Organizational Learning is alive and well in the military services . . . And we must keep up the momentum!

Authored by Daniel T. Murphy


Organizational learning was the management flavor of the decade in the early 1990s. Companies in every industry jumped on the bandwagon, especially when, in 1990, Peter Senge published his book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (Senge, 1990). Senge was on the bookshelf of nearly every large company C-level executive in the United States, as well many executives abroad. Hundreds of management consultants were kept busy helping those business leaders build learning organizations. I was one of those consultants, and I met Senge twice during those years. The military services and government agencies were no exception to the fad. Like they had done with Total Quality Management (TQM) and every previous management fad, admirals, generals and civilian government leaders also jumped on the bandwagon. A literature review will show that every military organization and nearly every government agency has claimed, at one time or another, to be a learning organization or a learning organization under development.

Revisiting Senge

To start, let’s review Senge’s perspective on organizational learning. Senge suggested organizational learning occurs when “people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.” (Senge, 1990, p.1). A learning organization is built on the five disciplines of systems thinking, team learning, shared vision, mental models, and personal mastery. Here is how I recently described Senge’s five principles to Navy leadership:

Systems Thinking: Systems thinking means, in part, shifting away from having a primarily vertical/functional (e.g., accounting department, marketing department, etc.) view of an organization, and transitioning towards a more horizontal/process-focused view. The Navy practices systems thinking on a daily basis. Aircraft carrier flight operations are a good example. As soon as a carrier at sea announces flight quarters, officers and sailors in every functional workgroup suddenly begin to focus less on their vertical functional area, and more on the horizontal process of launching, operating and recovering aircraft. Organizations large and small could actually learn quite a bit about customer-supplier relationships, process mapping, process measurement, and continuous improvement by watching how an aircraft carrier practices Senge’s principle of systems thinking.

Shared Vision: One could argue that there is no large organization in the world that executes the concept of shared vision as well as a U.S. military organization. Vision starts at the top of the national command authority with The United States National Security Strategy (2010), which lays out broad direction. The U.S. National Defense Strategy (2008) cascades that broad direction in greater detail to the Department of Defense. The National Military Strategy (2011) cascades that direction with even greater detail specifically to the military services. With specific reference to the Navy, the Chief of Naval Operations’ (CNO’s) Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power (2007) cascades it yet further. Fleet commanders then use that document to develop their own regional strategies. A destroyer squadron staff then uses the fleet command strategy to do the same at the squadron level. The commanding officer of a ship uses that strategy to develop her/his standing orders. Each division and workgroup on the ship then does the same. As described in his 2002 book, It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy, Captain Michael Abrashoff describes how modern military leaders solicit and incorporate ideas from the most junior crewmembers. Does the cascading of vision and strategy sometimes break down? Yes. Do ideas and feedback sometimes fail to flow up the chain of command, rather than downward? Yes, of course. However, no other industry has mechanized the process of a cascaded vision and strategy like the military services.

Personal Mastery, Team Learning and Mental Models: Organizational theorists such as Edgar Schein (1984) and others have suggested that an organization’s ingrained beliefs and norms can be at least partially purposefully created through the development of a common language, rituals and other cultural artifacts. Again, aircraft carrier operations are a perfect example of that. And, since all western air force and naval air squadrons tend to work in similar ways, I will turn for a moment to the French Air Force as an example, and specifically to the “ritual” of the aviators’ debriefing session.

A study by Gode and Barbaroux (2012) demonstrated that military aviators’ focus on error detection and correction is based on a highly internalized and ritualized mode of organizational learning. Aviators observe the errors of others, and use that information to help correct their own performance. Aircrews then have reflexive conversation to find appropriate remedies, and to voice accountability for their own mistakes. Every participant is involved in a deep and constructive post-flight review. The post-flight review is highly data-based, and relies on flight data recording and analysis technologies. The aviators intertwine the objective of becoming personally masterful with team learning in a collaborative/reflexive mental model that is manifested in the flight debrief.

Argyris’s Double-Loop Learning: Another organizational learning thought leader, Chris Argyris (1977) would suggest that the reflection or reflexivity is the key. And there is no better example of Argyris’s ideas at play than in the way the Naval War College has conducted war games for more than a century. War gamers assign blue players (U.S. and allies), green players (neutrals), red players (adversaries) and black players (referees) to play out a fictional scenario of a conflict or humanitarian response in a particular region of the world. More important than the moves of the game is the “hotwash” that happens after the game. In the hotwash, the players work collaboratively to understand “what did we learn” in the game. Argyris calls this single loop learning. The players also reflect ask “what did we learn about how we learn?” which is Argyris’s second learning loop. Senge, Argyris and multiple organizational learning theorists argue that it is that second learning loop that drives an organization’s competitive advantage through innovation ability. They might also argue that the second loop is what enables U.S. military forces, not only to reflexively ask what are we learning about how we are learning on the battle field, but also what are we learning about our strategic objectives in the world.

