Improve the Culture and Mechanisms of Naval Learning

Notes to the New CNO Series

By Commander Art Valeri

The “Get Real Get Better” campaign initiated a transformative process to address performance shortfalls in the spirit of increasing readiness. However, the practical method of achieving that readiness deserves more attention in considering broad naval mission sets and thoughtfully influencing change within the Navy.

Addressing such a varied group of personnel and missions across the spectrum of being, and supporting, the warfighter is challenging. It may prove beneficial to widen the scope beyond a negatively focused look at poor performance at sea. Although the study of catastrophic failures is absolutely necessary, other industries suggest ways to improve organizational performance. An interdisciplinary approach might uncover the behaviors and practices of units delivering preferred outcomes despite limited resources across both line and staff communities. The Navy might appreciate ways to emulate success as equally valuable in our approach to readiness, rather than strive to narrowly avoid irreversible failure. As much as we “embrace the red,” we might also “perceive the green.” Although difficult, we might even aspire to rediscover a tolerance toward recoverable failures as opportunities to learn.

A key contributor to unit success includes the intentional creation of organizational and cultural environments conducive to learning. The ability to learn is arguably the main attribute with the potential to produce warfighting victory. Across the Navy, such victory might represent better surgical outcomes in the operating room, improved liaison relationships with partner nations, and commanding officers unafraid to emphasize boundary spanning, all of which reinforce asymmetric advantages. Although often a short-term advantage, a reliance on superior technology is not enough to ensure victory. Institutions should sense and steer the mechanisms that support individual and organizational learning, manage the barriers and pitfalls that inhibit this learning, and invest in better learning and leading methods.

For the Navy, this approach requires a new way of thinking. It must be permissive in nature and firmly grounded in becoming a learning organization. To effect such a change, a doctrinal publication formally instituting learning as a strategic priority is a necessary and natural complement to Naval Doctrinal Publication (NDP) 1, Naval Warfare as a first step. This articulated position would serve to orient all naval communities to embrace, value, and reward those activities necessary to our survival despite modern and forthcoming challenges. Without such a fundamental reference to socialize these concepts into the organization, the bureaucracy which is the U.S.  Navy might unintentionally stifle performance, slow its momentum, and limit its potential to make progress. The Navy must become a better learning organization if it is to realize its warfighting potential and sustain its competitive edge.

Commander (Dr.) Art Valeri is an Operative Dentist and Naval Postgraduate School PMBA student stationed at NMRTC Great Lakes serving as Dental Department Head, Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher Medical and Dental Clinic, Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center, North Chicago, IL.

Featured Image: Naval Aircrewman (Helicopter) 3rd Class Taquan West, assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 5, keeps watch over the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) and the fast combat support ship USNS Arctic (T-AOE-8) on June 28, 2022. (U.S. Navy Photo)

One thought on “Improve the Culture and Mechanisms of Naval Learning”

  1. Terms and labels have changed, but concepts haven’t. I agree that the Navy should be a learning organization. I was around for Total Quality Leadership (TQL) that came in like a lion and left unceremoniously a couple of years later, hated by all. I blame that on implementation, not on Deming’s total quality principles, which includes: Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement for everyone. We have a culture that has a hard time admitting that we need to constantly improve, because that implies that we don’t have it right yet, and no one wants to admit that. So yes, we need to become a learning organization, but culture has to change first.

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