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The Nature of Knowledge in the Profession of Military Logistics

How does the Department of Defense best educate and develop its logisticians? The author looks at how to frame military logistics knowledge holistically.

Last year I participated in a professional forum in which educators and practitioners came together to discuss how best to educate and develop Department of Defense (DOD) logisticians, be they military or civilian. The dominant theory of effectiveness seemed to be centered on the concept of “competency mapping,” where standardized abilities are superimposed on a hierarchy of professional growth and competencies become more sophisticated as one moves up the chain. On the surface, this seems a logical proposition that would drive DOD and civilian colleges to develop programs that would meet the needs (expressed in measurable competencies) of the field. Rather than critiquing the overall idea of competency mapping (my colleagues and I already published an extensive critique in the autumn 2004 issue of Parameters), I want to examine the idea from a philosophical perspective.

Professor Don M. Snider of the United States Military Academy has written extensively on how to analyze the military as a profession. His descriptive model of expert knowledge asserts that professions generate abstract knowledge that is applied to new situations and that the application of this knowledge is ultimately judged by the profession’s clientele. However, missing from his model has been a discussion of the philosophical nature of that knowledge, namely an absence of ontological and epistemological considerations.

Ontology is the study of being or existence (explanations of being a being) that one can interpret as the “objective-subjective” continuum. Aspects of knowledge of being fall somewhere on the line between that which is concrete (witnessed “objectively” by our five senses) and that which is conceptually created (things that we have “subjectively” constructed in abstract ways to make sense of the world). For example, while a manual requisition exists objectively as a piece of paper, it also exists through subjective meaning because we agree in our professional community that it is a request for delivery of supplies.

Epistemology (explanations of the origins of knowledge) involves examining the assumptions of generating knowledge that one construes along the “simple-complex” continuum. For example, is knowledge best formed by breaking aspects of military logistics down into manageable pieces (the object of analysis) or by taking holistic approaches to appreciate the complexity of the entire logistics system (the object of synthesis)?

Rather than choosing which philosophical views are more advantageous for the professional knowledge of military logistics, my intent is to unify these otherwise competing philosophies—that is, to provide a macro-philosophy of knowledge that I believe will serve the profession well. This integrated view is formed by crossing the ontological continuum with the epistemological continuum. (See the chart below.)

The resulting four ideal types of military logistics knowledge help us to see educational and developmental issues in a more holistic way. Let us now examine each ideal type separately—temporarily suspending the interconnectedness of the whole—before returning to discussion of the synthetic view.

Logistics Science

The lower-left quadrant of the chart depicts military logistics as a management science. As the scientific method demands, conducting logistics as a management science involves knowledge associated with breaking logistics problems down into simpler chunks that can be addressed with technically rational decisionmaking processes (such as isolating and defining the problem, developing alternatives, comparing them to “objective” criteria, and then selecting the best alternative). For example, the systems engineering science associated with developing the Standard Army Retail Supply System would create this sort of knowledge.

Knowledge based on the scientific method is very attractive to educators and budget programmers because curricula and programs can be rationalized with high degrees of precision and justified using pre-engineered “best” practices, even those borrowed from private organizations. This form of knowledge should be most familiar to institutions that train or educate for certainty (teaching facts rather than encouraging critical reasoning), where high reliability can be designed into the science of military logistics. Logistics educators can be seduced by this idea of logistics knowledge that can be broken down into simpler “known knowns.” Some might relate this ideal type to “tactical logistics”; however, I do not agree for reasons explained later.

Logistics Humanities and Art

The upper-left quadrant of the chart represents the knowledge and creative spirit of the humanities and fine arts and how these disciplines may be applied to military logistics. The “art of logistics” would include examples of experiential learning accumulated by creatively crafting performance work statements for contracts, studying and extracting “what if” knowledge from historic case studies, and developing a moral sense of right and wrong when it comes to practicing military logistics.
Like a performing artist, the logistician strives to master the multifaceted roles of the military logistician by researching, reading, interpreting, rehearsing, acting, and soliciting critical reviews from peers and the “audience.” Esprit de corps is also embedded in this type of knowledge and may be enhanced by cultural activities such as rituals, rites of passage, ceremonies, and the like.

Dynamic Logistics

The lower-right quadrant on the chart represents knowledge associated with logistics interplay among organizations and other functions. The blend of organizations and activities is a complex adaptive system that has a trajectory that is neither reproducible nor predictable. For example, when we form networks of interagency, nongovernmental, and intergovernmental organizations to cope with specific natural disasters in the United States, it is difficult to generalize whole learning from one situation to the next because each is unique.

In the case of Katrina relief operations, no preset organizational solution existed. Processes and relationships had to be adapted into a workable interorganizational network to provide logistics as an ongoing learning-while-doing project. Knowledge is less stable here because, unlike science, there is no such thing as “best practice” resulting from one experience that can be generalized to others. As the ancient philosopher Heraclitus might have put it, logisticians cannot step into the same river twice. In that regard, action research (dynamic experimentation) may be the appropriate methodology.

Action research is a concept developed in the 1940s by the late Massachusetts Institute of Technology social-psychology professor Kurt Lewin. He turned the field away from solving complex problems with a best-practice approach, which is the idea behind military concept development, doctrine, and lessons-learned programs. Instead, he demonstrated a dynamic, real-time method of theorizing-while-practicing (analogous to today’s “white boarding”), resulting in continuous personal and (inter-) organizational development.

