Thursday 14 August 2014

World War 1 and the lessons for Knowledge Management

Given the significance of August 2014 as the centenary of the start of World War 1, I have been reading some accounts of the start of the war, and it seems to me that here, writ large across the face of Europe, are some big Knowledge Management lessons for organisations today.

The quoted (inset) text below is taken from the excellent book The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman and from the more recent book Catastrophe - Europe goes to war 1914, by Max Hastings.

I say nothing here about how the war was started, but only point out how what we now might see as failures of knowledge, insight and learning turned what was planned by all sides as a lightning campaign, "Over by Christmas," into a 4-year bloodbath on the muddy killing fields of Europe.  The First World War is an object lesson in many things, including how not to prepare, how not to plan, how not to adapt, and how not to learn.

Don't just "fight the last war"

On every side, the armies of Europe were led by generals and politicians steeped in the past and unwilling to learn new things. A particularly bad example was the Russian Minister of War, Sukhomlinov.
"Having won the cross of Saint George as a dashing young cavalry officer in the war of 1877 against the Turks, Sukhomlinov believed the military knowledge acquired in that campaign was permanent truth.  As Minister of War, he scolded a meeting of staff college instructors for interest in such innovations as a factor of firepower against the sabre, lance and the bayonet charge.  He could not hear the phrase “Modern War”, he said, without a sense of annoyance.  “As war was, so it has remained …  All these things are merely vicious innovations.  Look at me, for instance; I have not read a military manual for the last 25 years”.
However Russian leaders were not alone in such delusions of knowledge. The Germans, too, were still gripped by the theories of the past.
"Dead battles, like dead generals, hold the military mind in their dead grip, and Germans, no less than other peoples, prepared for the last war".
The Austrians had similar blinkered thinkers of their own, such as General Potoriek who
"was a batchelor who had devoted his life monastically to his profession, while remaining ignorant of every aspect of it that was either modern or important".
Yet the First World War turned out to be a war unlike any previous war - a war on massive industrial scale, between massive industrial nations, where firepower was king. It was not "the last war", and every nation was unprepared for what followed.

In Knowledge Management terms we would see Sukhomlinov as the archetypal Knower, rather than a Learner. Knowers believe their personal knowledge to be permanent truth, and will always fight the last war that they won, or were decorated in.  An organisation of Knowers is unprepared for change.

If you are relying on a successful plan, and the context has not changed, then don't tinker with it.

The German plan of campaign was a very bold one. Known as the Schlieffen plan, it involved a massive concentration of force marching on the right wing through Belgium, overwhelming all before it, and taking Paris. Had it been undertaken as Schlieffen planned, then potentially the course of history might have been different. However that plan had become diluted. Von Moltke, the German Chief of Staff,
"was something of a pessimist who lacked Schlieffen’s readiness to concentrate all his strength in one maneuver. If Schlieffen’s motto was ‘Be bold, be bold’ Moltke’s was ‘But not too bold’” …just to be safe everywhere, each year, cutting into Schlieffen’s dying request, he borrowed strength from the right wing to add to the left".
This could be called "tinkering with success" (although Schlieffen's plan was a success only on paper). Von Moltke's tinkering removed crucial strength from the right wing, which otherwise - who knows - might have swept in to rapid victory.

In Knowledge Management terms, if an approach is successful, and the context is the same, the best thing to do is Copy Exactly. Tinkering is almost always wrong - if plans need to be reviewed (see below) this needs to be from the ground up.

Review past knowledge, and past plans, in the context of today

There were several dissenting voices on all sides. Even von Moltke had an inkling that the context had changed, as mentioned above, and that this war would not be quick and simple, like past wars. Von Moltke told the Kaiser
“it will be a national war which will not be settled by a decisive battle but by a long wearisome struggle with a country that will not be overcome until its whole National Force is broken, and a war which will  exhaust our own people, even if we are victorious”.  It went against human nature, however (and the nature of General Staffs) to follow through the logic of his own prophecy.  Amorphous and without limits, the concept of a long war could not be scientifically planned for as could the orthodox, predictable and simple solution of decisive battle and a short war.…. One constant among the elements of 1914, as any other era, was the disposition of everyone on all sides not to prepare for the harder alternative, not to act upon what they suspected to be true".
Von Moltke recognised the changed context, but there was no subsequent review of plans, as this would have been "too difficult".

In Knowledge Management terms, Copy Exactly only works in the identical context.  All knowledge from the past must be reviewed against the context of the day, and adapted to fit or rejected as appropriate. All plans from the past must be rewritten if the context has changed.

