A Response to: Two Birds with One StoneBy Chris Bulow May 27, 2019
Recently on The Cove, an article was published under the title Two Bird with One Stone by Richard Morgan. The purpose of this piece is to write in response to some of the points raised.
Before getting to the content though, it should be said that the piece itself was well written and passionate in advocating for a more deliberate approach to soldier professional military education (PME). The article clearly laid out where the current PME thrust originated, how it is currently manifested and where the author thinks it ought to go in the future to be most effective. The result was an article that was consistent in its scope and achieved its aim of identifying and improving unit PME goals and opportunities for the purpose of developing and extending individual soldiers’ professional mastery.
Despite this, there are some elements that I believe should be challenged or teased out in more detail. Primarily these concern:
- Explicitly and tightly linking individual PME activities to the requirements of the soldier’s current role and by extension to their current unit’s activities.
- Explicitly and tightly linking individual career progression to PME outcomes through the PAC and PAR processes.
The issue is one of scope and scale. By tightly linking individual career progression to PME outcomes and individual PME activities to issues that are tightly focused on the soldier’s current role and unit we will be incentivising short term thinking. An additional risk is that people take the safe path and shy away from tackling the big issues for fear of adverse PAR and/or PAC reporting.
In my view, one of the great strengths of the current PME environment is that it provides a safe space in which national security professionals (soldiers, officers, public servants, academics, etc) can take on the big issues free from the constraints of rank based sensitivities (as long as it is done respectfully). The result is that it provides a viable avenue for people to follow their professional curiosity to wherever it takes them within the national security space. Subsequently we achieve a greater degree of diversity of thought and are able to connect good ideas to the right people bypassing the usual organisational inertia. People should have the freedom to explore topics that are beyond the scope of their day to day role, as this is how we leverage intellectual networks for greatest effect and truly develop the intellectual edge that our PME effort aspires to. Rank doesn’t hold a monopoly on good ideas.
A good example of this can be found in the Good Ideas Expo, conducted by the 1st Brigade in Darwin in 2017. One of the winning ideas from that year was a concept for disposable, tear off underwear to help enhance personal hygiene in the field. It was entered by a JNCO from the brigade intelligence cell. This is an example of a great idea that was neither directly related to the soldier’s daily work, nor did it support the daily work of her immediate workplace. It also didn’t enhance her job competence in her current role. None of those concerns detracted from the validity of the idea.
On a more practical note as an assessing officer, particularly for SNCO’s and Warrant Officers, allowing more freedom to explore topics that are not directly related to the day to day business of the unit can provide a useful measure of a member’s assessed attributes (such as strategic outlook) along with additional points of differentiation from their peers. For more junior soldiers, early exposure to broader national security issues can help begin preparing them intellectually for future roles at higher ranks.
The topics that individuals choose to explore can provide valuable insights into their values and interests, which can enable more informed chain of command engagement. While there does need to be a balance between immediacy of topics covered, as long as the work is demonstrably relevant to national security issues, people should be free to choose their own path. This is especially true if we expect people to undertake PME outside of core hours and to engage with it meaningfully.
That said Richard correctly identifies the need for a standardised approach to accounting for professional development work undertaken, as this is a key feature of any true profession. He also does a good job of identifying key areas of immediate (unit level) relevance to be addressed. These topics should form part of a balanced PME program but they shouldn’t constrain an individual’s ability to explore other things. There needs to be a balance.
So to that end, I’d close by reiterating that while “Two Birds, One Stone” was a well written and passionate articulation of a more structured PME framework, with many good points and some useful templates for tracking PME progress, in my view we need to ensure that we do not stifle the contest of ideas by heavily legislating what people must do. The optimal solution is inevitably a compromise between addressing things of immediate utility and supporting professional curiosity to explore broader issues. Any policy we put in place to govern people’s PME experiences needs to support both streams and it needs to be applicable to everyone regardless of rank.