Gen Y and the Barriers to Professional Blogging

Where is the one-stop shop for all things tactical in the United States Navy? Is it held within the hallowed halls of the Navy Warfare Development Command? NWDC aggregates lessons learned, fuses experience with doctrine, models and simulates how we fight (and how we can fight better), innovates to provide warfighters with the latest technical solutions, and is best positioned to influence the future of Navy warfighting. We would be remiss if we didn’t periodically ask the question: how do we better communicate with those frontline Sailors who are executing doctrine, tactics, techniques, and procedures such that we improve our ability to change doctrine when necessary? Be it the blog, the formal request, or feedback in the form of professional journal articles, NWDC should tap the innovative spark residing in every combat information center in the Fleet.

How do we share their lessons learned?
            How do we share their lessons learned?

In every organization that thinks, the old guard is wary of the perspectives of the new, but has a healthy appreciation for their views, energy, and willingness to discuss their experiences. That feedback loop has always existed in any organization willing to robustly challenge the status quo, but the desired feedback is not available at a macro level within the Navy for a variety of reasons–cultural, technological, and social. Imagine the differences between a junior and senior officer sharing perspectives of a generation ago (when they might have privately shared a bridge-wing discussion of a professional article published in Proceedings), juxtaposed with the immediacy and reach of the modern professional blog:

“Gosh…I am writing about something online, which I care enough about to expose my opinions and limited intellect to the great unknown–which could result in numerous fanboys championing my cause and lauding me as the next Mahan–or could result in numerous subject matter wonks illuminating my ignorance and lambasting my conclusions…all in full view of my superiors in the chain of command.”

The perceived risks and rewards of sharing ideas online have never been greater in an era where the center of gravity in naval warfighting thinking has shifted from the dusty Naval War College Review lying unread on the shelf in the empty wardroom, to the simulator and the blogosphere. Speaking of the latter, where is the sailorbob or cdrsalamader ‘site on the high side? Given the requirement to keep much of our tactical discussion away from prying eyes, how easy has the Navy made it for the average watchstander to find high-side sites where tactics are routinely and robustly discussed?

The generational difference above most keenly illustrates the loss of intimacy in professional feedback. Whereas every Commanding Officer wishes to create his or her own wardroom of “Preble’s Boys,” there isn’t a big-Navy “brand” that elicits a similar desire for fixing problems; rather, the average junior officer views the naval bureaucracy with the same degree of mistrust and fatalism most Americans feel about big government bureaucracy. Additionally, Gen Y expects feedback to generate change (or at least to generate transparent discussion)–not to sit in some fonctionnaire’s to-do queue for months as tired stakeholders and “antibodies” deliberate change.

Why is it so difficult to attract Gen-Y thinkers to post about naval warfighting? For a generation raised online, which Dov Zakheim, Art Fritzson, and Lloyd Howell discussed in the article Military of Millenials, one would think that information-sharing is second nature.

…deeply ingrained habits challenge established organizational values. To command-and-control organizations like the military (and many corporations), knowledge is power and, therefore, something to be protected – or even hoarded. To Gen Y, however, knowledge is something altogether different; it belongs to everyone and creates a basis for building new relationships and fostering dialogue. Baby boomers and Gen Xers have learned to use the Internet to share information with people whom they already know, but members of Gen Y use blogs, instant-messaging, e-mails, and wikis to share information with those whom they may never meet – and also with people across the hall or down the corridor. Their spirit of openness is accompanied by a casual attitude toward privacy and secrecy; they have grown up seeing the thoughts, reactions, and even indiscretions of their friends and peers posted on a permanent, universally accessible global record.”

Unfortunately, the article also sheds light on barriers which senior leaders need to be aware of, when it comes to sharing those innovative thoughts.

And there is a still more challenging issue: A Concours Group report on generational change proposed (in August 2004) that Gen Y’s comfort with online communications may mask the group’s inexperience in negotiating disagreements through direct conversation and a deficit in face-to-face social skills. Beyond the implications for this generation’s future management style, how might such a skill deficit affect the military’s ability to “win hearts and minds” in future conflicts? In recent years, the military has done extensive training to offset educational deficiencies. Indeed, the promise of such training has been among its greatest attractions for recruits. Should the military now begin to focus on developing new recruits’ interpersonal skills, neglected through years of staring into cyberspace?”

How does Navy leadership make Gen Y more comfortable with confrontation online, in a command-and-control environment, to engage in that robust discussion essential to the discovery of better ideas and processes? Recruit football players? Take boxing classes? Teach verbal judo? Train a generation of naval officers that a prerequisite for robust discussion is the ability to confront, even to the detriment of consensus? Or do we encourage anonymous blogging in such a way that an individual feels comfortable expressing his or her thoughts without fear of repercussion? A blogger should always expect to face contention. Most ideas works at a certain level, but become cannon fodder for memes on other levels. To mitigate as much ridicule as possible, one needs to consider additional perspectives to preempt the ridiculous assumptions of online “trolls.”

 

Yeah I'll get to that tactics discussion, I just need to grab something out of my zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz....
Yeah I’ll get to that tactics discussion, I just need to grab something out of my zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz….

