Training Lessons From the Military

The November issue of the Harvard Business Review is focused on leadership lessons from the military.  In one of the online blogs colonel Bernard Banks, a faculty member in the Department of Behavioral Sciences & Leadership at West Point who has lectured on leadership at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, writes about how companies can develop critical thinkers and creative leaders and how the military’s attitude toward training can be adapted to the private sector to further those goals.

Since the onset of the recession there has been a lot of good advice published, both in print and online, about how to make positive use of downtime.  For those surveyors whose workload has dropped to the point where they’re not working full weeks, or for those who have been out of work, the prevailing wisdom has been that they should take the available time to expand their skills. Whether it’s enhancing existing abilities or branching out into new areas (GIS for example), there can be no argument that this advice should be heeded.  But, as work starts to pick up and the urgency of looming deadlines returns, Colonel Bank’s advice on the importance of training while you’re busy needs to be listened to as well.

Banks writes, “In industry, 90% of time is typically devoted to executing business actions, and less than 10% is allocated for increasing organizational and individual capabilities through training. The military, on the other hand, spends as much time training as it does executing—even in the midst of high stress/high risk operations. A unit in Afghanistan or Iraq will not suspend its experiential training program while involved in combat operations, because its ability to cogently and creatively address future challenges is enhanced by an enduring commitment to improving people’s competence and adaptability through experiential exercises, as well as actual experiences.” 

He goes on to explain that it’s not just training but the attitude toward training that’s important.  The military doesn’t judge success solely on a mission’s outcome but on whether the lessons learned can be integrated to improve the organization.  And that is a lesson that can easily be adapted to a surveying department.  Skills for skills’ sake and skills to perform a specific task have their place. But to get the maximum benefit out of training, you and your employees need to be able to adapt what you’ve learned and integrate it in a multidisciplinary way to improve your processes.

I’ll be the first to admit that training in busy times is a difficult habit to develop. My natural tendency when confronted with a project that requires a new skill is to learn the minimum required to complete the task.  However, as Colonel Banks concludes, “If you wait for the right time to train it’ll rarely occur. Today is the opportunity to prepare for tomorrow, regardless of how much else is going on.”

About the Author

  • James Fleming, LS
    James Fleming, LS
    James Fleming, LS, owns Antietam Land Surveying in Hagerstown, Maryland.

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