The desire to increase workforce diversity currently dominates employment narratives in most western democratic countries. A sea-change in social attitudes over the last few years has resulted in a long overdue change in public opinion. The overwhelming support for same-sex marriage in the recent national referendum in Australia, and global movements such as #MeToo, are but two examples of the manifestation of a desire to end social prejudice and create a more inclusive society.
The Australian Defence Force (ADF) has not been immune to this social change. Indeed, in many ways the ADF has led the way within Australia in promoting diversity and inclusivity within its workforce, including producing a national action plan on Women, Peace and Security. The Army plays an important role in this wider departmental strategy. While there is still a way to go to reach the targets that the Army has challenged itself to reach by 2023, the increased participation of previously underrepresented groups within Australian society has been impressive. This is important if Army is to recruit the best possible people: the logic of selecting the highest quality candidates from the widest possible recruiting pool is self-evident.
Yet, the success in diversifying the composition of the Army’s workforce risks masking a more serious diversity issue, one that threatens to undermine its warfighting capability: the homogenisation of thinking within the Army. If the Army wants to truly harness diversity, it must move beyond simply viewing diversity through the lens of broadening its recruiting. Instead it should recognise that institutionally incorporating diversity into a professional development framework, so that it better develops an individual’s intellectual capacity, is equally as important as a diverse workforce to the Army’s overall capability.
The Diversity Equation
Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin, the recently retired Chief of the Defence Force, stated last year that “A diverse workforce is all about capability. The greater our diversity, the greater the range of ideas and insights to challenge the accepted norm, assess the risks, see them from a different perspective, and develop creative solutions”. There is merit to this statement, but only if a diversity of workforce brings with it a diversity of thinking. It is a bold assumption that the former intrinsically results in the latter. Science is yet to provide any solid evidence that gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation by themselves inherently lead to a significant change in the way people think. Rather, it is the range of experiences that individuals from various backgrounds within society have had prior to enlistment that gives them unique viewpoints.
Any diversity of experience, and therefore thinking, at the point of recruitment becomes irrelevant if it is diluted to the point of homogeny over the course of an individual’s career. The Army needs to facilitate both diversity of workforce (dW) and diversity of thinking (dT) if it is to truly increase capability (↑C). If you are a classically trained mathematician you may wish to look away now, but in essence this can be seen as an equation of two parts:
dW + dT = ↑C
So, does the Army currently balance both parts of this equation? Well, it is fair to say that there is a lot of emphasis placed on getting the first part of the equation right. Take, for example, the Department of Defence’s own performance indicators for diversity and inclusion within Defence. Eight of the eleven indicators specifically relate to improving the diversity of the workforce at the point of entry, i.e. recruitment. However, only two of them are loosely linked to post-recruitment diversity: “Defence has increased job satisfaction among its people” and “Defence is retaining critical people throughout the stages of career and life” [sic]. Instructively, none of Defence’s diversity performance indicators are linked to developing diversity of thinking within the workforce. Still, with regard to the first part of the equation, the Army and wider ADF are doing reasonably well.
Now let us examine part two of the equation using, as an example, the career of a junior Army officer entering the organisation through the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA). This young individual will complete three years’ study at ADFA followed by a further year’s ab initio training at the Royal Military College – Duntroon. Once commissioned they will do a number of courses, some corps specific but most of them part of the All Corps Officer Training Continuum (ACOTC). For those selected, this phase of their career will conclude with attendance at either the Australian Command and Staff College (ACSC) or the Capability and Technical Management College (CTMC) at ADFA.
Notwithstanding the occasional forty-minute lesson on critical thinking, this continuum, which is largely mirrored in the All Corps Soldiers Training Continuum (ACSTC), serves to homogenise the thinking of our workforce, particularly as individual success is continuously reinforced through the recognition and promotion of those who are generally seen to ‘fit the mould’. Thus, regardless of the gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity of the young Officer Cadet arriving at ADFA, by the time they reach ACSC (and are thus earmarked to progress on the Command and Leadership pathway) the Army will have put them through the same set of education and training courses as all of their peers, in effect training out the very diversity that they initially brought to the organisation.
Promoting Diversity of Thinking
Professional development within in the Army is achieved through a balance of training, education and experience. Australian doctrine states that these are “integrated functions that equip soldiers and officers with the physical and intellectual skills, knowledge and attributes needed to successfully apply land power”. There are a number of relatively simple changes the Army can make within each of these functions that will increase diversity of thinking across the force as a whole.
Training. Within the Army, training is defined as “a planned process to inculcate and modify skills, knowledge and attitudes through learning experience in order to achieve effective performance in an activity or range of activities”. Within the ACOTC and ACSTC, training is largely delivered through courses at training establishments that focus on preparing individual students for employment at the next rank. The requirement for all students to reach a common standard supports the formulation of generalist ideas and homogeny of thought.
