Acquisition professional education could be more like the rigorous, hands-on rotations at the Army’s combat training centers. Here’s how.
by Dr. Charles K. Pickar
Tiger Woods made a comeback and won the Masters Tournament in April. The U.S. women’s national soccer team won the World Cup this year as well—for the fourth time. Now think about these champions and how they got to the winner’s circle. It wasn’t by reading a book or being lectured to in a classroom on the finer points of choosing the right club or heading a ball into the goal. Instead, they spent a lot of time on the golf course and the soccer field in relentless practice.
Playing the game—experiencing what works and what doesn’t—is the most effective way to succeed, not to mention the most fun. This is experiential learning: education through firsthand experience. And its importance goes way beyond sports.
The Army is the premier land force in the world, in no small part because of the way it trains for war. Our warfighting brethren use a mix of education and training with capstone exercises built on the Combat Training Center experience, defined by a controlled and simulated environment. This active learning is represented by tactical unit rotations at the National Training Center, and for divisions and above by the Mission Command Training Program. Experiential learning prepares us to deal with new situations, doing and then translating the doing into knowledge.
The Army Acquisition Workforce spends significant time learning its trade, whether in the classroom or online, training or pursuing formal degrees. Firsthand experience from opportunities like Training with Industry notwithstanding, the workforce learns through passive methods, for the most part. It is no exaggeration to say that passive learning is like listening to someone read from PowerPoint slides; it has limited utility in preparing acquisition officers to deal with the challenges of today’s complex weapon system acquisition programs.
Dealing with complexity, whether it means contracts with thousands of pages, congressional staffers’ questions on budget details or the technological detail of our systems, simply cannot be taught in a classroom. In the Army, we tend to teach Soldiers to deal with complexity using the sink-or-swim method known as OJT—on-the-job training. OJT works, but it isn’t the most effective way to learn, is rarely efficient and almost always has hidden costs. In a realistic environment, experiential learning is effective and efficient, offering an immediate payoff.
The Army trains division and corps staffs through the Mission Command Training Program. This isn’t a physical center like the National Training Center, although the command posts do deploy to the field. Instead, commanders and staffs do battle in a simulated environment on a virtual battlefield located in a simulation center. Shortly after graduating from the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, I was assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division as a plans officer. 1st Cav was scheduled for a warfighter exercise the year I arrived. As the plans officer, I engaged with the operations staff and commanders and reacted to enemy and friendly fire and maneuver. It was an eye-opening opportunity to experience how a division commander and staff interact, make decisions and win. No plan survives first contact, but experiencing the execution of a plan, even simulated, builds confidence and, above all, learning.
AN EXERCISE IN ACQUISITION
Experiential learning can make a difference in the education and training of our acquisition warriors. An Army acquisition exercise using the Army’s proven “learning by doing” approach would provide an experience similar to a National Training Center rotation. Such an exercise would be cross-functional, focused on providing Army program managers and staffs—acquisition leadership teams—with the executive, managerial, teaming and technical skills necessary for success in managing complex acquisitions.
Think of this as taking a systems approach to acquisition education, the same approach the Army has been using for training since World War II. A system in this case is a set of interrelated and interdependent events, with inputs that lead to outputs through processes. The system operates under constraints and rules that are applied by a mechanism, usually people. A systems approach recognizes the causes and effects, or feedback loops, of our interactions with our environment.
The three core pieces of this proposed systems approach to acquisition education are acquisition leadership, which represents the system mechanism; experiential learning, providing the system process; and a third factor, collaborative analysis, a kind of war-gaming, which provides the inputs and captures the outputs. The foundation of this approach is a simulated but realistic environment where acquisition leaders can experience and learn from both success and failure before actually managing a weapon system development.
The complexity of technology and project management forces people to specialize. The benefit of specialization is that we have dedicated experts in management, systems engineering, contracting, finance and other fields. The downside is that we have fewer people with broader backgrounds who can make sense of the bigger picture. Given the technical and managerial scope of acquisition programs today, no one person, the program manager (PM) included, has all the knowledge and information to make effective decisions on their own.
The Army embraces teams because it is built on teams—infantry, armor, artillery, etc.—that fight together, from fire team to corps. So it is with the teams that manage weapon system programs. Teams are central to the successful execution of Army operations, in both combat and acquisition. To accomplish the overall mission as well as individually assigned tasks, teams must train to work together and communicate effectively.
In the Army acquisition culture, the focus currently is on the PM—the individual—as the primary decision-maker in weapon system development. While it is true that regulations specify that the PM is in charge, PMs manage complex system development as leaders of a team, not as individuals. How the team works together, the way it perceives problems and the solutions it devises are central to the success of any weapon system development project.
As a new contractor PM, I was confident in my skills—too confident, as it turned out. My mentor had told me, “Find a leadership team, and keep it.” For my first two programs, I was able to do just that. I built a strong team, and I successfully completed two small programs.
During the execution of my third program, an international contract, I lost my best engineer and program controller to a higher priority. I received substitutes, but in the space of three weeks, I got into trouble. Some government-provided equipment didn’t show up and I didn’t know about it. In addition, I was blindsided by a designated subcontractor that installed the wrong electrical specs for a command building—all because we hadn’t become a team. We had never worked together; therefore, we did not know how one another worked, nor did we trust one another. That lack of learning and the trust that grows out of it, simple as it is, was enough to prevent us from communicating effectively.
