How Do Armed Forces Learn?

"To err is human – life is not about always doing everything right. What matters is that we recognise our mistakes and learn from them." (Ingrid Klaus Uschold)

From 26 to 28 September, the NATO Centre of Excellence for Military Medicine (NATO MILMED COE), with the support of the Bundeswehr Medical Academy, held the 2nd Multinational Sharing Group meeting in Munich. The aim of this workshop was to create a stronger network of the Lessons Learned Processes used by the various partners. This should be achieved by optimising the joint knowledge database and by increasing the readiness to share national experiences and insights.




 Multinational Sharing Group meeting / BwMedA – Photo: Wolfgang Diedrich)

"Anyone who has made a mistake and doesn't correct it is making another mistake." (Confucius)

 But this is not so easy, as Lieutenant Colonel Jane Phillips (UK Defense Medical Services) responsible for organisational learning in the Medical Directorate in Birmingham will confirm: Armed forces do not place sufficient value on learning and therefore opportunities for improvement are missed. “Successful businesses have a completely different attitude to learning from failure, businesses are especially keen to learn from their mistakes in a bid to innovate and improve their products. There are many barriers in an organisation that prevents it from learning and innovating; being too busy, not willing or able to learn from others and not sharing knowledge are common reasons cited within the armed forces...”




Jane Phillips in conversation / BwMedA – Photo: Wolfgang Diedrich


"Have you any idea how much knowledge is lost simply due to personnel turnover?" asks Phillips. "As a rule, officers change post every three years and take their experience with them. The newly appointed officer will often make the same mistakes his predecessor made. A Lessons Learned database would be extremely helpful to prevent this from happening.


"Last December, we deployed to Iraq with an FST (Forward Surgical Team) to support Operation COUNTER DAESH. Even as we were boarding the aircraft, we did not know exactly where we were heading. Upon our arrival at the AL ASAD airbase, we found ourselves in the middle of the combat zone of an Iraqi division “says Lieutenant Thomas Vasek at the beginning of his presentation.”But the positive aspects are much more important. While on deployment, we worked with OR teams from the United States, Denmark and the United Kingdom and were relieved by the Norwegians. It took just a week before we were all together and the surgeons had formed a team that was able to deal with even mass casualty situations with up to seven very seriously wounded patients."


This explains some of the challenges, says LTC Phillips, in ensuring the Lessons Learned Process is fully embraced throughout the armed forces which then impacts on the ability to share the mistakes identified and the solution strategies with the international community. “Have you any idea how much corporate knowledge is lost simply due to personnel turnover?" asks LTC Phillips. "As a rule, officers change post every two -three years and take their experience with them. The newly appointed officer will often make the same mistakes his predecessor made. Improving our Lessons Learned process would be extremely helpful to prevent this from happening.”




Czech Forward Surgical Team in Iraq / Photo: Tomas Vasek (CZE)



The lessons that LT Vasek draws from this are that you should never deploy in advance of your own reconnaissance party and that multinational cooperation in the Medical Service works if you make the effort. Despite the language barrier.

"Knowledge is power" (Francis Bacon)

Who would be willing to surrender some of his power and share his knowledge with others, especially if that knowledge is derived from his own mistakes? A change in attitudes is needed if the Lessons Learned Process is to work.

Lieutenant Colonel Markus Schardt from the Bundeswehr Medical Academy and Lieutenant Colonel Tamas Bognar from NATO MILMED COE therefore explored new avenues at the largest medical exercise to date, NATO's VIGOROUS WARRIOR 2017 (VW17), which took place from 4 to 22 September with 1049 medical soldiers from 26 nations at the LEHNIN training area. From the outset, there were two main points to consider. Everyone has good ideas and mistakes are made. It seemed obvious, therefore, that everyone should be involved in order to report best practices and room for improvement.




LTC Schardt and LTC Bognar in Lessons Learned Cell / BwMedA – Photo: Wolfgang Diedrich

To this end, Schardt, Chief of Lessons Learned in Exercise Organisation VW17, and Bognar, Deputy Chief of the Lessons Learned Branch of NATO MILMED COE, not only developed a clever concept, but also used the specially designed smartphone application to collect the Observation, Discussion, Conclusion, Recommendation (ODCR) forms.

The concept worked. With over 350 observations, exercise participants at all levels, from ordinary participant up to Exercise Director, reported their observations and suggestions for improvement. This was almost two times as many as in Vigorous Warrior 2015.

Once again, a familiar Lesson Identified was confirmed. "The most effective way to prevent contributions from subordinates is to say: I need that in writing, please," explains Schardt.


"Because who enjoys writing? Certainly not soldiers! If we use the media, however, which our colleagues also use in their free time, they are more likely to share their knowledge with us." It therefore comes as no surprise that almost 10% of contributions were sent by mail and smartphone app, although this too involved typing in words.




Smartphone application in use / Photo: LT Szénási (HUN)

The next desirable step would be to enhance the smartphone application with the use of voice recognition.

Text: Markus Schardt

Images: Wolfgang Diedrich, Tomas Vasek, LT Szénási





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