The greatest factor we are fighting, regarding the target audience of young leaders is quite simply TIME. The average sea duty workload is something close to 74 hours a week. That’s lowballing the estimate, for the very leaders we somehow expect to be having these discussions and sharing their vital experiences (beyond their internal training teams). I still expect that junior officers, mid-grade enlisted, Chief Petty Officers are all engaged in those midwatch conversations about the best way to accomplish a mission, to fix a process, to kill more efficiently…but are simply too busy to push those ideas out to yet another feedback loop outside the lifelines, to whom sailors owe no particular loyalty nor do they expect to see any returns for their hard work.

The more insidious factor being a silencing of innovation in warfighting thought because of the perception that sharing of views outside of one’s own chain of command is seen in a negative light. Jeff Gilmore’s excellent post titled “Where is Lt Zuckerburg“  illustrates the challenges the military has placed upon its own innovators, from the lack of a coherent social media policy to the impediments placed upon junior thinkers by senior staffs. When coupled with the perception of ideas flowing into a doctrinal “black hole” once they leave the unit (due to the length of the vetting process, or due to failing to find advocacy outside the lifelines), what motivation do junior leaders have to share their ideas?

Another factor (WAIT! Was that a picture of a chicken wearing a birthday hat?): Distraction in the workplace is yet another detractor to naval Warfighting cognition. Let’s face it: war at sea is cerebral. Our ability to forecast, plan ahead, and train for those “what-if” scenarios is fundamental to preparing for adversity.

The omnipresent distraction of email, administrivia, meetings, drills, texts, and social networking sites creates a pervasive environment of “ADHD management” rather than the silence (and admittedly, for better or for worse, boredom) of a sanctum. However, should we not consider that it is from this very boredom that some of our greatest innovations stem? Think tanks do not hold a monopoly on innovation; rather, we should be tapping the limitless potential of our young watchstanders, disaffected with processes and TTPs that simply don’t make sense. Without a meaningful (and easy to use) method to feed those innovative ideas back to the doctrine-makers, we will continue to belabor the proverbial “open” in the feedback loop.

So how should the Navy engender robust participation in the warfighting discussion? Here’s a few thoughts on improving our Fleet warfighting advocacy:

One: Utility

Make a Navy-wide SIPR repository of all things tactical. You need to find that TACMEMO? We’ve got it. You want to rant about why page 348 of the pub is misleading? Post about it. You want to engage in knock-down, drag-out “discussions” with your peers and your seniors on more effective ways to take an enemy apart? Get in the game.

Two: Network

Centers of Naval Strategy, like the Navy Warfare Development command staff, should directly engage the mid-grade strategic thinkers at the CSG, ESG, squadron, and individual unit levels–and ensure they have access and opportunity to post. Usually, this comes when there are slow times for the umpteenth under-instruction watchstander in combat, who was tasked with looking something up online.

Three: Improve Inertia

Provide timely feedback, especially in cases where a particular TTP conflicts with AOR practices–essentially acting as the tactics referee for the Navy, ready to feed back to Fleet commanders when something doesn’t work as intended.

We can overcome the lack of organizational inertia that bureaucracy forces upon warfighting; but doing so requires us to train our young leaders to use a healthy dose of critical thinking, some self-righteous zeal, and a bulldozer when necessary.

Jason is a Surface Warfare Officer currently serving in the Innovations and Concepts Department within the Navy Warfare Development Command.

This article was cross-posted by permission from the Disruptive Thinkers Blog.

 

4 thoughts on “Gen Y and the Barriers to Professional Blogging”

  1. SWDG used to have a pretty good sipr discussion forum. I suppose it went away with that organization…

  2. As the Navy’s Grade 36 Bureaucrat, I take offense to all this bureaucracy slamming 🙂

    The tools exist for blogging and sharing ideas on the SIPR and JWICS side. It’s called Intelink. On SIPR, go to http://www.intelink.sgov.gov, and on JWICS go to http://www.intelink.ic.gov. There are plenty of tools already built on Intelink to allow for sharing, to include a search engine.

    I’ve used Intelink’s Intellipedia (which uses Wikimedia) to post all the references used in our warfare areas PQS. I also link in video lectures and study materials into the site. That way, our young officers that are attempting to qualify can find everything in one spot. Think about how many hours you spend just FINDING the correct references to understand one line item on a PQS. Had I had a similar Intellipedia site while I was qualifying in submarines, I could have qualified sooner and been smarter for it.

    We will fight the battle of not having enough time much more than having the right tools. If our junior personnel get on Intelink and start putting their knowledge up there, I expect to only see a brighter tactical future.

    -NG36B
    http://navygrade36bureaucrat.blogspot.com/

  3. The great degree of technology dependence in naval and air power affairs is a difficult-to-penetrate veil.

    Even seemingly simple discussions depend so very much on technical if not even physics minutiae that it takes either a deep professional involvement in the exact field or the loudmouth gene on at least one chromosome to blog about anything meaningful about naval affairs.

    I suppose that is why so many public exchanges about naval affairs are extremely simplistic and superficial, discussing ship quantities or specifications on the level of wikipedia entries.

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