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Exercising foresight: Understanding the long game

With business lines that stretch from recruitment to retirement and cut across career management, health services, compensation and benefits, personnel support and even the Canadian Defence Academy, Chief of Military Personnel (CMP) is a complex system of systems that could be significantly disrupted by unforeseen events.

To better understand issues that might affect the organization and the Canadian Forces, Rear-Admiral Andy Smith, Chief of Military Personnel, has begun conducting foresight exercises. Drawing on the expertise of a small force development cell that, in turn, has drawn from organizations like Chief of Force Development and Policy Horizons Canada, Smith has challenged his leaders to consider the impact of everything from societal changes to advances in the digital environment. He spoke with editor Chris Thatcher.

What are you hoping to understand through foresight exercises?

I’m trying to understand what the implications are as society changes, as demographics change, as Canadian values change. We pride ourselves on being a learning institution, so from a personnel perspective I want to ensure we are agile, resilient, tolerant of uncertainty, and that we are relevant, in tune with some of those “unkowns” that might come about. When I joined 33 years ago, the mindset was that if you joined an organization, that was your chosen career path. Who would have thought that you’d have a generation accepting of having three or four careers throughout their working life, and not be afraid of real paradigm shifts in those careers? That has been a real shift for us when we look at things like terms of service.

Foresight in private industry tends to focus on technology because that is driving the bottom line; we are more interested in the social or cultural aspects of foresight, which are far less “predictable” and far more difficult to assess. And I say that as an engineer who is working in the personnel domain. Going through these exercises to look at our various business lines has been very helpful in generating better comprehensive situational awareness. Good foresight gives you a range of plausible alternatives such that you avoid narrow predictions. It is really trying to come to grips with “what if?” and allows you to look at potential shocks and ask, are we ready for them?

Is this relatively new for CMP?

Personally, this is very new. The initial use of foresight in CMP probably goes back 10 or so years under LGen Couture, but my sense is that it has ebbed and flowed over time. It’s probably only been in the past two years that we have put some issues on the table for which we don’t have answers but need to become more aware of inputs that we might not have thought about.

What were some of your findings?

We’ve developed a number of influence diagrams that illustrate this. For example, with respect to possible societal or demographic changes, there is an undeniable youth bulge in non-developing and developing nations, and a birth rate in Canada that is below the sustainability level. Does that youth bulge serve at some point to influence the government’s refugee or immigration policy? If it did, you might think it would bode well for the Canadian Forces – we could potentially have three streams from which to recruit: the traditional stream in Canada, a developing nation cohort and a non-developing nation cohort. That sounds good until you look at the stats. A lot of those people from developing and non-developing countries have a very different view of the military; it is often oppressive and not seen as an institution that upholds their values, so their initial propensity is not to enrol. If that is the case, we need to understand why and address it, because ideally the CF should be representative of society at large. Many of these communities are elder-centric, so if you were to create a strategy, the emphasis might not be on the folks you are trying to recruit but rather on the leaders in the community to convince them the CF is an institution that is worthy of their sons and daughters. If they give the ok, then we might be seen as an institution of choice.

Nanotechnology is a really interesting one. Nanotechnology has driven a number of the biomedical advances in the last 10 years. And as a result of the biomedical technology, we have seen increases in longevity and enhancements in human performance. If you add those to economic conditions that cause people to work longer, what do those mean for our compulsory retirement age? For our military health care system costs? For family programs and policies? And for our fitness standards?

Staying with care, we have seen in the last 15-20 years a rise in non-traditional family structures. Kids are staying at home longer and children are increasingly building nanny suites to look after parents. That is certainly reflected in the CF population. What does that mean for career management, mobility requirements that are inherent in military service? For health care compensation? For how we support families? These influence diagrams allow us to focus on the “so what” as we consider some of the drivers out there.

Were there any surprises?

I don’t know if there were surprises, but at the end there were certainly people saying, “oh, I hadn’t thought of that.” For example, when we looked at nanotechnology and how it might affect some of our fitness standards, we found that things that might have originated in a health business line all of a sudden affected some of the larger personnel policy realms. Foresight allows us to see some of the complex interactions between trends.

