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Article – Barracks Reports and Returns

The secret to success in barracks: act like in the field

Transforming Information Management “will necessitate a move over time to a small number of standardised information and communications systems supporting enterprise-wide processes and a radically simplified application landscape through retiring legacy solutions and adopting enterprise master data.
Defence First Principles Review, 2015, p. 48

Image courtesy of the ADF

The Army has missed a step in our adoption of technology. In the field, soldiers recognise that standardised, simple communications are key to tactical success. However, the barracks environment fails to apply this logic. Platforms like SharePoint and our information management system have not been built with the principles Army has learned ‘out bush.’ Decades of Army use of ‘reports and returns’ (simplified messages with specific line details used to convey messages over the radio) have demonstrated their utility. By removing uncertainty, messages can be sent without the overhead of explaining what the subject is about. For example, by stating “7. C Red” when calling for an evacuation, the receiver of the message knows the collection site will be marked with a red smoke signal. The success of this system rests on the universal application of one standard and the universal understanding of that standard. It also rests in its simplicity—soldiers do not need to take time or brainpower away from the immediate warfighting task. While it might not save lives in the office environment, it can save hours of work, which can instead be spent preparing training and practising procedures out of the office.


The world’s most famous technology firms are built on simplicity and ease-of-use. Consider Apple, whose intuitive iPhone interface snatched up all the market share, forcing traditional players like Nokia and Blackberry into the economic wilderness. Or consider Google, which was developed in 1996 on the principle of providing users exactly what they need. Google’s initial value proposition was to provide the answers a user wanted insanely quickly. This was achieved through the use of just three elements on their homepage: a search bar, a search button and an “I’m feeling lucky” button. This intuitive design makes Google ‘sticky’ and reduces cognitive friction—users do not need to expend brainpower in finding out how to navigate the website, or decide which button to click. Stickiness is anything about a website that encourages a visitor to be comfortable when visiting. For soldiers in the barracks, a standard interface can be sticky by creating familiarity and ease-of-use that supports more efficient work.

Army must focus on simplifying our Information Communications Technology (ICT) to be sticky—as the civilian world is already doing. The tech ideas pioneered in Silicon Valley are rapidly spreading to the non-technology sector. In 2007, a Google employee joined the presidential campaign of then Senator Barack Obama. His job was to bring one of Google’s web practices to bear on the campaign’s bright-red DONATE button on the Obama website. Christian & Griffiths (2016). The theory was simple: to channel viewers to a site that had ‘DONATE’ written on the button or to a site that said ‘CONTRIBUTE’ to determine which choice prompted the highest donations. This process is called A/B testing—giving viewers two options to find the best choice. Through understanding the process Army can understand the importance of creating sticky platforms to support soldiers working with barracks ICT—that a smooth experience supports better productivity.

Click on the image to visit Amazon – Algorithms to Live By (Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths, 2016)

The logic of reports and returns and Obama’s donations webpage is indisputable. Both seek to provide a familiar and comfortable environment that creates no cognitive friction for users. Army ICT provides the backbone for barracks work. In this world users work on platforms—a foundation, like a shopping centre store that brings together different stores to improve the shopping experience—with levels of highly interdependent sites forming an “ecosystem.” Kelly (2016)

Click on the image to visit Amazon – The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our World (K. Kelly 2016)

For Army (in the SharePoint, COMWEB or Nexus environments) that platform is a hierarchical set of sites that interlink. Like Google though, there must be professional involvement to tailor these platforms to units and formations. This step will create utility and stop the disenfranchisement of soldier-users who are turning to direct messages or shared drives—processes entrenched in the 1990s.

So how can Army apply this logic? The answer is simple. Army should set the conditions for our intranet platform to be like reports and returns. Army should create an environment where all the hierarchical levels look the same and can be navigated identically. Perfection would see users only being able to look at the site logo or site data to determine which site they are working within. It is only through this system that truly frictionless work can be achieved, and Army processes at home can work like they do in the field.


About the author: David Caligari is an infantry officer posted to the School of Infantry.

4 thoughts on “Article – Barracks Reports and Returns

  1. I disagree with your statement that “the answer is simple”. It is anything but. You correctly state that ” there must be professional involvement to tailor these platforms to units and formations”. This takes the form of a dedicated Information Management and SharePoint admin cell within J6 Branch. The companies that you mention allocate a majority of resources (staff and money) to make their products intuitive. It is easy to say the reporting process should be simplified, the process of doing so takes highly skilled/educated IT literate personnel a good deal of time to do so.

  2. “The Army has missed a step in our adoption of technology” … Agreed. They missed the step that involves the adoption part.

  3. The equivalent of your formatted message in the IT industry can be found in protocol and metadata definitions, amongst other methods.

    The extract from the first principles review is simple supposition that belies the diabolicaly complex challenge of meeting it’s demands. There is a huge information management industry that feeds on this problem space.

    You also touch on ‘UX’, user experience engineering, which is part art, part science. In the civilian world many companies spend big bucks on these techniques to drive use behaviour (usually towards the checkout cart!).

    CIOG has to be ‘all things to all people’, so achieving this goal implies you have to satisfy all arms of the military as well as the civilian organisations, most of which approach information management in different ways.

    There are a few ‘joint’ and ‘def’ projects attempting to address some of these issues, but a breif ‘post mortem’ of IT projects in Defence in the last ten years should help recalibrate your optimism…

  4. I don’t think the problem is as hard as some of the commenting sceptics might suggest. The A/B testing is a great example of an iterative process whereby you start off with a functional system and slowly change things incrementally to improve them. Of course major overhauls are difficult and the DRN is never going to have the elegance of the latest in hipster civilian technology. That’s not necessary. What is needed is a learning and adaptable practice that improves over time slowly.

    In doing so, I’m reminded of the old saying ‘the diggers will tell you if its a good idea and you’ll definitely know if it’s bad’.

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