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From the Swamp to the High Ground and Back

The education and development of military logistics professionals should focus less on standard solutions to logistics scenarios and more on reflective practice.

The difficulty and complexity of the post-industrial military profession at all levels is so profound and widely recognized that it is almost cliché to mention. This is true for all specialties, but few are more challenging than the field of logistics—especially as leaders reach higher levels of responsibility. Across the vast array of administrative and operational missions and functions that extend from the Pentagon to the farthest corners of the world, the professional military logistician must be skilled in dealing with highly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) circumstances.

The Department of Defense’s education community is working hard to meet the challenge of preparing future leaders for a high-VUCA world, including establishing several specialty schools, colleges, and universities to help shape the necessary skills. Yet curricula designers and faculty members remain challenged to move beyond institutionalized educational philosophies that are intended to drive student learning experiences.

Traditional educational design focuses on the “what”—that is, developing competency maps, determining curricula content, setting measurable learning objectives, and publishing intricate plans of instruction that are believed to control the education process. The “what” is assessed by comparing desired standards of performance to actual student performance.

Other qualitative aspects of professional military education seem to be of lesser significance, if considered at all. In many cases, the education experience appears to be focused primarily on providing students with “knowns” and applying them in the classroom or laboratory. While lessons of the past are thought to be a necessary ingredient to learning, embracing lessons learned may be dogmatic in high-VUCA situations.

In this article, we would like to open a conversation about educating logistics practitioners, focusing more on three other qualities of education: the “where,” “why,” and “how.” Through our normative stance (by taking a “should” perspective), we hope the community of educators and senior logisticians are spurred to better appreciate what we argue are the more desirable professional qualities. To that intent, we admit we argue provocatively rather than seek to ratify the status quo. Our intent is not to suggest current practices in military logistics education have no place in the future, but that they must be subordinated to greater scopes and methods.

What may become apparent to the reader is that we use language and concepts that may very well reflect a paradigm shift. Paradoxically, while we would like to communicate to the institution using familiar language, we appreciate that an emergent paradigm cannot translate well to the one at present. At times, we will have to reframe meanings and invent new ones to attempt to communicate these ideas.

For example, throughout this essay, we will employ the metaphors of “the swamp” and “the high ground” to capture the messy reality of logistics practice and the role of education in assisting that practice. We organize the essay to talk first about the nature of working in the swamp and then about how to create learning conditions that can serve logisticians as the high ground for professional reflective practice. Our principal argument is that reflective practice is essential to becoming a professional, yet we acknowledge that one can never quite arrive at the ideal state.

VUCA in the Swamp

VUCA is a particularly useful acronym to describe the swampy environment in which military logisticians operate. Practitioners would like to make decisions while knowing all of the variables involved in a given circumstance, but this is impossible in the swamp. In effect, they are always bound in their ability to be rational, except in rare situations where VUCA conditions would be very low—like in a very controlled simulation laboratory.

Nevertheless, a logistician can make judgments concerning the degree of VUCA present in the swamp and consider when rational-analytic (laboratory-like or scientific) approaches are appropriate. Assessing the level of VUCA associated with unique decisions or actions is a key aspect of the reflection process we propose. In that regard, we think it useful to examine what each word in the acronym means while remembering that they overlap.

Volatility. Volatility (or instability) is the degree of environmental turbulence or rate of change. Some have argued that every generation seems to think its era is the most volatile. We are neutral on this debate, but we argue that the swamp metaphor—like a bubbling, muddy, primordial mess—assumes countless dynamics at work, making it difficult to define the problem or even appreciate the situation because the context quickly morphs before we can address it.

Uncertainty. Uncertainty is the recognition that what has happened before is not an accurate predictor of what will happen later. So, pre-existing answers or solutions (including technologies) are not available and maybe never will be. The structures of the environmental domains, missions, systems, and processes we face are complex and highly interactive. In the swamp, cause-and-effect relationships are impossible to isolate from others, and the massive amount of interactive variables make assessments, judgments, and decisions about the future more like a gamble—especially when considered in a global context or over long periods of time.

Complexity. Complexity in the swamp refers to the countless events involved and the degree of interconnectedness among them that result in randomness and unpredictability rather than certainty. The higher the complexity, the less certain logisticians are that the situation can be studied in an objective way. Not every action shows immediate feedback. At best, delayed, confusing, unforeseeable side effects develop.

