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Individual Learning, Institutional Learning and Institutional Memory

Sept. 12, 2018 | By Greg Martin, Assistant Director for Histories and Archives, and Jay Thomas, Assistant Director for Collection Management, Naval History and Heritage Command
Photo By: NHHC
VIRIN: 210624-N-ZW259-0191

Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John Richardson, recently posted a note about attending the Surface Warfare Flag Officers Training Symposium in San Diego. The symposium discussed the period between the Battle of Savo Island in August 1942 and the Battle of Cape St. George in November 1943 during which the U.S. Navy learned, at great cost in ships and lives, to fight and defeat a well-trained and well-equipped Japanese Navy.

CNO rightly focuses on a culture of professional learning as an important factor in the Navy's success, and this focus on learning is reflected in A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority. The very discussion of the naval battles of the Guadalcanal operation embodies CNO's desire that we "[u]nderstand the lessons of history so as not to relearn them." Individual learning, however, is not enough. The Navy needs the ability to learn as an institution too. Learning institutions are not merely the sum of their individual learners: individual knowledge, no matter how carefully assembled and interpreted, is of limited use to the institution if the individual takes that knowledge to the grave in combat, to an unrelated next assignment, or into retirement. The tools and systems required to aggregate individual learning into broadly shared institutional knowledge requires thought and design just like any other tools and systems.

The World War II Navy developed a number of ways to capture and promulgate knowledge gained in the course of the war. Combat Narratives like that for the battles of Savo Island and the Eastern Solomons were classified summaries published within months of the events they recorded. War Damage Reports provided detailed information on ship battle damage that was incorporated into new warship design and damage control procedures. Fleet Tactical Publications like the 1943 Operational Characteristics of Radar Classified by Tactical Application (FTP 217) consolidated technical information with hard-won tactical experience for fleet use. And if one is ever called upon to build and administer the world's largest Navy from its prewar roots, the U.S. Naval Administrative Histories of World War II provides a useful roadmap.
"The technological sophistication and rich interconnections of today's Navy should make this a golden age for institutional learning, but it is not."
Institutional learning requires systems to collect information from a variety of sources, organize it, interpret it, and disseminate it in various ways to various audiences for various purposes, building along the way a formal and persistent system of institutional memory. Institutional learning also requires people to create, manage, and use what they learn as institutional knowledge.

The technological sophistication and rich interconnections of today's Navy should make this a golden age for institutional learning, but it is not. There is too much information being lost in systems not designed to retain and consolidate it; too much information stranded on unreadable storage media by changing technology; too many people who do not understand the value of explaining to their successors the reason for a policy, practice or situation before moving on to something else; and too many people who do not understand the value of knowing the reason for a policy, practice or situation before trying to change it.

For too many places in the Navy, institutional memory consists of a disorganized shared drive, one's predecessor's paper files, and the experience of the person who's been around the place the longest (and is therefore probably the next person to transfer). Institutions like Naval History and Heritage Command certainly have a part to play in the Navy's institutional learning, particularly when a long view is required, and for topics that do not appear immediately relevant (harbor defense was a quaint midcentury relic right up until the USS Cole attack made it relevant again).

But making the Navy a learning institution requires a comprehensive and networked approach to managing the knowledge the Navy is creating every minute of every day, and making it available where and when it is needed. It also requires breaking the connection too often found between knowledge management and information technology. IT is a tool for knowledge management, not a synonym for it. A robust institutional learning capability creates new institutional knowledge and sustains that knowledge through an effective system of institutional memory - all of which is really just a conversation between ourselves, those who came before us by whose experience we benefit, and those who come after us who will benefit from our experience. A functional, durable, and widely shared institutional memory is the medium for both individual and institutional learning, through which is created functional, durable, and widely shared knowledge. Without such knowledge, we will pay the penalty in wasted money, energy and time, or worse, in lost people, aircraft and ships. There are two major reappraisals of education and learning underway in the Navy: Undersecretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly's "Education for Seapower" study, and the High Velocity Learning line-of-effort discussions from A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority. With them we are at an ideal time to design an institutional learning culture which can best support and take advantage of the professional learning culture we all hope to see throughout the Navy.
Greg Martin is the Assistant Director for Archives and Histories at the Naval History and Heritage Command.
Jay Thomas is the Assistant Director for Collection Management at the Naval History and Heritage Command.
The views expressed here are their own.