“The networked model of learning development…points to the importance of the interconnectedness between top-down, bottom-up, incidental, and horizontal approaches.”[i]
Army’s current approach to force design and capability development can be characterised as disproportionately top-down. However, innovative ideas and subject matter expertise do not wear rank. The Australian Army has a wealth of talent resident in its combat formations and supporting units, which can be better leveraged to inform bottom-up refinement of top-down force design and capability development initiatives.
The quantity and quality of articles written by Army junior non-commissioned officers (JNCO) and published by The Cove in 2018 has highlighted the talent resident in our JNCO cadre for the world to see. Through Cove articles, such as CPL Grace Amey’s, ‘Move, Shoot, Communicate… Not Yet’, Army’s JNCO’s are demonstrating their ability to meaningfully contribute to force design and capability development (for more examples from see footnotes).[ii] What is Army doing to identify, engage, and leverage this talent?
Establishing a JNCO Fellowship Program
It is proposed that a dynamic JNCO Fellowship program should be established to identify exceptional JNCO’s from across Army to either be temporarily assigned to Head Land Capability (HLC) departments, and/or participate in HLC force design and capability development activities. Further, it is proposed that JNCO Fellows partner with Defence Science and Technology Group (DST-Group) on developmental projects to provide operator input/feedback from an end user perspective.
Step 1: Identify the ‘Right’ Soldiers. Identification of the ‘right’ soldiers is critical to the success of a JNCO Fellowship program. A JNCO Fellow must be a self-motivated inquisitive critical thinker, able to operate with the broadest of guidance. As such, these soldiers are likely to be in key positions of influence within their units, and important to unit preparedness. But these are the types of JNCO this proposed program will need to succeed. Removing these JNCOs from the workplace for a period of time may bring resistance from brigade and unit chains of command (CoC), which is why tasking orders requesting support, or calls for nomination staffed through the CoC, are likely to be an unsuccessful. Rather, engagement through peer networks and platforms such as the Cove offer the potential to yield more success in identifying the ‘right’ JNCOs.
Step 2: Coordinate with Stakeholders. The first part of this step is to develop a situational understanding of HLC and DST-Group priorities and future activities that may require bottom-up input and refinement. Once the requirements have been developed, then JNCO Fellows can be aligned against them. However, before this occurs all stakeholders involved have to agree on the way ahead; this is referred to as the “4 Yes’s”.
- The JNCO has to agree and there can be no potential of adverse impact to the JNCO in terms of reporting or career management;
- The JNCO’s family must agree. Our JNCO’s time with their family must be considered a precious resource and must be managed very carefully. With career courses, unit training and preparedness, and deployments, a JNCO’s time with their family can be adversely impacted.
- The JNCO’s CoC must agree. Unit preparedness must not be negatively impacted as a result of a JNCO Fellow’s temporary absence.
- The gaining organisation must agree that the identified JNCO Fellow meets the requirements, and has the requisite subject matter knowledge and experience for the task at hand.
Step 3: Conduct of Activity. It is highly likely that a JNCO Fellow’s participation in a headquarters or DST-Group activity will be the first time they have been in such a situation. As such, every effort must be made to set conditions for them to succeed. They will almost certainly be the most junior rank present and have the least time in service, which is why cultural conditions must be set for the recommendations of NCO Fellows to be taken on their merits rather than on their rank. Simply asking questions to bring themselves up to speed on an activity may reveal something that has been overlooked by those more familiar. Their current experience and understanding of current challenges in the operating forces is of great value and is the raison d’être for this recommended program.
Step 4: Transition Learning. Learning from a JNCO participation in an activity can be broken into two parts: organisational and individual. Tangible organisational learning, to include JNCO Fellows input, will be captured and codified in activity reports and staffed through the CoC to inform and support leadership and capability decisions. However, intangible learning that will occur as part of a JNCO Fellows participation should also be considered. This can be addressed by asking questions such as: what influence did the JNCO Fellows have on other activity participants? Did participation in the activity provide a valuable development opportunity for JNCO Fellows and did this transition back to their unit in a positive way? What actions did the JNCO Fellow take to pass on what they learned to their peers? Was the JNCO Fellow positively impacted by the experience and are they likely to recommend it to their peers? The upfront working hypothesis is that answers to these questions will be positive, which is why an initial limited trial should be conducted to determine if this is true.
Objective tangible success of a JNCO Fellowship Program is the JNCO Fellows’ measurable input (bottom-up refinement) to HLC force design and capability development work, and DST Group project development. A more subjective measure is whether the senior leader and HLC branch head believes that the NCO Fellowship Program contributed meaningfully to their work and activities.
The opportunity for JNCOs to contribute to force design and capability development at the service level also represents a unique development opportunity for Army’s future senior soldiers that translates back to their units and peers, and will potentially keep motivated JNCOs engaged in an Army career.
The success or failure of a JNCO Fellowship Program will be heavily dependent upon senior leader advocacy and support. Once identified, the chain of command must be encouraged to release the ‘right’ JNCO Fellows, and cultural conditions must be set for the recommendations of JNCO Fellows to be taken on their merits rather than rank.
The first step for this JNCO Fellowship program is the conduct of a limited trial. It is recommended that two activities are identified in 2019 that may benefit from JNCO Fellows participation – one with DST-Group and one with Future Land Warfare Branch (FLW). It is suggested that between 4 and 6 JNCO Fellows participate in each and an independent review with recommendations for the future is made to leadership. If successful, a Chief of Army Directive should be developed and issued to institutionalise the program, providing guidance for its management and conduct. This will include annual resource requirements, the codification of the JNCO Fellowship processes and detailed administrative requirements and responsibilities for FLW who should manage this program.
Army’s JNCOs are a resource that must be better leveraged to inform bottom-up refinement of top down force and capability development initiatives. Through platforms such as the Cove, Army’s JNCOs are ‘calling out’ to be heard. Throughout 2018 they have consistently demonstrated their ability to meaningfully inform and positively impact this important work. The challenge that must be overcome is identifying the ‘right’ JNCOs to do this, and getting them to the right activity at the right time. This JNCO Fellowship program is proposed as a means to do just that.
About the author: Major Mark Tutton is an Australian Infantry Officer currently posted to the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory. He commanded Delta Company (D Coy), 6th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR) in 2014, and was the Ready Battle Group Operations Officer in 2015.
[i] Fox, Aimee, ‘Learning to Fight: Military Innovation and Change in the British Army 1914-1918’, (Cambridge University Press, 2018), p.7.
[ii] Here are some of the links to Articles from JNCOs and Junior Officers in 2018 that demonstrate the talent resident in Army’s operating forces that must be better leveraged: