Managing Defense Transformation: Agency, Culture, and Service Change

  • Published

Managing Defense Transformation: Agency, Culture, and Service Change by Adam N. Stulberg and Michael D. Salomone, with Austin G. Long. Ashgate, 2007, 220 pp.

Transformation is “a process that shapes the changing nature of military competition and cooperation through new combinations of concepts, capabilities, people and organizations that exploit our nation’s advantages and protect against our asymmetric vulnerabilities to sustain our strategic position.”

— “Transformation Planning Guidance” (TPG)

Office of the Secretary of Defense

In discussions and activities related to transformation, most people can easily grasp “concepts” and “capabilities” as described by the TPG above. Much less obvious are “people” and “organizations,” which many interpret as restructuring organizations and/or personnel recruitment and training to maximize the effectiveness of new concepts and capabilities. While that is also important, this book focuses on another critical, often overlooked aspect of transformation: changing an organization’s culture, or more specifically, ensuring that internal mechanisms manage and sustain change, writ large, once introduced.

Who better to address the subject than two academics from the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech who have done a fair amount of work in the study of organizations for the Department of Defense. Adam Stulberg and Michael Salomone have produced a concise, straightforward, well-organized academic thesis that challenges current organizational theory and suggests an alternative explanation for why some organizations succeed in transforming while others fail. Their hypothesis boils down to the following: military transformation is far more successful when commanders do not have incentives to monitor subordinates intrusively (and thus can spend their time and resources on innovation) and when subordinates do not have incentives to shirk directives for change. Organizations that can achieve this situation succeed in transforming, and those that do not fail. Stulberg and Salomone test this hypothesis against four historical case studies. The first two represent the most highly touted examples of transformation success: the German blitzkrieg and the US Navy carrier transformation between the World Wars. The other two represent examples of failure: British armored force development in the interwar years and the US Army’s coping with counterinsurgency demands during the Vietnam War.

The authors conclude with lessons learned, based on their analysis, for ongoing transformation within the US military: (1) create clear lines of authority among supervisory and implementing offices; (2) reward champions of innovation through promotion and career points; (3) avoid creating isolated, ad hoc procedural mechanisms; (4) embrace the managerial norms of a service, rather than bludgeoning cultural change; (5) intensify intra- and inter-service competition with great tolerance for honest failures and short-term mission redundancy; and (6) rely on outside forces to promote transparency, not intrusive oversight. Stulberg and Salomone’s bottom line: “success at embracing the new [revolution in military affairs] . . . may not require the coalescence of a new vision of future warfare, overturning traditional service cultures, or arrival of an enlightened cohort with streamlined access to the senior military leadership [re: Arthur Cebrowski and his Office of Force Transformation]. Rather, it makes more sense to champion administrative reforms from within the services, creatively exploiting accepted metrics and introducing procedural mechanisms to allow intra-organizational interests and ideas to converge in pursuit of an open-ended transformation agenda.”

There is a lot to like about this book. First, for policy analysts with a fire hose of information to digest every day, it is efficiently and effectively organized. A quick skim surfaces the main points, and the details are available if needed. I wish all policy books were written this way. Second, whether you agree with the analysis or not, the book nicely captures the key organizational issues associated with innovation and change for virtually any large organization in one place. Put another way, it brings needed detail to the issue of organizational transformation, which is relatively lacking. Third, the book accurately and effectively rebuts the conventional wisdom that militaries are institutionally resistant to change. As the authors clearly demonstrate, militaries that are properly organized can and do change very effectively.

Their choice of case studies, however, warrants some scrutiny. Selecting the US Army during Vietnam and examining its failure to transform to conduct counterinsurgency operations more effectively seems like mixing apples and oranges. In the other case studies, the militaries in question were not transforming on the fly to address current operations. Instead, they were looking into the future and realized they had to change fundamentally how they fought. They also had the luxury of spending years thinking through the problem and implementing the solution. While I am not condoning or defending the apparent actions inside the Army to sabotage civilian leaders’ desires to change during Vietnam, why would the US Army want to change fundamentally while the Soviet threat in Europe remained and the Vietnam War looked like a temporary situation?

My primary disappointment with the book, however, is how it inadequately treats today’s transformation of the US military, which is key to the “so what?” question of the study. Ideally, the authors would have spent the same amount of effort assessing the ongoing transformation as they did with the case studies to draw very specific lessons learned that would clearly apply to today’s circumstances. This would have included thoroughly testing their hypothesis against the organization of today’s Department of Defense and showing where it is on track and where it needs to improve. Indeed, an examination of various service transformation roadmaps and DoD transformation guidance and documents would have corrected several of the authors’ misperceptions. Instead, they shoehorn a very short, broad-brush, incomplete, and poorly sourced picture of ongoing transformation and assert that there are organizational issues. They then proceed to articulate somewhat broad recommendations that tie nicely to the case studies and perhaps might apply broadly to any large organization trying to change, but not necessarily directly to ongoing transformation. As a result, we have a rather excellent historical study that draws some useful, somewhat commonsense, general lessons instead of one that more directly applies to today’s transformation, the stated goal of the book.

Mr. Mort Rolleston

Headquarters Air Force, Future Concepts and Transformation Division

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."