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Thinking About Eben Swift: Effective Operational Communications

Note from Editor: The following piece may be slanted toward a U.S. Army device but the Canadian Army system has similar communication challenges and for the same reasons so it should resonate with many of our readers.

It compares the military/civilian context.

A good read…

Thinking About Eben Swift: Effective Operational Communications

By: Thomas Rozman

A great deal has been written and developed about and for the communication of operational direction in organizations. The “how to” of communicating the who, what, when, where, how and how much has been a perennial human organizational challenge apparently since humans had to organize into bands, teams, groups, corporations, regiments and armies to accomplish collective tasks.

In more than one of these endeavors to organize and conduct collective effort to accomplishment of a desired objective, failure had or has had dire consequences–collective death or something close to it. Even in “slower” motion environments where a battle between armies was not the situation but rather a corporate enterprise, failure might well mean death in another form–bankruptcy of the organization. Even in such non military situations like a construction site–failure of operational communications may very well lead to significant disruption of the project, lost life or serious injury.

Long experience, education and training with such communications as developed in the U. S. Army, state level public sector organizations and well over a decade interfacing with very small organizations to the largest corporations in type audits that indicate the effectiveness of such communications has shown that much progress and sound achievement are apparent. As well, there are clearly areas that could be improved.

One of the earliest systems of communicating operational direction that I experienced was the five paragraph field order introduced in its initial form in 1897 by then Army Captain Eben Swift, later major general. (Note: the initially published version of the concepts was “Field Orders, Messages and Reports” issued to the Regular Army by Secretary of War H. Taft in 1906 by which time Captain Swift, 12th Cavalry Regiment, had been promoted to major.) The Army had certainly experienced in the preceding 50 years some eye opening demonstrations of the cost of failure to identify critical information that needed to be communicated, how to communicate it clearly with minimum confusion and communicate it in a timely manner.

More than one situation operationally from 1861 and the beginning of the War Between the States and the time Captain Swift made his suggestion to the Army, were disasters large and small that occurred due to flawed communication of who, what, when, where, how and how much. And the United States was increasingly coming into competitive interface with other countries whose armies had, for the time, advanced systems of operational communication. For that reason, aspects of Captain Swift’s suggestion incorporated ideas from, for example, the German Army.

To compound the difficulty, if members of an organization do not hear what does get communicated with pretty close to the same understanding of the information and direction received, execution becomes even more compromised. Anyone who has been caused to engage in a Myers-Briggs exercise gets some taste of how communicated information, even within the same organization, can be received and acted upon very differently by different individuals or groups of individuals.

Captain Swift’s proposal had the ultimate effect of launching a large organization on a journey to improve its system of communication of operational information with an intent of launching small to large organizations on tasks in such way that the possibilities for success would be greatly improved. He suggested a system that would put critical information in a format that would communicate the essentials as simply and understandably as possible. As well, by training all leaders who would work with the system uniformly on how to use it, even different personality types would be fairly consistent on what and how they communicated and how it would be received.

The format that formed in the Army over the years since Captain Swift first introduced the concept may be simplified in form of five paragraphs/sections–situation, mission, concept of the operation, support, command and control. The situation section provided information about weather, terrain, opposition, and friendly organizations, and more information as necessary. Mission provided a one sentence statement of what had to be done that if that was the only item communicated, any member of the organization who read or heard it would know what had to be done and possibly be able to take action to do so. Concept of the operation provided the detail of how to do the job with just enough detail. Support laid out the logistics–transport, food, etc. Command and control detailed how leadership would be organized and how it would communicate. This order could be a short succinct verbal communication or a comprehensive published document with expanded annexes–such as the annex that detailed how artillery would support the operation.

Later refinements would be the warning order, troop leading procedures, the operations plan and others. And, the system is constantly being revisited as technology and experience provide enhanced capabilities and improved methods to perform the vital function of communicating operational direction to the Army’s operational organizations.

The other U. S. military services and many civil sector organizations have developed similar systems–some working quite well. However, as personal experience over the last two decades shows, many organizations remain challenged in this area. Even when an adequate system does exist, the level of acculturation of staff using the system is insufficient. Clear understanding, comprehension and follow-up often fall victim to the different personalities that Myers-Briggs type systems define as present. In the absence of some system to develop staff, particularly leaders in the organization, to a common understanding of what is to be communicated and how with a relatively uniform understanding, not least being action to be taken, the prospects of success, even survival, may be greatly reduced.

The Army for instance makes a huge investment in the acculturation process among its officers and non-commissioned officers regarding such systems as the operations order and its supporting systems. In the case of officers, they will be exposed to the system in depth in pre-commissioning programs, in the basic branch schools and will revisit it later in their careers at more advanced levels in the branch advanced schools, staff college and war college–over a 20-30 year or longer career, the professional officer will be in a continuous experience as student and practitioner of this system. While assigned to operational organizations they will practice the system again, and again, and again. So much so that no matter the difference of the personality, the application of the system, what it communicates and how will be almost reflexive and its language universally understood. This is not to suggest an absence of thought.  The staff planning process assures that what does get communicated is reflective and analytically based on information available and on new developing information, for the system must be responsive to rapid change.

Where these type systems exist in a form to a necessary level of effectiveness in an organization, those organizations tend to be well positioned in their operations and typically on target for achieving operational objectives. On the other hand, the many challenged organizations I have encountered typically do not have or have compromised systems relative to their operational communications.

When I encounter the above situation of compromised operational communications, Major General Eben Swift, then captain,  and the operational communications revolution he initiated comes into mind, as do our many successes with it. It is interesting that all of these years later, we still have need in many organizations to visit the product that developed from his initiative, an organizational version of the operations order system that works.

Note: Thomas Rozman has led 13 organizations of 14 to 800 employees. Positions range from commander to director in operational military security and training organizations in the U. S., South Korea and Germany to park, capital outlay and state occupational safety/health operations. More