Despite what any fule no about big bureaucracies and their immune systems, I have in the past been too keen on the “militaries learn cos getting shot at concentrates the mind” meme.
These two quotes – the first from “Beyond the Stable State” by Donald Schon and the second from “Harnessing Complexity: Organizational Implications of a Scientific Frontier” by Robert Axelrod and Michael D. Cohen (2000 Basic Books New York) – ought to sort me out…
In Men, Machines and Modern Times the American historian Elting Morison tells the story of the introduction into the US Navy of continuous-aim firing – a method of keeping guns trained on an enemy ship when both your ship and the enemy’s are moving up and down and steaming in different directions at the same time.
The Navy’s standard method, in Theodore Roosevelt’s time, employed a very heavy set of gears and a highly trained crew with a kind of football coach/naval captain who gave directions to the crew. Although there was a gunsight, nobody dared put his eye to it because of the recoil of the gun. Sims, a young naval officer, developed a new method which took advantage of the inertial movement of the ship; he simplified the gearing procedure and isolated the sight from recoil, so that it became possible for the operator to keep his eye on the sight and move the gears at the same time. He tested his system and was able to effect a remarkable increase in accuracy.
Sims then wrote to Naval Headquarters, with the aim of having his device officially adopted throughout the fleet, and the navy wrote back that it was not interested. But Sims had the persistence characteristic of technological innovators and he finally persuaded the Navy to test his method of continuous-aim firing. The test, as devised by the Navy, consisted in strapping the device to a solid block in the Navy Yard in Washington where, deprived of the inertial movement of the ship, it failed, proving scientifically that continuous-aim firing was not feasible. Sims was not deterred. Finally he reached President Theodore Roosevelt directly, and the President forced the device down the Navy’s throat. Under these conditions the Navy accepted it, and achieved a remarkable increase in accuracy in all theatres.
Morison points out that the Navy understandably tried to protect the social system of the ship from a technology which was in fact destructive of it. By introducing continuous-aim firing, Sims threatened a specialized, highly trained team, replacing it with an operation in which, in effect, any recruit could serve.
The example is characteristic of social systems, whether a naval ship, an industrial firm, or a community.
The system as a whole has the property of resistance to change. I would not call this property ‘inertia’, a metaphor drawn from physics – the tendency of objects to move steadily along their present course unless a contrary force is exerted on them. The resistance to change exhibited by social systems is much more nearly a form of ‘dynamic conservatism- – that is to say, a tendency to fight to remain the same.
The problem facing today’s makers of military personnel policy is that no one can know which young officers have the key ideas for the surprising new operational concepts of the next decade. By definition, the big surprises are those deviating enough from incremental change that they cannot be confidently foreseen. As a result, the specialists within the military services who make personnel decisions face precisely the kind of hard-to-predict situation that is common in Complex Adaptive Systems. The British, for example, could not foresee that merging their early naval flyers into the newly formed Royal Air Force, which was dominated by long-range bomber pilots, would seriously interfere with efforts to implement technical innovations that could apply to aircraft carriers (Rosen, 1991). While most of the technical advances required for carrier combat were made in British experiments, those new technologies and methods ended up being fully exploited by American naval flyers and commanders. The loss of the naval career path for experienced British naval pilots is a major part of the story of why the British could not implement their own innovations.
Rosen, Stephen Peter. Winning the Next War: Innovation and the Modern Military. Ithaca. YY.: Cornell University Press, 1991.