Look for, and acknowledge, the "facts that don't fit"

In common with the "fight the last war fallacy, all sides believed in the power of the Offensive. For the French this was not just doctrine - this was culture - the Elan Vital.  Though displays of courage and directness, they believed they could overcome every obstacle. They therefore preferred to attack the centre of the German line in Alsace rather than defend against the right wing in Belgium
"Translated into military terms Bergson's Elan Vital became the Doctrine of the Offensive.  In proportion as a defensive gave way to an offensive strategy, the attention paid to the Belgian frontier gradually gave way in favour of a progressive shift of gravity eastwards towards the point where a French offensive could be launched to break through to the Rhine. … The authors of Plan 17 …  rejected evidence that argued in favour of this laying on the defensive because their hearts and hopes, as well as their training and strategy, were fixed on the offensive".
However the doctrine of the offensive was no longer valid. The second Boer war, and the battle of Magersfontein in particular, had already introduced the now-familiar elements of trench warfare, camouflage uniforms and automated weapons, which meant that well-dug-in defensive troops had a massive advantage. And yet the French, in defiance of this evidence, persisted in believing that attacking on horses, with bright uniforms and sabres, would win the day.

Every review of every doctrine has to look for the new evidence, has to look at the newest experience, and has to listen to the dissenting voices, in order to avoid the problem of the "Knowledge Bubble". Doctrine and "Best Practice" is only of value if it is reviewed and updated against the most recent experience, pehaps through the use of Peer Assist, or Devil's Advocates.

In any large initiative, make sure you can adapt quickly

The Schlieffen plan was intricate and exhaustive. Everything was planned out by the day, the hour and the railway-carriage. Therefore what it did not have was flexibility.
"The plan of campaign was as rigid and complete as the blueprint for a battleship.  The Germans with infinite care had attempted to provide for every contingency.  Their staff officers, trained at manoeuvres and at war college desks to supply the correct solution for any given set of circumstances, were expected to cope with the unexpected.  Against that elusive, that mocking and perilous quantity, every precaution had been taken except one - flexibility".
The flexibility was tested on the first day. A telegram from the German Ambassador gave the Kaiser last-minute hope (possibly ill-founded) that if the Schlieffen plan was halted, the neutral countries not invaded, and German troops diverted to the Russian front, European was might be averted.
"The Kaiser …. read Motlke the telegram and said in triumph “now we can go to war against Russia only.  We simply march the whole of our army to the east”.  Aghast at the thought of his marvellous machinery of mobilisation wrenched into reverse, Moltke refused point blank. “Your majesty” Moltke said to him “it cannot be done.  The deployment of millions cannot be improvised.  Those arrangements took a whole year of intricate labour to complete” and Moltke closed upon that rigid saying, the basis for every major German mistake …  the inevitable phrase when military plans dictate policy “and once settled it cannot be altered”.
The rest, as they say, is history. 

The Schlieffen plan outran its communications and logistics and, pursuing French troops southwards, diverted from the path to Paris, exposed a long flank through Belgium. The Doctrine of the Offensive foundered against well-emplaced troops with machine guns. Every advance ground to a halt, and the armies of Europe reached stalemate as trench matched trench from Switzerland to the North Sea.

Plans cannot be worked out completely in advance - they must be flexible to new knowledge. In KM terms, your projects need to have learning built into them to allow them to adapt and improve.

Learn as you go

After Christmas 2014, the First World War therefore became a learning race, as each of the combatant armies struggled to learn how to break the stalemate. Unfortunately none of them was an effective learning organisation.

The generals, who controlled the doctrine and the plans of attack, had poor communications with the front line and knew little of the true conditions.  Technical innovations such as steel helmets, barbed wire and hand grenades merely reinforced the stalemate, and military doctrine was revised only slowly, often with a reluctance to let go of the past. See for example this quote on General Haig, which reflects the general presumption that old tactics would win out and old knowledge would survive:
Still a cavalry man at heart, he believed the machine gun to be a ‘much over rated weapon’. It is one of the criticisms levelled at Haig – that he was adverse to new technology. The evidence is contradictory. Almost a decade after the war, Haig still believed in the use of cavalry: ‘I believe that the value of the horse and the opportunity for the horse in the future are likely to be as great as ever. Aeroplanes and tanks are only accessories to the men and the horse, and I feel sure that as time goes on you will find just as much use for the horse—the well-bred horse—as you have ever done in the past.’
A new German doctrine - “Instructions for the Employment of an Assault Battalion” - did not emerge until 1916, arising from a combination of their observations of the battles in 1914 and 1915. A new British infantry training manual was issued in February 1917, and gave greater authority to the platoon or company commander regarding the movement and deployment of the soldiers in their platoon or company, thus allowing a level of flexibility and on-the ground learning. No longer did the frontline commanders need to rely on a grand inflexible plan developed from afar - they could use their initiative. The combination of these new tactics and the new technology of the Tank finally broke the stalemate, together with the arrival of fresh troops from the USA after 1917.

The lesson for Knowledge Management is clear. Organisations struggling with opponents or competition must learn, and must learn faster than their competition (see here for a story of rapid learning in World War 2). Innovations will come both in technology and in practice and process, and in each case the people on the frontline have the most knowledge of what is needed. If you rely on evolution of doctrine from afar (from Head Office for example) progress will be slow, and First Learner Advantage may go to the competition.

Contact Knoco for help in becoming a rapid learning organisation, with tools, tips and ideas drawn from all sectors of industry, including current (and far more adaptive!) military practice .


#365Reading said...

Excellent article - thank you!

Rahul Pandey said...

Nice site with great information on world war

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