Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno visited Fort Leavenworth on July 11 and heard from junior officers who are worried that technology is replacing face to face interactions more than might be good for us. Of course a lot of it’s just modern life – half the population seem to walk about with their nose permanently in their smartphone, and soldiers like shiny new gadgets just as much as anyone else does. Technology’s definitely not a bad thing either – would anyone really want to go back to the days of voice-only radios and grease pencils? No, we didn’t think so.
What’s needed is the right mix of traditional and modern. If you want to make sure everyone in the unit has the timings for an exercise, send an email. If you want to find out if the M240 has been repaired, pick up the phone and talk to the armorer. A call makes people feel appreciated in a way an email doesn’t, so it’s worth doing whenever you can. On the other hand, email lets you get information to a lot of people quickly, and that has its advantages too. If you’re a leader, and your troops call you or drop by your office, welcome that; don’t brush them off and tell them to send you an email. If you’re lower down the chain and want to talk to your commanders, getting some face time certainly won’t hurt.
Technology can be overdone in training as well. PowerPoint is a great tool, but for too many people it’s become the solution to every problem. Avoid this. For some lessons it’s fantastic; for others it just leads to boredom. Soldiers will take more away from hands-on training than another slide session, especially if the slides are jam packed with information. PowerPoint is fine for teaching values and standards or IT security, but for soldier skills it’s inadequate. Doing recognition training? Get outside and do it on the ground with models or silhouettes. It takes a bit more effort to set up – which is probably why PowerPoint gets used so much – but it will pay off.
Headquarters are one place where technology has really run away with itself. Too many HQs are now filled with rows of desks where the staff sits behind their PC for the whole shift, working away in their own little worlds. The information flow is, in theory, incredible – but in reality it’s usually terrible. Facts get stovepiped instead of being spread around. The staff only really gets together and works as a team at the meetings (which seem to multiply like rabbits), and most of the day is spent preparing a brief that’s just like the one you gave 12 hours earlier. The modern information systems are essential, but they shouldn’t dominate. HQs work much better when the staff spends most of their time gathered round a good old-fashioned map board, bouncing ideas off each other and running to the PCs when they need to check some facts. Designate watchkeepers to monitor chat feeds and inboxes. Get the planners and decision makers out from behind their desks and working as a group.
It’s too easy to let the tools available determine how you do things. As a soldier or commander you should take advantage of whatever technology you can get your hands on, but don’t let it shape your processes.