I learned two lessons from this experience. First was an appreciation of the importance of program leadership teams. Sure, I knew this from the Army, but this time it hit hard with consequences. The second lesson was to make sure I communicated with my leadership team and insisted on the importance of collaboration. The systems approach proposed here not only would foster familiarity; it would also provide insight into the ways each team member thinks.
The Army is the world leader in establishing, educating and employing teams, but we are not taking advantage of that expertise and training knowledge, particularly in experiential learning, by using it to educate the Acquisition Corps.
Today we educate and train PMs, systems engineers, contracting officers and budget specialists separately. This approach is logical because each discipline has its own knowledge and educational principles. However, no educational or training environment exists to take these talented specialists and mold them into a functioning team. The emphasis is still on preparing the individuals.
As a seasoned Navy captain once told me during a conversation about the qualifications of a particular officer nominated for a job in our command, “The Navy assigns officers to a role because they know they will be successful.” No surprise there, nor is the observation unique to the Navy. However, this line of thinking begs the question of whether simply assigning officers or senior civilians to acquisition leadership roles is enough to ensure project success. Training for the sake of training is not in anyone’s interest, but neither is simply assigning competent individuals, putting them together and expecting them to excel as a unit. This is where experiential learning can be so valuable.
Experiential learning is ambiguous and at times uncomfortable. It places us in situations where we must make decisions with significant uncertainty. Experiential learning also provides the ability to stop, to think about what you did or said and how you responded—an important part of learning. This kind of learning also affords the participants the ability to unlearn skills, decision-making processes and ultimately the way one sees the world and the way it operates. And the best part is that the decisions made, and their consequences, won’t cost time or money.
No tactical commander would deploy teams without first giving them the opportunity to train together. And while no one would directly compare fighting a brigade or division with managing a complex weapon system development program, there are some similarities. Both require information and coordination, resulting in decisions, while performing effectively as a team. Commanders, through their staffs, direct battle activities to accomplish military missions. Program managers, through their staffs, direct technology development activities to field capable weapon systems. Combatant commanders use collaboration at its most basic level—the act of working together with the key individuals of their organization—to solve a common problem.
In a systems approach to acquisition education, the third core principle calls for an analytical environment that places the PM and key staff in a simulated, high-tempo technology development environment and effectively compresses time to greatly accelerate the learning. In other words, the simulation places leadership teams in a situation akin to a Combat Training Center rotation, an intellectually and emotionally challenging environment that forgives the mistakes of the participants.
Collaborative analysis is a problem-solving process. In collaborative exercises, players use their own rules and processes to analyze, understand and learn, resulting in a quantifiable outcome. Collaborative analysis is most effective in a controlled, simulated environment, a combination of computer modeling and an exercise structure.
Acquisition is dynamic. A common project management example is that of rework, having to redo a task in a development project, either because it was done incorrectly or something changed in the larger system that necessitated redoing the task. Understanding the dynamics makes it possible to trace the actions and decisions that cause rework.
System dynamics can track the results of any decisions made in a development project and provide feedback on a decision. Take, for example, a system development that is falling behind schedule. The PM, in an attempt to make up time, directs the staff to work overtime. The more the staff works, the more tired they get. The more tired they get, the more mistakes they make. So now, the PM has to direct more overtime, and so on. The participants must react to what is becoming a serious problem. Through simulation, the team—all of its members, from the systems engineer to the contracting officer—deals with these kinds of problems in accelerated time.
The exercise simulation is driven by defense acquisition data. Actual programs provide a vast amount of data from which to derive the environment. They also allow us to compare simulation performance with a program’s actual performance and outcome.
Acquisition program management is a series of decisions connected in something that will one day become a fielded weapon system. Those decisions are not made in a vacuum, nor are they driven exclusively by the project manager. In fact, PMs lean heavily on their leadership teams to help make these decisions. This proposed Army acquisition exercise provides an evolutionary mechanism to build on the excellent education and training available to the Army.
U.S. Strategic Command and U.S. Army Futures Command have been briefed on this concept and have expressed interest in learning more about the approach and how it could help their commands.
For more information, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
DR. CHARLES K. PICKAR is a senior lecturer with the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey, California, teaching project management and acquisition. He also teaches systems engineering in the Graduate School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. He has more than 30 years of management and research experience, and has served in both the government and the private sector. He has taught strategy, systems engineering and program management at various colleges and universities throughout Europe and the United States, including the Bundesakademie fuer Wehrverwaltung und Technik (German Acquisition University) in Mainz, Germany. Before coming to NPS, he was the program director for the Applied Systems Engineering Program Area at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. He was also a vice president at Science Applications International Corp., where he managed several key developmental programs, including armor systems and optionally piloted vehicles, and vice president at Lockheed Martin Corp. He is a retired Army artillery officer, having served over 25 years in operational and leadership positions. He has a Doctor of Business Administration degree from Nova Southeastern University, an M.S. in systems engineering from Johns Hopkins, an M.A. in national security affairs from NPS and a B.A. in business from the University of Maryland. He is a graduate of the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies.
Related article: EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING EXERCISE: HERE’S HOW IT WORKS
This article is published in the Fall 2019 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
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