Five Business Lessons From The US Navy by Craig Malloy

August 7, 2012

CIO Network: Insights and ideas for technology leaders.

Five Business Lessons From The US Navy

Written by Craig Malloy, CEO ofBloomfire, an Austin startup that offers knowledge sharing applications for teams and organizations. Craig previously served as Founder/CEO of ViaVideo (acquired by Polycom), Founder/CEO LifeSize (acquired by Logitech), and is a former Navy officer.

One of the world’s most efficient, effective and skilled organizations has an average age under 24 years old and experiences 100% turnover in less than every 4 years.

The crew aboard a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier has massive turnover rates yet maintains their shared knowledge and 90 years of accumulated expertise, operating at extremely high levels of risk and expertise.

In comparison, the Chinese military’s first commissioned aircraft carrier has been in development for over a decade. Analysts and Chinese officials estimate it will be at least mid-century before China can compete with one of the U.S. Navy’s eleven carriers.

This requires mastering not only safe takeoffs and landings, among thousands of other skills and procedures, but also integrating their carriers into the cocoon of destroyers and submarines needed to protect it.

Think about it. 50 years for the highly capable, well-trained Chinese military to get one aircraft carrier up and running smoothly and decades more to assemble and operate an integrated Strike Group.

What makes the U.S. Navy so good at this? Why the 50 year timeframe to close the gap to where we are today?

It isn’t a difference in IQ or education or even basic training. It absolutely is, however, the 90-year accumulation of shared knowledge that the US Navy has amassed since 1922 when the first plane was launched from the deck of the USS Langley CV-1.

The hundreds of thousands of US officers and sailors who have served on the 77 aircraft carriers in the US fleet over the years have perfected the subtleties and nuances of carrier flight operations; through war and peacetime, trial and error, loss of life and limb. Each new generation builds upon the work of the previous one. Knowledge sharing is deeply ingrained in the culture of the Navy.

Here’s how they do it so well:

1. Training. Every warfare specialty in the Navy has a school associated with it, whether it is assembling bombs, running the dining facility, or dogfighting in an F/A-18. It all starts with training, which is constantly updated by new knowledge and experience from the fleet.

2. Qualification Boards. In order to advance in rank or earn a specific qualification insignia such as lead the watch team in the reactor plant, a qualification board is organized with a sailors superiors and qualified peers to test his or her knowledge. And not just the book or classroom knowledge matters; the subtleties, nuances, good judgment, experience count as well. (what we call tribal knowledge)

3. Practice. Every hour of every day, each sailor is constantly practicing their assigned role in every imaginable scenario. Man overboard, fire, damage control, chemical attack, intruders, injuries, aircraft incident. You name it, they practice it until it is second nature.

4. Reviews. Every exercise, getting underway from the pier or a coordinated Strike Group operation ends with a detailed lessons learned review, which is fed back into the system to improve the next time through.

5. Progression. The Navy has designed this ingenious system of enabling its sailors with a progression of knowledge gained by a minimum amount of time in each job and rank with a required set of qualifications before they can advance in their career. Relatively short assignments encourage broad experience and constant learning.

Very few businesses or any organization can afford to put in place these types of systems of training and qualification boards to promote from within. We expect our new hires to hit the ground running with whatever education, skills and experience they brought from their previous role or employer and deliver exceptional performance, yesterday. And who has time for a weekly exercise simulating launching a new product launch or selling to a particular vertical market? They need to get it right the first time.

Here are a few ways I incorporate lessons from the U.S. Navy in the world of technology start-ups to foster a culture of knowledge sharing.

1. Clear and engaging vision. It’s vital for the leader to put forward a vision that everyone can understand and believe. And you’ve got to keep reinforcing it day after day. Your people want to be part of a team that is all moving in the same direction. This fosters the trust and cooperation that is foundational. Day one lesson for military leaders.

2. Transparency of communication. Transparency and full disclosure of the facts, even when ugly, helps to build a culture of teamwork and sharing. And it can’t just be at the top leader level. If the CEO’s leadership team can’t work together, you will end up with a company full of functional silos, inhibiting the learning you need to move forward. Aboard ship, full, accurate and continuous communication saves lives. In the workplace, it can save your business.

3. Well-defined roles and responsibilities. People need to understand how they fit in the organization and for what they are responsible and accountable to the company and their peers. When your employees feel secure and competent in their jobs, they are much more likely to share their knowledge with the rest of the organization. No one does this better than the Navy. Sailors know their chain of command all the way to the President of the United States, how they fit in and why they are important to the mission.

4. Take care of your people. Employees as well as sailors know when their leader has their back. Nothing is more important to the morale of any organization. Sure, officers have more perks and pay than the crew, but the best officers always lead from the front and their people will follow them through fire or a firefight. This builds the camaraderie and culture the organization needs to keep learning and growing.

5. Arm your team with the right tools. The Navy always brings the best technology as fast as it can to the ships, submarines and aircraft in order to maintain their competitive advantage. In the business world, workflow, productivity and collaboration tools can make the difference between staying ahead.

What lessons are here for leaders and managers of businesses? Many of us have workforces that are older, perhaps better educated and with a longer tenure than an aircraft carrier. But we struggle to capture and perpetuate the knowledge that our organization accumulates over time and share it with our colleagues so that our team performance can improve.

Implementing these principles into your organization takes time, effort and patience. A new generation of knowledge sharing tools that are coming available can help as well. And hopefully it won’t take us 50 years to catch up to our competitors.

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