Studying a state of high VUCA in the swamp is like trying to study anarchy. How can you develop a framework to study chaos? Indeed, the paradox is that, by definition, no laws govern cause-and-effect relationships in anarchic systems, so outcomes are random. One can at best reflect on the circumstance—a subjective endeavor—rather than objectively determine how variables will interact. Interpreting complex situations will always result in some level of equivocation, which is our next topic.

Ambiguity. When logistics practitioners admit that they cannot be scientifically objective because of the anarchic nature of high levels of volatility, uncertainty, and complexity, their attempts at explaining what is happening in the swamp are infused with ambiguity. Mindful that multiple meanings are competing for making sense in the swamp, reflective practitioners acknowledge that expected lack of clarity. On the other hand, unreflective practitioners might have a false sense of clarity—a bias—and force the illusion of a shared understanding and seek closure rather than contemplate the almost endless possibilities of interpretations.

In the VUCA-laden swamp, reflective practitioners understand that additional information does not necessarily add clarity but often generates more questions and more possible meanings. A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a poverty of attention adds even more ambiguity (paraphrasing Nobel laureate Herbert A. Simon).

Logistics practitioners should be familiar with the concept of ambiguity in daily life. Almost every word has more than one definition—and for good reason. Definitions vary across languages, editions, types, and cultures (even local or closely related social structures). Meanings are derived from context, culture, and interpretations of past events. One will likely find different definitions of the same phrase in other groups who have had different experiences and have contextualized those experiences in different ways.

Meanings are not as objective as one might think; yet, semantic history has tremendous influence on how situations are framed. Indeed, the hermeneutic method (the interpretation of others’ text) to study the contextualization of the past can help gain a broader view about making sense of the present.

For example, most Soldiers have attended a meeting where the senior ranking official declares that the first task at hand is to agree to terms of reference (meaning, agree with multiple agencies and international participants in the room). In the swamp, accepting multiple, diverse meanings may benefit the collaborative “sensemaking.” It may be more valuable to remain open to different meanings than to risk animosity in attempts to force agreement on terms.

In the swamp, actions must be taken and logistics must be provided. Reflection without action is useless, and action without reflection is careless. Educating the military logistics practitioner to work in the swamp is in conflict with the conventional belief that the way to that education is best determined by developing what should be taught. Such a deterministic model of education will not be very helpful to those who have to operate in high-VUCA environments.

We need to focus much less on the “what” of education (that should occur more naturally) and more on the “where” of education (the metaphoric high ground).

Where: Structural Inertia

Our traditional structures for military logistics education seem oriented on building schoolhouses and, more recently, centers of excellence that feed practitioners knowledge that works. With few exceptions, logistics curricula designed in military schools, colleges, and universities are structured after the hierarchical system of military decisionmaking that involves a great deal of determining the “what.” This system includes the top-down control of content, governance by approvals of competency maps and learning objectives (geared to a technical training culture), and formal accreditations and certifications. Hence, the curricula are mired in this structural inertia.

Although VUCA situations require customization, standardization appears to be the dominant value in terms of managing the scale of productivity in our educational institutions. The fallacy promoting such industrial-age, large-scale, production-line approaches is the assumption that situations described in the classroom will repeat in the real world. The logic is that if the student can perform to standard in the classroom, the student will apply those standards in his fieldwork—that is, in the swamp.

This is a maladaptive belief, particularly where standards of learning can become competency traps and our practitioners have to be inventive and improvisational. Thinking of the classroom or exercise scenario as the rehearsal stage for the real-world performance is a dangerous assumption; yet, it appears that a large part of the education community embraces this belief. Professor Donald A. Schön, in his seminal book, The Reflective Practitioner, puts it this way:

[With an] emphasis on problem solving, we ignore problem setting, the process by which we define the decision to be made, the ends to be achieved, the means which may be chosen. In real-world practice, problems do not present themselves to the practitioner as givens. They must be constructed from the materials of the problematic situations which are puzzling, troubling, and uncertain. In order to convert a problematic situation to a problem, a practitioner must do a certain kind of work. He must make sense of an uncertain situation that initially makes no sense.

Educating the reflective military logistics practitioner will involve continuously deconstructing and reconstructing the “where” component of the learning function. The center of attention moves away from engineering structures to creating organic structures that permit fluid movement of practitioners to and from the seminar (the high ground for reflection) and each unique job setting (the swamp).