Prosecuting the simultaneity and complexity of the full range of military operations would require more of an action research approach to logistics. Variations on this methodology have included action science, cooperative and collaborative inquiry, action learning, and interactive science.

Logistics Sensemaking

The upper-right section represents the integration of old and the creation of new knowledge developed as the professional logistician borrows and mixes knowledge from the other three quadrants. Sensemaking about military logistics becomes more clinical and intuitive as the situation is viewed as more subjective and complex. It is difficult to capture this type of knowledge for two reasons. First, the knowledge is fleeting. It is developed experientially as the logistician deals with making sense of the complex situation at hand. As the situation quickly changes, the knowledge is rendered obsolete. Second, the knowledge is tacit. Tacit knowledge is difficult to share. This is knowledge that, according to Michael Polanyi in his book The Tacit Dimension, is experienced when “we know more than we can tell.” The inability to describe what they know helps explain why combatant commanders often have difficulty telling DOD and service school houses what they need and want in their logisticians (but they will “know it when they see it”).

Synthetic Views

Various knowledge perspectives can be synthesized from this framework. The quadrants on the left indicate that many aspects of school learning can be transferred from the field, based on the assumption of generalizable knowledge. The quadrants on the right signify the need for innovative logisticians who can work their way through complexity. The upper quadrants reveal the need for military logisticians to have well-honed interpretation and explanation skills. (Professor Karl E. Weick at the University of Michigan refers to this as the ability to create “rich description.”) The lower quadrants demonstrate that the physical aspects of complicated dealings can be arranged by appreciating both traditional science and complexity science at the same time. The scope and methods of logistics involve learning associated with blending all knowledge approaches until something is workable (like explaining the difference between an “immature” and a “mature” theater of operations in the same way that improvisational jazz is compared to orchestral sheet music).

Competency Mapping Issues

With the integrated model in place, we now can see some of the inherent weaknesses of competency mapping. In situations of high complexity that require subjective judgment, we tend to seek lower-left knowledge solutions despite the danger that the preconceived competencies found or developed there can become “solutions looking for problems.” Competency mapping is equivalent to focusing only on the left quadrants of knowledge, where simplification is the dominant value. At the very least, proponents of competency mapping wish to document narrative stories into an upper-left quadrant type of knowledge, such as “history,” “best practices,” or “lessons learned.”

In many cases, such as in our military training and organizational design models, we are tempted to objectify and simplify learning to the point that the complex interplay of variables is lost. In the quest for simplification by reducing knowledge to tasks, conditions, and standards, we tend to force knowledge produced in the right quadrants into one of the left quadrants (for example, tactics, techniques, and procedures; doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, and facilities [DOTMLPF] solutions; or case studies) when this may be inappropriate to the type of knowledge at work.

Competency mapping signals a propensity to want to attach competency levels to organizational and positional levels in order to promote the logisticians we need in a more “objective” way. Hence, we have ill-conceived notions of tactical, operational, and strategic logistics knowledge (associated with the lower-left quadrant) that drives our educational processes along the lines of developing people engineered to a corresponding rank and position.

The integrated framework presented in this article should give us pause because determining whether or not knowledge is strategic, operational, or tactical should depend on its contribution to the achievement of theater or national objectives and should not be confused with positional or organizational levels. Given the complex nature of the right-quadrant types of knowledge, we cannot predetermine what is strategic, operational, or tactical in that regard. So, our education and development concepts are better tuned to applying the scope and methods of the four types of knowledge than trying to apply the levels of war as levels of organization or positional development.

The unstructured aspects of dynamic logistics and logistics sensemaking are very challenging because military institutions cannot pre-engineer their training and education programs around them (as they can do with logistics humanities and art and logistics science types). Nevertheless, the challenge has to be met, perhaps through “structuring the unstructured” by placing units, trainees, and students in as near free-play, highly complex situations as we can simulate or create through sophisticated “real-world” action research opportunities. The traditional “best practice” approach is replaced with a “reflective practice” approach.

As discussed extensively in the published works of Major Don Vandergriff, USA (Ret.), with his groundbreaking work on the Army Basic Officer Leadership Course II, the Army is capable of training and educating Soldiers to deal with dynamic and sensemaking opportunities and to be judged on their decisions in near-real time.

The movement toward network centricity in military organizational design and concept development also makes a lot of sense. Systems theory holds that networked organizations are more highly adaptive, enabling the flexibility required in highly fluid situations. The reason is that all members of the network organization can be engaged in making sense of chaotic situations. This sensemaking through high quality human network connections can facilitate improvisation among the members of the logistics community (perhaps this is the principal task of the postmodern logistician). Finally, military logistics professionals have an obligation to pursue self-development in view of all of these types of knowledge.

In this article, I have attempted to offer a more holistic way of framing the nature of professional military logistics knowledge. It is my hope that the community of military logistics educators and practitioners can apply this framework when collaborating. I believe the framework, while limited in its specificity about what to do, is unlimited in its capacity to frame how to think about our abstract body of knowledge. I challenge the field to incorporate the framework in future discussions about the education and development of our profession or at least argue why not.

Dr. Christopher R. Paparone is an associate professor in the Army Command and General Staff College’s Department of Logistics and Resource Operations at Fort Lee, Virginia. A retired Army colonel, he has a Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University.