In recent months, innovation has been at the heart of political and military discussions. In the defence domain in particular, innovation is central to a number of initiatives and to the work carried out by national working groups. It also extends far beyond our borders: the public and private sectors, nations and international organizations are all in the race for innovation. The same is true for NATO in general and Allied Command Transformation in particular. But the need for innovation, whatever its recent visibility, is not new, nor is it a simple declaration of intent, but a response to specific needs resulting in a range of principles and actions.
Before turning to the issue of innovation as seen from Allied Command Transformation, one should begin by identifying those factors which have made greater innovation imperative for the military domain. Today’s strategic environment is characterized by its lack of predictability, the speed of change and the interrelation of crises, actors, and threats. At the dawn of the 21st century, our world went from complicated, when it was still possible to analyse and understand major systems and their equilibrium, to complex, where the multiplicity and interdependence of variables makes it impossible to predict the evolution and consequences of any given event. From a military point of view, surprise has become a certainty, resilience a necessity and failure an ever-present possibility.
We have seen, since the end of the 20th century, how the private sector and some tech companies especially, have proven more adept at innovation than the defence sector. While they have their own goals and objectives, these companies are confronted with the same complex environment and have developed a number of principles which allow them not only to survive, but to thrive. We can point to a number of these principles:
- Strategic monitoring is vital to understanding how the world is changing, and this effort must have a global reach;
- No single organization has all the tools needed to ensure success. An ecosystem of partnerships is needed, where information exchanges will be more important than formalized relationships;
- Surprises are unavoidable. The resilience of organizations and processes is vital to ensure they can absorb shocks and possibly turn them into opportunities;
- Organizations must be flexible and adaptable;
- Significant technological advances (including big data, cloud computing, cognitive computing, artificial intelligence, etc.) have had a profound impact on organizations and how they operate;
- Even when confronted with a heavy workload, it is important to expend efforts both on today’s priorities and on preparing for the future;
- When it comes to innovation, failure is always an option, but taking risks moves things forward;
- Data has become a major strategic resource, around which entire organizations are built;
- Paradoxically, in a world increasingly dependent on automation and networks, the other major strategic resource remains human capital, whether to attract or retain talent, or to better define its interactions with machines.
This is not an exhaustive list, but these principles serve to draw the general framework for an innovation-focussed organization and apply equally to the defence sector. For ACT, the primary focus is on developing the Alliance’s future combat capacity, both in terms of capabilities and concepts of employment, in order to ensure that the armed forces of the 29 Member Nations are able to use the best equipment, with the appropriate doctrine, the required level of interoperability, and highly competent personnel. This is why, in a complex world, we must innovate.
Allied Command Transformation was inspired by a number of these principles when conducting its recent work, including the adaptation of the NATO Command Structure. Making innovation a priority is the logical conclusion to draw from a review of these principles and from examples in the private sector.
Innovation, whether in a civilian or military organization, is essentially a matter of culture. Organizational culture on the one hand: in order to federate energies and integrate the contributions of members, whatever their position within the organization. A shared culture on the other: common points of reference to allow for a productive exchange of ideas between people able to understand one another. Fostering innovation within Allied Command Transformation implies we will encourage the necessary shared culture. This is especially challenging in an organization which is both military (built around a vertical hierarchical system) and multinational (where the different perceptions, traditions and cultures of 29 member countries and many partners come together).
These cultural traits might hinder innovation and will require an organized approach, with the strong support of the Command’s leadership, designed specifically to turn them into advantages. Pious expressions about innovation will not by themselves serve to transform an organization. It is however possible to use military culture and multinational diversity as opportunities: using the first to encourage the implementation of a framework and the second to inject a plurality of contributions and therefore further enrich debates.
To bring about innovation within ACT will require we federate a number of different initiatives, to which we will return in a moment. But we can already point to an initial broad conclusion: innovation requires an initial and sustained push from all levels in the hierarchy, the presence of relays throughout the organization, and buy-in from staff members. This approach serves as the basis for the work carried out by Allied Command Transformation.
Encourage the Development of an Innovation-Friendly Culture
The first steps must take place within the organization. It is not uncommon for people, because of an innate resistance to change or a conservative outlook, to cast a sceptical eye over new procedures or innovative ways. ACT is no different: so we had to begin by thinking about how to initiate the development of an internal culture that would prove more receptive to innovation.
One main area of general and targeted effort was related to human capital. The Innovation Week we organized in September 2017 was a first for ACT, with conferences, training, and workshops intended to expose all staff to the principles and spirit of innovation. Centred on a review of hands-on cases and on problem solving, these various activities were intended to ensure all members of the headquarters might prove receptive to new ways of working that might be different from the normal processes found in a military organization.
At the same time, an Innovation Boot Camp was held at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, with teams from MD5 (the American Department of Defence National Security Technology Accelerator) and the University of Berkeley. Since developing a culture of innovation requires a cadre of people able to implement the Command’s decisions by building upon the greater awareness of the entire staff, this Boot Camp trained around thirty staff members by training them in practical techniques to think about and deal with problems in a new way. Other similar activities will follow throughout the year.
A second area of effort was aimed at reorganizing the work environment in order to partially overcome the traditional verticality of a military command. The goal was not so much to break with our military culture, but rather to allow for the occasional exchange of ideas and solutions outside of normal hierarchical structures. An internal blog called ACT Connect was set up to share information, but also allow all to post articles of common interest or react to earlier comments. A number of animated conversations have already taken place dealing with various ACT concepts, between members of the headquarters who would not otherwise normally work together.
