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Forced to Change

by on May 19, 2016

The military is not the first example that comes to mind when you think of organizational change case studies. Through our studies in Human Learning Ecology, we were introduced to the book Forced to Change: Crisis and Reform in the Canadian Armed Forces by Colonel Bernd Horn and Dr. Bill Bentley. Our entry point was transformation and reconstruction of institutional and organizational culture. What does it take to transform or reconstruct institutional cultures? What can be learned from this case and applied to organizations we work with?

So why would Canada’s armed forces need to change? What problem were they trying to solve? Understanding the case for change requires a bit of a history lesson, but to summarize, operational standards, processes and philosophies were out dated, and quickly becoming misaligned to our post-Cold War society. Historically the culture of the armed forces was “a very hierarchical system that relied on an industrial age understanding of leadership, specifically directive, authoritarian approach” (p. 29). Post-secondary education was not necessary and preparation of individuals to higher levels of command were “premised on experience training, not education” (p. 30). “Through the years, the myopic view and isolation created an officer and Senior NCO (non commissioned officer) corps that were intolerant of criticism, self-scrutiny, or wider intellectual stimulation. They focused on process and nurtured a culture wherein experienced Cold War technicians, who did not rock the boat and supported the status quo, tended to do well” (p. 29).

The CAF culture hadn’t evolved to support the geopolitical and societal changes post-Cold War. The philosophies governing how they understood and responded to situations at home and abroad were unhelpful and sometimes even harmful. The Canadian government made multiple requests of the CAF to improve officer training and to include higher education in recruitment and development. Eventually, over the years and into the 1990’s, the armed forces lost the support of the government and Canadians. Ongoing reports of unprofessional behaviour like public drunkenness, inaction within the ranks and the eventual killing of a detained teenager in Somalia in 1993 resulted in loss of funding and the ability to self-regulate.

By 1993 not only the Canadian government but also the general public was forcing the Canadian Armed Forces to change.

The problem? The CAF lacked oversight to assess the situation they were in and see the trouble their organizational culture was causing. The existing hierarchical, authoritative and technical culture and underlying assumptions remained unchanged for decades and they believed “we did nothing wrong” and “education is not important” (p. 68). Over the years, requests to change came from external government committees. The case for change wasn’t championed from within.

Varying degrees of resistance and superficial changes plagued CAF through the years. Organizational culture reconstruction requires an assessment and understanding of how thinking and learning is done within the organization, the will to examine practices and beliefs, and being open to change. Calling into question an organizations’ practices, identity and allegiances requires being progressive and open to change and self-review. The CAF were drawing on helpful resources for institutional change and leadership, including Edward Shein’s organizational culture model, identifying espoused values and assumptions.

However, they didn’t have a good understanding of the resistance they encountered and is still in place today.

Like superficial changes fail to transform an organization, a superficial understanding of organizational culture, philosophies and belief systems also fail. The organization must be open to questioning their operating philosophies and belief systems, defining the future state and willing to do the work to get there. It’s also not enough to just define the future state, organizational structures like hiring practices, reward systems and professional development programs, need to be adjusted to support the future state.

The CAF assumed that post-secondary education and master’s degrees would be the answer to their challenges. They do not explore how or what kind of education specifically. Humanities? Science? History? This indicates that they didn’t have enough of an understanding of the issues they were facing or what kind of intelligence was required for the officer class.

They expected that post-secondary education would provide the capacities required to learn how to learn and learn how to inquire.

Learning how to learn and learning how to inquire are critical for the CAF and to developing an adaptive organization. If learning and inquiry capacities are underdeveloped an organization won’t have the ability to diagnose challenges or take advantage of opportunities. In the case of the CAF, they weren’t able to see their own limitations as their operating procedures and philosophies went untested beyond the organizational boundaries. When organizational learning is untested or unverified outside the organization, the result is a closed loop – this can be unhelpful if change is required. In the case of CAF it can be harmful if they are unable to adapt to dangerous and changing environments.

So what can be learned from the case of the Canadian Armed Forces?

  • Transformation or reconstruction of an organizational culture requires a willingness to examine the beliefs and philosophies in practice and be open to self-review and change.
  • Transformation is likely to fail when leaders within the organization do not champion the change. Externally mandated change may happen in the short-term, but is not sustainable if underlying beliefs and philosophies remain unchanged.
  • A superficial understanding of culture is not adequate. Understanding organizational culture must include identifying the espoused beliefs and philosophies and comparing them to the behaviors in practice.
  • Unless an organization looks beyond its own boundaries to verify and test their thinking and learning, the result is a closed loop and self-affirming.

This is an organizational culture case study that we’ll monitor for the years to come.

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