BLUF (for my Army and corporate colleauges): The Army is an incredible organization to work for. At 1.2 million people in and out of uniform, it is larger than most people realize, but self-aware enough to recognize the dangers of inertia present in being so large. It has an active program not only to engage in external dialogues but also internal dialogues. I got to be a part of the internal dialogue process for a time. I would like to have stayed, but, as most readers are aware, how a dialogue gets structured determines what can be said, and the structure, in this case, was where the Army struggled to realize its vision.
Put another way, by the time of the third org chart it became evident that things, for me at least, were not going to work out. Hired as a subject matter expert, (or SME, pronounced smee in the Army) by the Army Management Staff College to focus on what we came to call social information, I was part of a team of SMEs who belonged both to the College and to Army University who were focused not so much on leadership, which was historically the focus of the College, but on topics that Army leaders needed to be able to think about. Not being a part of the established curriculum for AMSC proved to be more of a problem than, I think, anyone anticipated.
This should have been less of a surprise for an experienced academic like myself, who bears a scar or two from curriculum battles. For non-academics reading this, a (but usually the) curriculum spells out what gets taught. It is the framework within which courses fit, each one addressing some aspect of the curriculum. Faculty are hired based on their ability to teach courses, and faculty are the principal cost in educational institutions, so the curriculum is really a chart of how money flows.
What that means for tenured faculty is that if your course is reduced in importance, or eliminated entirely, then you will end up teaching courses that perhaps you are not prepared to teach, and/or particular interested in teaching. This seems like no big deal to non-academics, where re-skilling is for many simply a fact of work, but academics—who have given up the wage-earning potential of other kinds of jobs—have become academics precisely so they can stay focused in a particular way. Working outside of that focus is not the goal. It goes without saying that the effect of a curriculum revision can have a far greater effect on non-tenured faculty.
At some point in 2019, the Army had tasked its educational units with finding ways to develop, and to encourage the development, of the kinds of thinking that will be useful in the competitive, and possibly combative, environments that lie ahead. After two decades of dealing with counter-insurgency matters, the Army felt like it was time to re-focus its efforts on what tomorrow might, and probably would, bring.
SIDE NOTE: Most of my readers probably don’t think about national security, and that’s a good thing, because it means the national security people are really good at their jobs. But within a national security context, you don’t have the luxury of being wrong. This isn’t like corporate competition. Losing at national security could mean the end of life as we know it, and for Americans that’s a lot, a lot, a lot. Working within a national security focus brings a real urgency to get things right, or, at least in an educational and organizational development framework, helping to create an environment in which the people and structures involved will arrive at what is right before anyone looking to make it wrong has a chance to act effectively.
How It Started
The Army Management Staff College (AMSC) had been handed the task of bringing civilians into the loop on what matters most so that they could be a fuller part of the conversation the Army has with itself and with the rest of the DoD. The new curriculum of which I was a part would be focused in general on multi-domain operations, the Army’s current next doctrine and in particular on information advantage, which conceptually bundles together a variety of ideas about information and cognition. It gets complex fast, and the Army is striving to make its upper-level managers aware of the complexity the U.S. is already facing. AMSC was looking to build first a course and then a set of curricular enhancements that would be distributed across a number of courses that would have MDO as the general framework and Information Advantage as the lead idea.
I don’t remember now how I came across the posting for a Social Media Writer/Instructor. The title itself was not terribly appealing, but I decided that “writer/instructor” was not a terrible description of what an academic does and maybe it was the Army’s equivalent of a professor. I don’t remember why I decided to apply for the position, except that the application was a chance to see how I might do in a marketplace that wasn’t the academy: the federal hiring process and the resume and forms it requires are about as far from a vita and a writing sample as you can get. Luckily, I had a friend who had recently gone, successfully, through the hiring process for a federal agency, and his advice on how to structure my resume and how to think about questions asked of me got me through to the next stage. (It was kind of refreshing to think of myself in a different light: I have managed projects and people; I have done things!)
I made it through the selection process and was offered the job. My first question was: should I actually go through with this? I hadn’t really expected to get to this point, but here I was. The Army personnel with whom I dealt stressed that while the job description was “writer/instructor” what they wanted was “research faculty” to design and deliver a two-week course four times a year, with possible additional iterations based on demand, as well as the usual expectations about productivity and service.
Ask any faculty member teaching anything more than a 2–2 load, especially at a resource-strapped university where service loads can be quite high, what having to teach 8 weeks out of the year might mean to their research productivity, as well as their overall sense of well-being. Where do I sign up? Except, I reminded myself, you are signing up with the Army, one of the largest organizations in the world and one renown for its bureaucracy. (For those wondering how this is going to end: yes, bureaucracy played a small role in my eventual decision to leave, but, honestly, there a certain amount of politicking that made the eventual situation untenable from my point of view. I do not, I repeat, do not hold the Army accountable for that. Rather, I am disappointed by the short-sightedness of some people and disappointed in myself for not recognizing that I needed to be a better advocate for myself and my team members. I want to do better next time.)
I signed up and plunged into the realm of trying to understand what the Army thought it needed versus assessments by other parts of the government, think tanks, and various defense- and army-oriented publications. (And there are a lot.) My first few months were spent plunged shoulder-deep into Army doctrine publications while also engaged in as many conversations as I could not only with my new colleagues, both my fellow SMEs as well as my new colleagues in the Army Management Staff College, but also with faculty in adjacent schools, like the Command and General Staff School or the School for Advanced Military Studies. I also got to know a few people in various parts of TRADOC, the Army’s training and doctrine command, of which I was now a member.
