array of units in both the ARA and Army Reserve. He is currently attending the Canadian Forces College distance learning program. He is a lawyer for the NSW Government when he is not wearing green.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.



Comments

Spreadsheets are not just for displaying or capturing data - that is a table. Spreadsheets are very useful mathematical tools for analysing and manipulating data.

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