A new working space was also established in the headquarters. Called the Bridge, in a nod to ACT’s transatlantic origins and to the goal of linking our different branches and divisions, it is intended to provide an area outside of the normal hierarchical structures. Designed around interactions and eschewing formal seating arrangements, it is regularly used by various working groups, especially when brainstorming.
But these initiatives are not enough, only by combining and interconnecting them will we develop a true culture of innovation or, at a minimum, find ways around existing pockets of resistance. We intend to assess the actual impact of these initiatives within ACT, but we understand that cultural change on this scale cannot, however, happen overnight. It will require the continued impetus and support from Command leadership and the strong personal commitment of innovation “champions” entrusted with its implementation. One initial lesson drawn from an assessment of training undertaken so far, has shown that there was a lack of long-term follow-up, and this finding will inform discussions on how future iterations will be organized. To sustain this culture of innovation, the current ACT adaptation effort will involve new branches whose tasks will include studying alternative solutions to a number of NATO’s challenges. This kind of measure will, in time, ensure that, as an institution, we will ensure that a variety of approaches are used to resolve any given problem, and encourage others in the Alliance to do the same.
Another important factor in promoting innovation is our ability to open up to the outside world. Any organization that operates within a vacuum, especially in our complex world, is unlikely to overcome the tyranny of habit. A military and multinational organization, with strict rules governing the protection of information, faces particular challenges in this regard.
But at a time when data exchanges are essential to the efficient running and development of organizations, we have to ensure that ideas and procedures can be exchanged within a large ecosystem of partners, without having to resort exclusively to transactional exchanges. We must drastically increase the number of initiatives that allow different areas of expertise and competence to interact.
ACT relies on this network of expertise, in particular in its strategic foresight and analysis efforts. The Innovation Hub is the most striking example of the initiatives we have launched to revitalize this ecosystem.
The Innovation Hub was set up a number of years ago by ACT in order to facilitate exchanges between a military command hungry for innovative ideas and potential contributors with a particular expertise able to put forward solutions for specific problems. It now has more than 2500 contributors, from 65 nations, with very varied backgrounds: universities, governmental programmes, international as well as non-governmental organizations, journalists, and ordinary citizens. It is built around open innovation: shared information is not classified, in order to encourage synergy and the greatest possible number of points of view. Clearly this sharing requires we think about the kinds of topics we can deal with – the point is not to set aside rules governing the protection of information, but rather to better differentiate between what is absolutely necessary and what is superfluous. Topics like autonomy, artificial intelligence, legal or ethical implications of military action in cyberspace, to quote but a few, are among the many challenges ACT is working on, and where the contributors to the Innovation Hub are a real benefit.
Autonomy provides an instructive example of what the Innovation Hub can bring to ACT efforts. A major technological disruptor, autonomy is likely to have a huge impact on the conduct of tomorrow’s operations. But so much remains to be done, in terms of capabilities, technologies, concepts, doctrine, interoperability, and standards, not to mention setting up the appropriate ethical and legal frameworks. All this will require we reach beyond a narrow circle of subject-matter experts, which is where the Innovation Hub comes in. By bringing in contributors from a variety of backgrounds, be they operators, engineers, researchers, or lawyers, designers or even philosophers, new points of view and a wide range of arguments will enrich our thought processes. Innovation today will likely depend on these exchanges and this is what ACT is seeking to accomplish as it develops its network of partners.
Among the many initiatives coming out of the Innovation Hub, we were particularly impressed by the Innovation Challenge, whose first iteration in 2017 was a resounding success, so much so that a second event will be organized in June 2018 in France with the French Ministry of the Armed Forces and a third in Germany in the autumn of 2018. The concept itself is simple: you put forward a specific problem and invite contributors to bring forward solutions. The first Innovation Challenge, developed in conjunction with partner organizers (the US Department of Defense, Old Dominion University, and others), sought practical solutions to how to best to offer assistance after a natural disaster in the medical, logistic and security domains. Participants were asked to demonstrate their ideas. The fifty or so proposals received, from universities, start-ups, and individuals, included an app allowing the rapid localization of people through word combinations, rapidly deployable solar panels, and a solution for ultrasound data transmission. The most promising solutions received prizes and are currently being developed, with the support of the Innovation Hub. This is a win-win for ACT, it gives greater visibility to participants in exchange for concrete and innovative solutions. These kind of projects are at the heart of the Innovation Hub’s ambition to create a dynamic innovation network which brings together a wide range of civilian and military organizations.
Innovation is Not a Fad, it is a Matter of Urgency
ACT needs an innovation-friendly culture, more than other organizations, in order to look ahead at future strategic developments and anticipate their consequences for future NATO operations. However, bringing about cultural changes on this scale is not easy and requires considerably more than good intentions. The various initiatives developed over recent months sowed the seeds for this new culture in our organization – now it is time to ensure they produce long-lasting results and become part of the fabric, even if it requires profound changes to our organizational structures and procedures.
We must also internalize the urgent need for developing innovation in order to better understand the threats and opportunities in our strategic environment, and ensure that throughout NATO, all understand the challenges of interoperability, at the technical and political level. ACT must therefore be in a position to bring these issues to the attention of decision-makers in the Alliance, at the North Atlantic Council and Military Committee, and organize regular meetings at that level – including as a way of looking ahead at potential policy changes within the Organization. There is no point in thinking of innovation within the confines of a single organization or country, we need a truly multinational approach to enrich these developments.
This is one of the missions ACT has set itself, to continue to serve as a pathfinder for the Alliance and to spread this culture beyond its own structures in order to better prepare for the many challenges associated with the growing complexity of our strategic environment.
General Denis Mercier, Supreme Allied Commander transformation for NATO and Major Jean Michelin, Advisor