Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Learning lessons - the British Army experience, for good or bad

We read last week that the MOD is trying to prevent publication of a book that it commissioned, ‘An Intimate War’ by Dr Mike Martin, allegedly because it contains criticisms of the way the British Army conducted operations in Afghanistan.  We have been here before, with Toby Harnden’s excellent book, ‘Dead Men Risen’, the entire first print run of which the MOD had to buy and destroy because it allegedly contained details that might have compromised operational security.
Twitter and other social media have today contained much commentary regarding the Army’s failure to accept criticism which, in turn, impedes its ability to learn lessons.
I declare an interest here because, for 3 years, I worked as a lessons analyst for the British Army’s Lessons Exploitation Centre (LXC) in Warminster, Wiltshire.
The British Army has put much effort, time and resources into improving its learning capabilities but it has much more to do, as does any organisation that seeks to learn.  My article at this link here sets out how the Army developed learning capabilities but also argues, strongly, that cultural factors remain that, unless addressed, will continue to inhibit its opportunity to improve performance.  It imparts no classified information but covers the following:
  • The expansion of the British Army’s KM and OL analytical capacity from 2009 onwards;
  • The development of Mission Exploitation Symposia to socialise hard-won knowledge;
  • The use of lessons as part of risk management;
  • The endorsement of the ‘lessons learned’ approach by the Army Inspectorate;
  • Small signs of progress that learning is actually taking place;
The article then makes suggestions on how the Army can develop a learning culture:
  • Learning about learning – through study of leading KM and OL theorists and practitioners;
  • Development of a lessons cadre – making KM and OL a career-stream of choice;
  • Moving LXC up the chain of command, reporting to the very top;
  • Revisions of performance appraisals to encourage and embed the behaviour that supports learning;
  • A move towards open dialogue, not mere adversarial discussion;
  • Good, old-fashioned leadership by example through self-criticism and humility;
  • A move from reflexive defensiveness, currently hidden behind ‘security’ concerns;
  • Recognition that rank and cap-badge inhibit knowledge-transfer and learning;
  • Embracing genuine mission command – and learning by doing;
  • Moving towards a just culture, encouraging honesty and intelligent accountability;
  • Learning from others – armies, charities, companies, the world
The article then concludes by quoting Major Giles Harris DSO, who commanded the Prince of Wales’s Company of the Welsh Guards on their bloody tour of Afghanistan in 2009,
“The British are very good at whipping ourselves into a sense of achievement….we almost have to, to make it bearable.  You can’t do something like this and analyse it all the way through and think: “Actually we got that wrong.”  You just can’t.  It takes so much emotional investment.  I’m not saying we lie to ourselves but there’s an element of telling yourself that it’s all right and it’s going well, just to keep going.”[i]

Such honesty.  We need more of it.
For more information on lessons, learning cultures, knowledge management and organisational learning, please visit the Knoco website.

[i] Toby Harnden, ‘Dead Men Risen’ p. 558.


  1. Excellence is a better teacher than mediocrity. The lessons of the ordinary are everywhere. Truly profound and original insights are to be found only in studying the exemplary. See the link below for more info.


  2. I really enjoyed reading your article. I found this as an informative and interesting post, so i think it is very useful and knowledgeable. I would like to thank you for the effort you have made in writing this article.

    1. Thank you, Sarah! Not sure why this comment didn't come up on my radar until now! Hopefully today's publication of the Chilcot Report will identify further lessons which once 'learned' (i.e. implemented) will further improve military performance and safety alike.

  3. Hello, thank you for your informative article. I am currently in the first year of my PhD (Computer Science) at Birkbeck College London. I am trying to develop software tools to help capture experiential learning gained during plan fomrulation and execution during the COA. I am in terested to know the format in which 'lessons learned' data
    is captured. I do not need to see the data (i understand access will be restricted) simply what tools and procedures are used to capture lessons learned.My email is :
    Very best wishes,