Leadership learning and millennials in the UK military

By John Helmer July 20, 2015

GarryAs part of our ongoing theme on leadership and millennials, I talked to Colonel Garry Hearn. Garry has had a long and successful career in the British Army, much of it in training. Most recently he led the modernisation and transformation of all Defence Technical Training and Education (for approximately 30,000 students per annum), analysing and converting courses into an effective blended solution.

In 2012 he was awarded the OBE.

What is different about the Millennial Cohort that is joining now?

Mostly positive. The major difference we see with young recruits now is that the quality of thinking has changed, and their ability to think and want to find answers is very different.

This is partly due to the education system in the UK, which now very much encourages experiential learning. As well as that it’s about technology, and millennials’ use of technology. Technology allows young people to explore for themselves: they go to Google, they go to Facebook, ask their friends for answers online, and so on.

Given that command and control is never going to disappear in military leadership, how is leadership changing?

It’s less about the fundamentals of leadership and what good leadership is, and more about the individual displaying the right personal characteristics of leadership. The difference comes in terms of empowering and enthusing.

The military is good at empowering people when on operations; i.e. when the operational ‘temperature’ is high and you need to rely on people. We fully recognise that a 1,000 people equals 1,000 brains, and if you empower those people you get more from them. It’s not so good back in the barracks environment, where our structure and processes seem to dominate more.

However, when it comes to millennials, this whole issue of technology and the way they have grown up around it challenges the way we do things. They want to do things their way, and they show initiative. To young people, social, sharing and collaboration is normal – and the decision making process is more informed as a result. The military has not embraced that enough.

The enduring principles of leadership are always going to be there, but what we should do as an older generation is not assume that our principles are right, and recognise that the delivery method should be different. We need to be saying to our millennials, what flicks your switch? What makes you want to do this? The leader who doesn’t recognise that is going to fall behind.

Is this affecting the way people are trained?

A didactic approach is good for teaching drills, but there is a more experiential learner coming into the classroom. Students don’t want someone standing at the front with a kit bag full of PowerPoints. We’ve had to change the style of tutoring to match the student, and tutors need to adapt and pass control of the learning to the student.

In the past we spoon-fed our new recruits systematically with the training they need, within our timescales. Now after basic training there is more emphasis on self-motivated learning and going off collecting up various electives, with the ownership of progress lying with the student.

Do they learn differently?

Millennials don’t fundamentally learn differently. Looking at the 70/20/10 model, the smallest proportion of the learning (the 10%) always and still does takes place in the classroom. What’s changed is that in the past we had 85% experiential learning (instead of 70%) and just 5% social. So it’s the 20% social that is the real change.

We feel it’s the 10% that makes you competent, but it’s the rest that makes you capable.

And what about technology?

This generation have constant interaction and complete comfort with technology. They are used to phones and social media. Others in the military might not be so comfortable. This is a strange dynamic as policy makers in the military have this layer at the bottom of the organisation that are beginning to drive some of the change as they can exploit technology more readily. It’s this exploitation that is key as it’s allowing them to be more innovatory and improvisatory.

The military is becoming smaller. Historically we had large scale armies fighting against each other with clearly worked out tactics. It’s more complex now. You don’t know what your adversary is going to do and who they are. It’s those skills of exploitative, creative, innovative thinking that are really useful in these modern day situations.

Technology is both a driver and an enabler. As it stands now in the military training environment, augmented reality, virtual learning environments, apps, smartboards, tablets, and interactive self-paced course modules, are all being used. Anything that you’d expect to create successful blended learning solutions.

Where do you think the military sits on this compared to other sectors?

This is hard to benchmark; it is ahead in some respects and behind in others. Other organisations are further ahead in analysing the skills and competencies required. We still work on training objectives and getting learners to a particular point. I think we can obtain those objectives in a different way by looking more closely at existing knowledge and skills. Other organisations have made more progress with moving from traditional lessons to more nugget-based learning.

Leadership is core to what defence does. Bad leadership in the military has a lot more consequences than it does in the finance industry, for instance. Good leaders do the right thing, they walk the talk, they thank, they praise, they understand the business. In certain leadership positions there are no easy decisions, you must just do the right thing. People who win wars are the younger generation who are corporates and lieutenants making those decisions out in the field, not senior military policy makers.

One of the characteristics of Millennials that has come up in our research is their preference for team working: given that the military lays emphasis on allocating responsibility to individuals, does this preference cause friction?

It’s better to make a decision on the back of 1,000 brains, but then give the task to an individual. Millennials like to be trusted and hold responsibility and they are more likely to go off and work the problem through in a team even though the action is owned individually.

Do they have a different attitude to authority?

Access to knowledge does makes us challenge professionals; we can be the doctor, the financial advisor, etc. But this is not yet evident in the military. Military is still hierarchal and although there is more discussion and interaction, the hierarchy still exists and that is not challenged.

What can we learn from them?

The senior cohort in the military tends to think of technology as a separate thing but our youngest recruits just see it as part of their everyday life. We need to think more like that.

We need to consider how to harness policies to support the capability that technology has, particularly when it comes to the sharing of knowledge. Our communications tend to go down the chain of command because we are hierarchical, but with Millennials, the communication is lateral – and there are benefits in there that we haven’t exploited yet. There is a lot to be learned from socialising things.

There is such a difference in how they access knowledge too. Those stationed out in Afghanistan will happily look up a piece of learning on the college VLE, they don’t leave that behind in the classroom; they take it with them. YouTube, Wikipedia, etc. – they are just a large pool of resources. The older generation tend to consider taking information from Wikipedia as plagiarism; the Millennials just consider it another information source. They have an innate ability to gather and curate information and are very able to differentiate between knowledge, viewpoint – and someone just chucking something up onto the web.

But someone still needs to create that knowledge. There is certain amount of information that can be created and then shared, but there is a danger that we won’t see the new ideas and capabilities that come up. Someone has to create the knowledge: that’s the bit I fear for. Lecturers have a huge amount of knowledge and someone still needs to be in that space; we still need researchers and people that do clever stuff, and much of that comes from experience.

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