Group-centric work and training

Individual Training

In the +20 years I spent in the military, much of it was as a student on course. In the military there is a whole system that governs individual training, in our case it was CFITES.


CFITES comprises several volumes of instructions, including all of the ADDIE steps. A lot of resources are put into preparing individuals for duty and the system is designed for large numbers. Much time and effort goes into training a soldier and in peacetime there’s not much other than training to do anyway. If in doubt – train. Military Instructional Systems Design (ISD) has greatly informed and inspired civilian training. Frameworks such as the Systems Approach to Training, developed by the military, have over the years been adopted and adapted by corporations and government agencies.

Collective Training

Groups of soldiers who will work together usually participate in “collective training” and this typically follows some kind of cycle of preparing for operations, performing missions and coming back from missions. During the preparation phase, units work through the types of operations they think they might have to do. These are scenario-based rehearsals of varying intensity. For instance, one group exercise may solely focus on communications systems and processes.

What is interesting is that the collective training system is much less formal. There are guidelines, but not several volumes of guidance. For the most part, the training specialists are only advisors on collective training. The combat operations folks run the show here.

However, the military has a distinct advantage over business when it comes to collective training. The military is not always on operations. Due to the tempo of operational duty, soldiers need to come back and recuperate and this is when training can be conducted. Business, on the other hand, cannot afford to take staff away from their work for long. Business may be lower tempo than combat operations, but it’s always on.

The Military/Industrial Legacy

In corporations and large organizations, the training focus is predominantly on individual skills, usually based on some variant of ISD. However, as Jay Cross and I explained in the future of the training department, training is inadequate in developing the emergent practices necessary to operate in complex networked environments. The military is able to get around this weakness through collective training prior to operations, or pulling troops out of the operational theatre for special training. Also, new operating procedures are constantly updated with information from the Lessons Learned Centre.

Civilian organizations have taken one part of the military training model – Individual Training – and applied it to almost all training. This is part of the problem which could be partially addressed by focusing less on formal individual training and supporting informal learning. But the big challenge for businesses is to conduct collective training while working (being operational) at the same time.

Not Group Think, but Think Groups

The reality of working in networks is that the individual is only one node within multiple relationships of varying strengths and value. How the group works together and to whom it connects becomes very important. How then can networked workers do the equivalent of military collective training while still working effectively?


Something like the Lessons Learned Centre could be a good model for a more operationally-focused training department, communicating the emergent patterns that are observed in day to day work. The official objective of the training department could also shift from supporting individuals to supporting groups. This would be a major shift and we might then see a number of changes:

  1. Training would have to move to the group because you could no longer pull individuals out of the workplace for courses.
  2. Each group has its own work context so it becomes critical to involve each group in the design of tools and interventions.
  3. There would be many groups to serve, so better feedback loops would be needed to ensure a two-way flow of communications.
  4. The training department would be busier serving many masters and may be forced to emphasize do-it-yourself solutions for groups (a good thing).
  5. The training department would learn more about the work being done (a real good thing).
  6. Courses would become an option of last resort.

The new training department would have to be focused on “Connecting & Communicating”, such as lessons learned, and I would bet that the first set of tools they would grab would be some kind of social media to enable better communications and networking.

invert pyramid

4 Responses to “Group-centric work and training”

  1. Simon Bostock

    I like this, and I’m always glad when ex-military people share insights. There’s a lot you guys have to offer.

    One of the things I’m fascinated by is our general ignorance of logistics – such a critical success factor to military effectiveness.

    “Without supplies no army is brave.” said Frederick the Great (as you might tell, I’ve been reading some military history 🙂 And trainers have very often not been brave, not at all.

    The reason? Logistics.

    They haven’t set up enough supply lines to the real world, they’ve relied on book knowledge rather than direct observation or real-life data, they haven’t got their hands dirty in business.

    I think there’s a circularity to what training depts have done. Somebody observes a problem, then another, then another. A training guy identifies this ‘group’ of problems as being a close fit to some nebulous concept like ‘leadership’. Then they go away and read all about leadership and build a course. Then the effectiveness of the course is measured against the ‘learning objectives’. And so on.

    As soon as the training people bundle up the ‘problems’ into something with a stupid name, they fall victim to logic which is entirely circular.

    They’ve shut off their supply lines to the individual problems and real-life, and stranded themselves. They become cowards.

    Hope that wasn’t too much of a tangent (since when has that stopped me…) and it makes some kind of sense.

    • Harold Jarche

      Excellent, Simon! “As soon as the training people bundle up the ‘problems’ into something with a stupid name, they fall victim to logic which is entirely circular.”


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