Emphases on deterministic knowledge solutions (sometimes euphemistically referred to as “toolkits”) are diminished while “reflection while in action” becomes more prominent—in essence, the swamp becomes the “where.” The “where” of education starts to blend these traditionally separate worlds; the high ground and the swamp merge. The quality of reflection (the “why”) that occurs between the swamp and the high ground is vested in the critically important task of professional inquiry.

Why: Reflection as Professional Inquiry

Central to professionalizing military logistics practitioners is the shaping of their desire not only to learn but, more importantly, to strive to challenge old, accepted knowledge and create new knowledge. One thing that makes military logisticians professional is their sense of obligation to question the state of professional knowledge. Ultimately, the purpose of professional education is to help instill this sense of obligation.

We will discuss four key ideas about the “why” of educating: valuing praxis, designing (and communicating) professional inquiry, researching-in-action, and being philosophically savvy.

Valuing praxis. Inquiring and reporting around the idea of praxis—the unification of theory and practice—should be a preeminent professional value. Eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant summarized this idea by saying, “Perception without conception is blind. Conception without perception is empty.”

An ideal professional quality is to become an effective theorist, engaging in the imaginative process of linking interesting facts into relationships that are driving us toward a more holistic and integrative view. In short, theorizing is about presenting a larger context of how things are or could be.

Traditional students in military logistics educational programs tend to focus far more on practice (and searching for best practices) and far less on developing or debunking theories of practice, which is called “abductive reasoning.”

Over the past 50 years (since the obscure publication of Henry Eccles’ 1959 book, Logistics in the National Defense), uniformed logisticians have relinquished control of their general theory of effectiveness and allowed outside business administrators and academics to provide much of the theory that military logisticians study. Part of the ideal state of military logistics education would include continuous updating of a general theory of military logistics.

Designing professional inquiry. The profession offers opportunities for intrinsically motivated
logisticians to become confident in how to approach inquiry and report outcomes with rich descriptions and concise summaries, both conversationally and in written form. The conversational form can be described as “consultative stewardship” and is a skill that delivers coaching, guidance, direction, and assessment. With this skill, professionals engage in substantive discussion and debate with peers, subordinates, and superiors.

Professional inquiry is important both in the realm of divergent knowledge (exploring the unknowns) and in confirming or denying assimilative knowledge (readdressing or challenging the knowns). Both of these reasons for inquiry are important for addressing the perpetual issue of avoiding professional myopia or a competency trap. As sociologist Gianfranco Poggie said, “A way of seeing is also a way of not seeing.” The current state of the profession may indicate blindness to the value of consultative stewardship.

Researching-in-action. The best professional practitioners could ideally be described as researchers-in-action. They develop innovative and improvisational ways to design logistics while working, rather than using mechanistic templates (techniques or best practices) learned in the conventional classroom that assume a near-context-free application.

Inquiry developed between the swamp and the high ground should not emphasize completeness, and plans should be considered works-in-progress that are never quite complete. Such inquiry does not seek closure but rather openings to unexpected possibilities. Military logisticians should aspire to understand the value of both qualitative and quantitative research, the limits of using applied science techniques in logistics, and the importance of appreciating when to employ abductive reasoning (better for high-VUCA situations) instead of deductive or inductive reasoning (better for low-to-moderate-VUCA situations).

Abductive reasoning involves the discovery of tentative inferences and search strategies for possible explanations. Surprise is the trigger of abductive reasoning, so it goes hand-in-hand with being a practical skeptic about one’s belief system. According to Herbert A. Simon (in his seminal 1973 article “The Structure of Ill Structured Problems” in the journal Artificial Intelligence), such critical inquiry needs a blending of luck, persistence in search, and superior heuristics.

According to modern-day philosopher Nicholas Rescher, our sense of luck involves appreciation of chaos (small changes can lead to amplified effects), the unpredictability of others’ choices, the nature of chance (the unruliness of things happening), and our own ignorance (consisting of both fallacies in interpreting information and a lack of information). Despite the resulting randomness in everyday life, we can still abductively reason, which is more of an attitude than a methodology.