The Army needs to expand its training continuum to encourage more diversity of thought. One way it can do this is through diversifying student bodies on career courses, such as those run at the Land Warfare Centre at Canungra. How much more stimulating would discussions be if syndicates of young Army officers also included a Warrant Officer, an officer from a sister service, a public servant from the Department of Defence, the Office of National Intelligence or the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, or even someone from the corporate sector – perhaps a business owner who employed reservists? This diversification of the student body, to include those whose viewpoints have not been institutionally shaped by the Army, would promote greater diversity of thinking during training.
The Army should also consider how it selects and trains instructors for its training courses. While current instructor development courses are a good start, if diversity of thinking is to be encouraged, these should evolve into facilitator development courses focused more on enabling critical thinking rather than delivering Directing Staff solutions. In time this will help build an organic culture that encourages contributory dissent based on a sound understanding of doctrine as a start point, rather than one that values the rote understanding of processes to the point of dogmatism.
Education. Australian doctrine describes education as “intellectual, moral and social instruction in the profession of arms… [which] includes activities that aim to develop thinking, decision-making and communication skills”. This is largely provided through Professional Military Education (PME) which, in the Australian Army context, seeks to develop the intellectual component of fighting power.
If PME is to facilitate diversity of thought, it should not seek to provide a set syllabus that all officers or soldiers follow. Instead, it needs to provide a framework which incorporates a number of varied routes individuals can take to broaden their own education: in many ways, the PME equivalent to a “chose your own adventure” book. For example, where one officer may wish to explore military ethics and civil-military relations, another may wish to delve into packages covering artificial intelligence and human-machine teaming. The broader the range of topics available, the broader the diversity of thinking the PME framework will engender. Where there is any move to create compulsory packages, it should be on the art of thinking itself, rather than on military topics. Diversity of thinking would be far better served by a module on philosophy, for example, than a module on joint operations.
Experience. Experience is defined within Australian doctrine as “knowledge or practical wisdom gained from what one has observed, encountered or undergone”. With regards to diversity, experience prior to recruitment is what gives a diverse workforce its strength. Yet once in the Army, officers follow largely similar career paths. Even career profiles currently deemed diverse, such as those that include attachments to foreign armies or as instructors at training institutions, are almost exclusively still reflective of experience gained within a military context.
The Army needs to radically overhaul how it values experiences outside the military. What value does the Army want to place on the experience an individual will gain working in industry, other government departments, think-tanks, non-governmental organisations, voluntary groups, or urban planning departments (the list is almost endless)? Different experiences with different organisations will expose individuals to radically different approaches in thinking, problem solving, leadership and communicating. Granted, some work is being done in this area – in theory at least – but this still remains to be institutionalised. Until the Army dedicates a percentage of positions from its permanent strength to enable experiential development postings, from across a range of career profiles, gaining diversity of experience will continue to be done on an ‘ad hoc’ and ‘as releasable’ basis.
To address this, Army needs to proactively select and send individuals on external postings to gain experiential diversity. Yes, the experience of staffing a paper through committee in Russell is important, but arguably the organisation will be as well, if not better, served by the same individual spending six or twelve months seconded to the International Committee of the Red Cross in the highlands of Papua New Guinea.
Experiential diversity should not be limited to Army’s top performers, although it is critical that the Army’s future strategic leaders have a broad experience base that includes time outside of Defence (for good examples of this, see the career profiles of the current Chief of the Defence Force and Head of Land Capability). Sending those officers who have hit ceiling rank (the apocryphal ‘passed-over’ Majors and Lieutenant Colonels) on experientially diverse postings is equally as important as sending the high flyers. Developing, reinforcing and encouraging a diversity of thinking in this ‘cohort’ is critical. It is these officers that are often best placed to counter prevailing viewpoints as they feel they have less to lose by speaking out against group think.
Rebalancing the diversity equation
It is widely accepted that a diverse workforce is a potential source of strength for the Army. As Ant Sharman argues in his award-winning essay for the Wavell Room, “accepting, including and cherishing an increasingly diverse range of modern warriors” is part of the evolution of the warrior ethos within western militaries. The Australian Army’s efforts to increase social inclusion though its workforce diversity policies will help ensure that we recruit the best possible people from the widest possible pool.
However, restricting the concept of diversity to a workforce recruitment initiative will not provide the capability enhancement that the Army seeks. Instead, the Army needs to balance both parts of the diversity equation. It can do this by ensuring that the training, education and experiences of its soldiers and officers promote diversity of thought. Failure to do this risks homogenising thinking within the Army. This not only nullifies the value of recruiting a diverse workforce in the first place, but threatens to undermine the intellectual component of fighting power that the Army will need if it is to fight, and win, future conflicts.
About the author: Greg Colton is an infantry officer with 18 years’ experience in both the British and Australian armies, including operational service in Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and the Pacific. Greg has had range of regimental, instructional and staff postings and recently took a years’ sabbatical to accept a Research Fellowship at the Lowy Institute, Australia’s leading international policy think-tank. While at the Lowy Institute he ran a Defence funded project examining drivers of instability in the Pacific. On his return to the Army, Greg assumed his current position as SO1 Professional Military Education at Forces Command. He is also Director of The Cove.