Monday, March 29, 2004

Military Schools and Business Education

Michael Howard has suggested that the military profession is not only physically demanding, but is also the most intellectually demanding:

There are two great difficulties with which the professional soldier, sailor or airman has to contend in equipping himself as a commander. First, his profession is almost unique in that he may have to exercise it only once in a lifetime, if indeed that often. It is as if a surgeon had to practise throughout his life on dummies for one real operation; or a barrister appeared only once or twice in court towards the close of his career; or a professional swimmer had to spend his life practising on dry land for an Olympic championship on which the fortunes of his entire nation depended. Second, the complex problem of running an army at all is liable to occupy hi mind and skill so completely that it is very easy to forget what it is being run for. The difficulties encountered in the administration, discipline, maintenance and supply of an organization the size of a fair-sized town are enough to occupy the senior officer to the exclusion of any thinking about his real business: the conduct of war. It is not surprising that there has often been a high proportion of failures among senior commanders at the beginning of any war. These unfortunate men may take too long to adjust themselves to reality, through lack of hard preliminary thinking about what war would really be like, or they may have had their minds so far shaped by a lifetime of pure administration that they have ceased to for all practical purposes to be soldiers.

Michael Howard, "The Uses and Abuses of Military History," 1962

We must remember as well, that war does not just test the knowledge of generals. On the individual level it tests character as well. Equally important is the premium war places on how well officers work together. Modern military studies have emphasized the importance of tempo during combat operations. The German victories in 1940 owed everything to their ability to read, rethink, and readjust faster than the French. This same factor helps to account for the overwhelming nature of the US victories in Iraq.

The military education system is designed with these challenges in mind. That makes it an interesting subject in its own right. But, here i want to compare it to corporate education. Some of the salient points:

1. There is a lot of it. The generals we see on TV have been to civilian graduate schools, specialized branch schools, and the Army War College. These are full-time positions where officers attend classes for months or even a full year.

This is in stark contrast to corporate life where executive education is heavily front-loaded. Usually the average manager has completed 75% or more of their formal business education before they join the corporation.

2. Key parts of the military's system are in-house; they shape the curriculum, especially at the highest levels.

Corporate education is usually outsourced and generic. The MBA and other executive education programs are usually offered by colleges. In-house, customized programs are most often seen at lower-level training programs for the rank-and-file.

3. Performance at military schools is a factor in promotion decisions. Both Eisenhower and Marshall finished first in their class at Leavenworth which helped marked them for eventual high command. Patton, Bradley, and Mark Clark all had outstanding records at mid-career schools.

Academic performance counts at the entry-level in corporations. But usually only there. Few mid-career executives find themselves in classes where they are graded and where the grades count toward promotion.

4. Military school faculties include officers who are marked for high command. Adm. Raymond Spruance, the victory at Midway, served two tours at the Naval War College in the 1930s. In the two years prior to Pearl Harbor, two of the nine men who would command US field armies were teaching at the Army War College. This is after the war in Europe had started and during an immense expansion of the US military.

Again, this is a key difference from the typical business model. High flyers do not spend a year or two in the training department as a step toward the CEO post.

5. The military school system is not just a means of pushing information and procedures down into the ranks. They also serve as centers for the creation of intellectual capital. In the 1930s the Naval War College helped create and refine the carrier doctrine the USN used in the Pacific War. In the 1980s, John Lehman created Strategic Studies Groups at the NWC. As he described them, "This elite group of midgrade officers, navy and marine, is selected from the fleet to spend a year working on strategy. Each year a new SSG is formed, and changing perspectives help to keep the strategy from solidifying into dogma."


There is no corporation that invests as heavily in education as do the armed services. For all the talk about the importance of intellectual capital, the private sector, as a whole, approaches education it in a haphazard fashion and spends comparatively little. At the same time, it is telling that the large corporation which is famous for its education system--GE-- is also one of the most successful big companies in history.

It is also telling that one of the last strategic reassessments of the Welch era-- the rejection of the "#1 or #2 in every market" requirement-- had its genesis in a remark made by a colonel at the Army War College.

UPDATE: James Joyner comments here.

See Part II here.

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