Abductive reasoning theorists argue that much of our creativity involves extending what we already know. We borrow meanings from a wide assortment of experiences and learn to cross lines between knowledge disciplines (sciences and humanities) to make sense of novel situations. To reason abductively requires an open search strategy that includes having a disciplined conversation with oneself, collaborating with others who have varying views, calling on past experiences that can be synthesized and evaluated as hypotheses for taking action now, and extending and displacing old concepts until useful meanings are discovered for the situation at hand.

Recall Archimedes’ shouts of “eureka,” from the Greek verb, heuriskein, which means “to find out.” Superior heuristics (from the same root word) involves creativity in reframing, finding rules of thumb, analogies, metaphors, similes, and histories that may relate to making sense of the situation at hand. The reflective logistics practitioner expects surprise as he abductively reasons about the emergent reality. An eclectic career path and multidisciplinary educational opportunities provide the practitioner superior heuristics when dealing with high-VUCA situations.

Education should involve coaching students to be researchers-in-action as they encounter problems of the real world. Students should treat their past field experiences in the swamp as hypotheses for action, not as proofs for action. Academic study should be oriented more toward learning about the philosophy behind the practice of abductive reasoning. Crossing over into nonlogistics fields of study, including liberal arts, has tremendous value. Such studies serve as creative sources for heuristics and exercising professional judgment when faced with high-VUCA situations.

Being philosophically savvy. Military logistics practitioners should strive to become philosophically savvy. That is, they should strive to remain open to ideas while being critically mindful enough not to succumb to (paraphrasing philosopher Lewis Feuer) clichés, catchwords, placards, parades, slogans, ideological clubs, circles, peer and populist unsubstantiated influences, orthodoxy, and overreliance on technique.

Professional military logisticians have to be sophisticated enough to recognize and resist anti-intellectualism, dogmatic beliefs, cultural biases, and ideologically-based influences and to deal effectively with inconvenient facts that may contradict prevailing beliefs. We need military logisticians who can engage in critical reviews of otherwise popular or unexamined arguments in military, academic, and contracted studies.

For example, professional logisticians should routinely challenge the wisdom of popular management books that uncritically espouse the worthiness of fads, such as Balanced Scorecard and Lean Six Sigma. We also need professionals who embrace well articulated arguments, scholarly work, the statements of talented and insightful thinkers, and those who respect fellow professionals despite rank and positional differences.

How: Connecting the Swamp and the High Ground

Rather than educating through episodic classroom experiences that are separate from actual practice in the field, the logistics community has to find ways to merge the two experiences. Perhaps educators should use a virtual seminar on the Internet while injecting short (maybe 2- or 3-week) small-group sessions over a period of years. Real-world experiences should serve as opportunities for a practicum, and the educator should be the coach and discussion facilitator along the way.

Educational programs should be redesigned to use the cohort seminar as an opportunity to go to the high ground. Students should move themselves from the immersion of day-to-day problems at work to a temporary vantage point where group members help each other reframe their situations and participate in designing a way ahead.

Taking advantage of the high ground involves collaborative thought experiments and adapting to the situation at hand when no technical solution seems to work (i.e., creating divergent knowledge). The purpose of the cohort seminar, then, facilitated by the logistics educator, is to explore through dialog and inventively create divergent forms of knowledge as a group. The students return to work with a refreshing view and equipped with new insights and images of their mission.

Some in the defense community may prefer using the case study or scenario method in the classroom. Instead of students bringing their swampy experiences to the classroom, the more traditional scenario method is to present well-developed and detailed case studies that are intended to help the students become better problem-solvers.

Criticisms of the scenario method are many. First, case studies tend to be developed around preconceived themes and theories of action that provide opportunities for deductive reasoning (developing solutions from a potentially illusive framework, such as military doctrine). Few, if any, opportunities exist for theory building and testing-in-action (which are associated with abductive reasoning). Under the swampy conditions of high-VUCA situations, abductive reasoning is the preferred skill. The benefit of using real up-to-date situations (that are indeed messy) is that students are required both to criticize prevalent theories or doctrines that appear irrelevant and to promote the ongoing design of new theories.

Second, scenario-based exercises imply that there are context-free lessons to be learned. That is, one assumes the conditions will repeat in the real world and the students will now be familiar with them. But Soldiers are unlikely to experience exactly the same logistics operation over and over again. In high-VUCA, real-world, military logistics situations, the logistics scheme cannot be static, so knowledge of military logistics must always be transforming.