But the Learning Organization was a 1990s fad, correct? And, like most companies in the private sector, the military services have gone on to the next management technique du jour, right? Wrong. If there is one trendy thing in the military services that is absolutely not just a trendy thing, it is organizational learning. First of all, consider the Navy examples described above – All examples of organizational learning at play in today’s 2017 Navy. The Navy is absolutely a tried-and-true learning organization.

Organizational Learning in the Army

Let’s continue the discussion by turning for a moment to the U.S. Army. Perhaps the most often cited (Baird et al., 1997, 1999; Darling and Parry 2001; and Brock et al., 2009) example of organizational learning in a military service is the Army’s after-action review (AAR) process. AAR is a four-step process that is completed at the end of an operation or exercise: (a) Review operational intentions, (b) Analyze actions and consequences, (c) Capture lessons learned and implications for future actions, and (d) Apply the lessons learned. AAR was developed by the Army’s Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL). CALL was created in 1985 and expanded through the 1990s and beyond to collect operational lessons learned that could be incorporated into Army training programs. CALL is also charged to explore the impacts of virtual reality, simulation technologies and other technology innovations, and to observe and learn from actual combat operations. CALL’s impact on Army organizational learning has been documented by multiple scholars, including Margaret and Wheatley (1994), Gerras (2002), Williams (2007), and DiBella (2010).

In fact, the Army’s brand of organizational learning has been emulated by other military organizations. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) created a CALL during the 2006 conflict with Lebanon. The IDF CALL was specifically created to capture lessons learned by IDF troops during combat operations, and share those learnings with units preparing to deploy. The IDF CALL sought specifically to enhance individual and team reflection and learning from mistakes made in the field in a non-punitive spirit of innovation (Marcus, 2014).

Another U.S. Army example is the development of the Rhino Convoy Protection Device. Throughout 2003, U.S. casualties from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq and Afghanistan were significantly increasing. While pressure certainly mounted on the White House and the Pentagon to do something, it was the soldiers on the ground who were most impacted by the problem. When leadership failed to respond fast enough, the ground troops developed their own makeshift solutions. Specifically, they began constructing homemade electronic devices from kitchen toasters and other household electronic appliances, and mounting those devices on extension poles attached to the front of their Humvees. The devices caused IEDs to blow up in front of the Humvee, rather than under the Humvee, and they helped to significantly reduce casualties. The Pentagon used those makeshift devices as inspiration to develop the Rhino device, which could be factory-produced in quantity and distributed across the brigades and battalions.

So, why is the Rhino device a big deal from an organizational learning perspective? For an answer, let’s turn for a moment to another organizational theorist named James March. March (1991) studied the difficulties that organizations face when trying to strike a balance between exploitative organizational learning and explorative organizational learning. Simply said, some organizations compete in the marketplace by being effective at incremental change. Financial services companies are a good example. They rarely make breakthrough changes in products and services. Rather, they become successful at learning what the market wants and needs, learning their own product and service delivery capabilities, and closing capability gaps faster than their competitors. Other companies compete through exploration. Pandora, Spotify, and Uber are good examples. These companies focused their energy on learning about unmet cultural-societal needs, and developed products to meet those needs. And some companies are especially good at balancing their exploitative and exploratory learning capabilities. 3M is an oft-cited example as evidenced in their balanced portfolio of breakthrough and annuity products. March might argue that the Army achieves its exploitative versus exploratory learning balance in a unique way. In the case of the Rhino device, ground-level exploratory learning was the creator of a breakthrough product that ultimately saved hundreds, and possibly thousands of lives. However, that breakthrough product developed by the ground troops would never have been able to be mass produced and distributed organization-wide if not for the exploitative capability of the Pentagon.