At first, I was not entirely sure I had been the right choice for the job: the Army seemed very focused on social media and its discontents. As a folklorist, social media is simply another system through which flows the kinds of information which my field has long studied. I lobbied for a re-framing of this dimension of information advantage as being focused on social information systems, and, the Army agreed. (I don’t think enough people credit the Army for being flexible in its thinking.)
By this moment, our brave band of SMEs had grown from three — with expertise in electromagnetic warfare, robotics, and, as it was now being called, social information systems — to five, with the addition of a SME on AI/ML and a SME on cyberwarfare who had also been brought in to manage us as our own department.
This marked our second organizational chart, and it worried me a little that we were drifting away from the established departments, but our new lead was experienced in PME, Professional Military Education, and had not only years of experience but also a vision of how we should do things — as well as a real sense of the importance of academics being academics and not something else. He understood the importance of producing not only a course that could be a jewel in the College’s crown but also each of us pursuing publication.
This latter part was more of a challenge than might, at first glance, be obvious. Not all of the subject matter experts were academics: they were individuals who had done the actual work of running operations and then later trained others to operate as well as engaged in the complex dialogue that is the DoD’s procurement process. Some were academics who had spent time outside the university and had pursued non-traditional publishing streams or were operating at the edge of their expertise.
Of all of us, I was, at least initially, perhaps the most comfortable with both where my expertise lay and what I could contribute in terms of curriculum and publishing. Where I felt the most anxious was with having little, okay no, expertise in military matters. I had no idea what the Army meant by information operations, and how those were, or were not, separate from public relations or psychological warfare or cognitive warfare or military deception or a host of other terms that swirled about my head. I poured over documentation, and I immersed myself in publications like War on the Rocks and the various defense news aggregators like C4ISRnet.
Our team leader made it clear that we had to produce, both in terms of a stellar course as well as publications. The college had put a lot on the line to bring this course into being, and the Army wanted a return on its investment.
How It Went
We had some ups and downs. There was a lot of pressure, but with our team lead keeping us focused, in a few months we had both a first collaborative publication as well as the draft for a course. We offered the course twice in the spring of the following year, and we got good, honest, feedback on what worked and what didn’t. Not everything went as well as expected, but, then again, some things went better than expected. We were especially delighted with the outcome from a scenario we had come up with: it worked.
Offered virtually, the course relied on a great deal of energy from presenters, especially when our participants were from the wonkier end of the spectrum, representing a fair amount of subject matter expertise themselves: we had medical researchers examining cognitive dimensions of injury recovery; we had material researchers who worked at the leading edge of weapons development; we had linguists trained in several languages and cultures. Each group presented a different set of challenges. There were a lot of long days both leading up to a course instance as well as afterwards as well planned, executed, and then debriefed ourselves.
It was also during this time that the differences in expectation between the Army and its newest SMEs began to emerge. While we were, I think, fully prepared to have changes in outputs and outcomes as both ourselves and the Army discovered how best to use us, we were not prepared for the constant questioning about how we were using our time. From the Army’s point of view, each of us was responsible for 40 hours of productivity, so, dammit, produce! From our perspective, we were mostly still trying to understand our new context, and it was only then that we could produce what was needed.
This misunderstanding of what a research faculty is would continue to haunt the group in the months to come. One member of the team exited quickly when, I think, he sensed how things were headed. Our team lead left six months later, unwilling to endure what felt like to him a constant stream of concerns about how slow we moved as a group.
Shortly after our team lead’s departure, the Army decided to break up the group as a separate department within the College and moved individual group members into facets of another department. There we got a close look at the “train the trainers” methodology and received strongly worded warnings that subject matter experts were simply unnecessary. With that, our AI/ML expert left, returning to his former academic position. I stayed in the struggle a few more months, but after a moment in which I was told to take personal leave to attend a professional conference and then given 24 hours to sign off on a new performance metric 8 months into the evaluation year, I decided that it was time for me, too, to return to my former academic position.
What I Learned
Organizations are living things, filled with people. Organizations like the Army are incredibly large things, filled with over a million people. Roughly a quarter of that population is civilians, and that may be part of the problem for the Army when it comes to its own stated desire to change, or at least to learn how to change more quickly. A good chunk of the Army Civilian workforce is retired military, most of them former Army. That is, by the time they enter into the civilian side, they have already spent 20 years, or more, being trained to think a certain way, to report a certain way, to imagine themselves within a larger organization a certain way. Twenty years is a lot of habit to break.
Those of us who were pure civilians were told this upfront, and our entrance into the College was, we were told, part of the Army embracing the necessity for learning how to think differently. It’s a fine sentiment, but anyone who has tried to change the dynamics of an extant relationship knows that it’s hard work. It’s not impossible, but it is hard. And the more people you have, the harder it gets, and the more you have to communicate and reflect and encourage. You have to have incredibly strong and persevering leadership abilities.
The Army isn’t there yet. The good news from what I saw was that there are a lot of people, some pure civilians like I was and some ex-Army, who are really smart and really dedicated to making the Army better. This is incredibly good news, but they also face an incredibly difficult task. Not impossible, just very, very hard.