The traditional search for historic lessons learned must be continuously evaluated, and efforts have to be taken to unlearn them; the knowledge of military logistics is, and has to be, ephemeral. History’s greatest role in military education is to confirm that every operation is unique. While the context provided in case studies can never match the context that recent student experiences provide, history serves to be a rich source for building heuristic depth in practitioners.

Third, scenario method learning reinforces the idea that we can find root causes and define problems through analysis and other forms of scientific reductionism. In highly complex, interactive situations, practitioners may at best appreciate the unique situations they are in. Appreciation is making subjective judgments of fact about the state of the whole system. It is a view of oneself and one’s organization as part of a larger enterprise in an even larger global context.

Unlike case studies, where causality can be more clearly determined in retrospect and aspects of causality appear isolatable, projecting on the current situation is better stated as an exercise of “retrospection anticipated in fantasy” (as social philosopher Alfred Schutz says in his Collected Papers). One should seek to twist this abductive reasoning idea with this maxim: “If you set out to invent the future now, you are not inventing the future; you are instead being inventive in the present.” This is a much greater skill than untangling historic case studies into neat, oversimplified, proximately causal terms.

Studying history is not the problem. On the contrary, we advocate a detailed approach to studying history. Our objection is about how cases are designed and biased toward proving a point or developing scientific techniques. These are illusory goals. We advocate affording practitioners the opportunity to go to the high ground in the midst of their day-to-day struggles in the swamp, where no one knows how things will turn out. Educating military logistics practitioners should be more about reflective practice than the deterministic search for best practice.

In the face of high-VUCA conditions, traditional educational structures for military logisticians are maladaptive because they focus on the “what.” Our goal in this essay is to suggest the need to deconstruct and restructure our conceptualizations of education toward the questions of—

  • Where: Reframing education away from the locus of deductive reasoning and standardized “technical” structures toward more abductive reasoning and contextual, adaptive, sensemaking opportunities.
  • Why: Orienting on praxis, designing, researching-in-action, and philosophical knowledge.
  • How: Creating a cohort-based seminar approach that continuously connects the swamp to the high ground.

Given these concepts of logistics education, a collegial body of reflective practitioners can opportunistically create emergent and often ephemeral forms of knowledge that, under high-VUCA conditions, are more important than knowing “what” the military logistics community already knows.

The most significant ingredient in this transformation must be a renewed emphasis on the quality of educators as facilitators of the proposed reform—particularly to foster abductive reasoning skills in practitioners. In their role as ongoing seminar facilitators, these carefully selected educators should be, above all, highly skilled in shaping the conversations and creating opportunities to gain perspective on the swamp from the high ground.

The focus of the senior educational administrator is no longer on controlling the content (the “what”) but on ensuring that cohort seminars are resourced in the form of excellent faculty, well-designed seminar rooms, and opportunities for virtual seminar experiences as needed. The quality of the connections among the members of these proposed collaborative groups depends on these resources and those expert facilitators.

Our defense logistics schools, colleges, and universities must shift attention from seeking context-free knowledge (“best practice” or technical knowledge) to facilitating context-rich knowledge (the realm of reflective military logistics practice). Traditional models of military logistics education focus on students being able to recognize situations and know what to do. Our proposed philosophy assumes practitioners will be making sense of novel situations, inventing what to do as they are doing it, and reflecting on the situations as they are happening and in retrospect.

The swamp/high ground approach to education will provide a cohort venue in which the practitioner can become more professional. We recognize the tremendous challenges—intellectual, structural, and resource—that such a shift would entail within the Department of Defense educational enterprise. Some people will have reasons why we cannot or should not change our traditional approach, and many will not entertain even experimenting with a new method. However, in the high-VUCA world, it comes down to a single inescapable question: What educational philosophy will help professionalize our logisticians?

Dr. Christopher R. Paparone is an assistant professor in the Army Command and General Staff College’s Department of Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental, and Multinational Operations at Fort Lee, Virginia. He is a retired Army colonel and has a Ph.D. degree from Pennsylvania State University.

Colonel George L. Topic, USA (Ret.), is the vice director in the Center for Joint and Strategic Logistics at the National Defense University. He served as a Quartermaster officer for 28 years on active duty and for 3 years as the deputy director for strategic logistics on the Joint Staff.

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