SIDEBAR STUDY: Organization Structural Fluidity as an Element of Organizational Learning

Manigart (2003) studied organizational structural fluidity as an example of organizational learning and as an operational advantage in the U.S. military. When U.S. military services need to act, whether that action is a combat operation or humanitarian relief operation, or something in-between, organizational structures flex to meet the requirement. Those structures continue to flex as the needs of the operation become better known. For example, when the Air Force needed to align and synchronize air operations between multiple military services and multiple countries to support concurrent operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, they created the 379th Air Wing, which has evolved in structure as the requirements for the two conflicts have also evolved. Similarly, to respond to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the president directed U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) to create a Joint Task Force (JTF) with a dedicated command structure and forces reassigned from multiple military services and government agencies from multiple countries. The JTF concept was developed specifically to be able to flex to a situation in the world based on lessons learned from previous similar experiences, and from standing operational plans (OPLANS) developed based on those lessons learned.

Organizational Learning in World War I

Not only is organizational learning alive and well in the U.S. military services, we see it every day in our western military allies as well. We have already looked at the French Air Force. Let’s stick with both Senge and March for another moment, and look back to the First World War. March’s exploitative versus exploratory learning can be seen in action in the German and British armies. According to Foley (2014), the British army relied on innovative technology-based solutions to solve battle problems (March’s exploration-based organization learning). The German army relied on incremental and tactical battlefield solutions (March’s exploitation-based organizational learning). So, why is that?

Prior to the war, the British Army had 11,000 officers on active duty, and 13,000 on the reserve lists. Most were lightly trained amateurs who served for a period of years when conflicts arose. What’s worse is that the original British Expeditionary Force (BEF) that deployed to the Western Front in 1914 lost 3,627 officers and more than 86,000 soldiers during its first year of combat operations. The result was a significant knowledge drain. On the positive side, because British officers were mostly part-timers, they regularly brought knowledge from the outside into the organization. That was especially true regarding the replacement officers who came to the organization after the losses in 1914.

In contrast, the German army had 120,000 officers, plus Reserves. German officers were professional career officers, with a highly structured and extensive reporting system allowed trends in adaptation to be discerned, combined, improved and exploited.

Looking at the opposing armies’ tactics through March’s lens, the highly sophisticated German trench warfare system is an example of exploitation-based organizational learning. In contrast, the BEF, lacking the same internal infrastructure of the German army, relied on a more fluid exchange of ideas with the external private-sector, enabling the development of technological breakthroughs for battlefield advantage. The BEF’s exploration-based organizational learning advantage resulted in the development of the Stokes mortar, aircraft radios, microphones for sound ranging of enemy artillery, and most importantly the battlefield tank.

Concluding Thoughts: Organizational Learning by Our Adversaries

Evan Ellis (1999) suggested that organizational learning is a new and only form of competitive advantage between military adversaries. According to Ellis, in a military conflict, whichever side can more quickly understand, revise, or reverse expectations regarding what works versus what does not work will gain some degree of competitive advantage over their adversary. Every U.S. adversary seems to have figured this out over the years, and some with a high level of sophistication. Somalian pirates operating along the Horn of Africa and in the Gulf of Aden are a good example. Piracy incidents were increasing exponentially through the early 2000s. Western coalition forces and shipping companies tried new tactics such as increasing speed through high risk shipping lanes. The pirates quickly adjusted their tactics by adding a second engine to their attack craft. As shipping companies shifted their transit routes far offshore, the pirates began operating mother ships to extend their own range offshore – all the way to India, in fact (Efforts to Combat Piracy, 2013).

The Somalian pirates, Al Qaeda, ISIS, Al Shabaab, Al Nusra, the drug cartels, the FARC, etc., have all figured out that their ability to fight against the U.S. and other western countries is dependent on their ability to innovate faster than their adversary. When western forces learned how to defend themselves against IEDs, our adversaries adapted new tactics. When U.S. forces killed the leader of Al Qaeda and learned how to interrupt the organization’s highly centralized command and control system, Al Qaeda practiced its own form of structural fluidity (see sidebar), and began operating with a more decentralized command structure. As coalition forces disrupted a large percentage of narcotics trafficked through the Caribbean in the 1990s, the cartels shifted their tactics to rely more on land-based trafficking. And notably, a good number of cartel leaders have attended top U.S. and European business schools, and likely have been exposed to Senge and other organizational learning thought leaders.

Organizational learning is alive and well in the U.S. military services, and in the services of many of our allies. Yet, in today’s complex and uncertain worldwide security environment, there has never been a more important time for a renewed emphasis on organizational learning. The reason is rather simple. Our adversaries know that they cannot defeat us via conventional means. As a result, they have opted to fight unconventionally and asymmetrically. In other words, organizational learning is very much alive and well amongst our adversaries. We will do well to remember that.



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