Diversity is one that is not just a recruiting issue. It could be a government-wide issue if immigration were to change significantly. And on that one, there are some implications for the CF chaplaincy. Traditionally, it has been Protestant and Catholic, although we do have rabbis and imams in small numbers. But looking ahead, if we were to successfully recruit from more ethnic communities, are we positioned to greet people of all faiths? That could also apply to the aboriginal community, which is the fastest growing segment of the Canadian population. We have some great outreach and training programs for aboriginal youth, but we might need to make greater inroads with the elders in those communities.

Do the exercises point to specific enablers that need to be introduced sooner rather than later to meet those challenges?

I don’t know if we’re there yet. I have a wonderful team of social science researchers that is plugged into the foresight thinking. If we need to better understand the changing nature of demographics and diversity, for example, we have an ability to conduct research to gauge whether our thoughts are right so that we can start to shape some of our policies or our recruiting strategies, or religious support, or personnel support.

You touched on the paradigm shifts millennials are willing to accept. Have you begun to think how you might enable greater movement?

Folks are trying to put in place some of the enablers that would allow greater flexibility, perhaps between a regular and reserve career path. We have always had the ability to change trades, but I think there is now an acceptance that it is not just one man, one job forever. And that is consistent with the overall institutional shift towards “jointness.”

Do demographic shifts change in anyway how you foster the Forces’ warrior spirit? Does a different cohort cause you to rethink how you view it?

It’s a good question. We certainly have transformed the recruit school, which is that transformational three-month period where we take the citizen and turn them into a warrior. We have done a lot to enable people’s success, as opposed to: here’s the standard, you have to meet it. There is much more mentoring to help facilitate success.

We are certainly seeing a change in the cohort. When I joined the average age was probably 18 or 19. Now its 24-25 and these are people with life experiences, with education, even with families. We recently enrolled someone as old as 56, which would have been unthinkable. People are coming in saying I want to join, but I’m a free thinking individual, I’m adult and we’re meant to be adults here. We’re respecting those shifts in society while still making sure we get the product that we need, and the transformation that has occurred in the recruit school is a reflection of that. I’m very comfortable with what we do to imbue the warrior spirit.

Is your leader different under these circumstances?

That’s key. You have to have a transformational change in the instructors as well. There is now work up front to make sure the instructors are comfortable with this approach. The challenge is as much on the instructional cadre as it is on implementation, because the folks coming in the door today are comfortable with multi-tasking, group environment learning, and learning at different rates.

How are those changes affecting professional development?

The Canadian Defence Academy has a lot of work ongoing in terms of what does the learner of the future look like, and how do people learn. They don’t subscribe as much to the professor-teacher model, they are happy to learn online. We have a trial underway at CFB Borden called the three-tier trial which is much more of a technology-enabled, group learning – almost an Oxford tutorial style of learning from each other with some general guidance from the instructor.

What influence does this information have on near-term changes like CF Transformation? How will you use it?

In terms of what this means for our business, we did a strategic planning session about a month ago. Much of this tends to be for Horizon 2 or 3 considerations, so I’m not sure we have a firm grasp of how this links into the larger transformational piece of the CF; at the moment, it tends to be relatively CMP-centric. However, we’re fortunate in the military personnel system in that we have the ability to change policy, and this allows us to start down that road of making evidence-based policy decisions and be more agile in the face of change.

I give my force development cell, Jim Uchiyama, Tracey Wait and Jason Dunn, a lot of credit. They often toil in anonymity because this is not the burning fire of today, but what their work has enabled me to do is better understand the importance of looking down range and considering plausible scenarios and outcomes. Certainly in a resource-constrained environment the tendency is to focus on getting from here to the next quarter. That’s important but you can’t lose sight of the long game. To help my organization come to grips with the long game, I put an awful lot of value in that.


Author: Chris Thatcher (from June/July 2012)

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