Why all this talk of learning from the defence sector? Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger argues that the private, public, and defence sectors all have best-practices that can, should, and sometimes must be shared.
I believe that the corporate world can learn a lot about leadership, training, and organisation from the military. That’s why I devote a lot of my column space to translating lessons-learned from the squaddie world to my white-collar readers. This regularly results in some interesting reader feedback. The most common question that I get – and I received it twice after last week’s column on immersive training – is ‘Are you seriously suggesting that we run our commercial business like a military organisation?’
Let me clear that up: Absolutely not. Even if you somehow could retrofit your outfit to adopt the required regimentation, I highly doubt that the drastic changes would be cost-effective … or sane. That’s not my objective at all. Rather, the points that I argue are meant to be considered and applied in the context of your unique environment. You don’t have to live like a squaddie to steal their best practices.
Moreover, this idea of adopting other companies’ best practices goes both ways. The military could definitely stand to adopt some modern business methods from the private sector. Yes, I know there are entire think-tanks where uniformed analysts study academia and industry for better ideas; in practice, these groups rarely produce tangible value because they don’t understand why what they’re trying to copy works.
The largest issue that arises trying to copy ideas from one culture to another comes from mistranslation. People who haven’t ever lived in the corporate world and who don’t understand its nuances will almost always fail trying to apply military techniques to a civilian population, and vice versa. Just like in language translation, a good interpreter has to be fluent in both speakers’ mind-sets in order to make a unique and nuanced idea comprehensible to someone who might lack critical reference points.
A significant percentage of my professional life involves translating business needs to technologists who don’t comprehend business and explaining technology limitations to business people who think all IT is witchcraft
That’s why I frequently tap in to my military experience when discussing ways to improve company cultures here on Business Reporter. I didn’t spend twenty plus years isolated in the military bubble before trying to transition. I started my working life as a reservist while working full-time in IT. I then spent five years working health sector IT on active duty, applying what I’d learned in the corporate world to the military. After finishing my full-time obligation, I went back to the reserves and applied my understanding of military techniques to my corporate work. I went back and forth between military, corporate, and civil service for years, translating each sector’s good ideas into better problem-solving techniques for people in another sector.
I think that’s where one of my readers got turned about with the core argument that I advanced in (Green) Room for Improvement ‘when I said there’s a direct and inescapable correlation between the methods that we employ to train employees and how those employees will employ those same skills when put under sudden stress. 
Let me clarify this with a classic adventure story example: in Richard Connell’s 1924 story The Most Dangerous Game, big game hunter Sanger Rainsford falls overboard during an ocean voyage to South America, swims to the nearest island, meets another big game hunter, and gets hunted like an animal for the other hunter’s amusement. It’s a classic suspense tale, pitting expert against expert in a duel to the death. 
We’re told early on in the story that the villain grew bored hunting conventional game, so he moved to an ungoverned island where he can regularly pit himself against shipwrecked sailors … and he always wins. That makes sense to the reader: the villain already has top-notch stalking and shooting skills, and he intimately knows ‘his’ hunting ground. The hunter has all of the advantages, since he starts each hunt having already practiced his skills under the exact same conditions that they’ll be employed.
Whereas, if the hunts had taken place in a tall ship’s rigging, the captured sailors might have had the environmental tactical advantage.
In both the original short story and the 1932 movie adaptation, the only reason that the under-resourced protagonist survives is because he, too, has practiced the same stalking, hunting, and (spoilers!) trap-making skills in similar jungle conditions. That practical experience, coupled with his extensive knowledge of hunter psychology, levels the playing field between the two competitors (so to speak).
Yes, I realize that the teaching of most professional skills doesn’t involve anything as dangerous as dropping a worker half-naked in a jungle with a knife and telling him or her to evade a big game hunter for three days.  Even dangerous jobs involving heavy equipment, heights, toxic environments, or other life-threatening risks don’t expect a worker to learn what it’s like to be ‘hunted.’ So, why even bring the story up at all?
Because of the story’s hunter-vs-hunter premise: as Sanger Rainsford’s experience illustrates, skills training needs to be performed in conditions as close as possible to the conditions under which the skills are expected to be executed. Case in point: emergency evacuation drills. Every worker should be trained in how, when, and why to evacuate their workplace in the event of a fire or other disaster. Many cities’ fire codes demand that office workers be trained where to find all of their buildings fire exit doors and emergency stairwells, and regularly practice responding to a building evacuation alarm. This makes sense; getting out of a burning building quickly can mean the difference between living and dying, right?
But … consider all of the places where you’ve worked. How many actually held fire drills? For those that did, how many companies took the drills seriously? Beyond that, how many made the evacuations realistic enough to be stressful or challenging so that participants would understand how to evacuate at speed while dealing with smoke, confusion, screaming, and other real-world distractions? I’ll wager your answer is ‘not many,’ and I have evidence to back up that assertion.
This isn’t Twitter. Here, we deal in facts, evidence, and analysis.
One of the lessons learned from the 9/11 attacks was that some of the people who died in the Twin Tower collapses did so because they didn’t evacuate immediately. The authors of one white paper noted:
‘Most participants had fire drill experience. Eighty percent of the sample reported a history of participation in a fire safety drill in their building; 98% reported at least one fire drill in the previous 12 months … However, only 10% reported that they had ever actually entered a stairwell as part of the drill, and only 6% had ever exited the building as part of a drill.’
This is where half-hearted training inflicts real, irreversible harm. I’ve worked at a few companies that never conducted fire evacuation drills at all. Most of the places I’ve worked treated fire drills like an irritating interruption; if people actually evacuated at all, they did so leisurely, taking time to pack up their personal possessions and chat on the way out. Per the adage that I called out in last week’s piece: Train as you fight, and you’ll fight as you’ve trained. Workers that practice evacuation drills as a nuisance will instinctively treat a real evacuation order as just another nuisance … something that can be half-heartedly blown off without consequences… thereby unwittingly putting themselves and/or their co-workers at risk of serious injury or death.
I say this because the most realistic evacuation drills that I’ve ever experienced came from the U.S. military. Because of the dangerous nature of the job, and because of the deeply-entrenched culture of instant obedience, soldiers were more likely than corporate workers to react immediately to fire alarm bells and were also more likely to practice the expected post-evacuation tasks (like assembling at designated rally points and reporting accountability) even when they knew that it was a drill. More realistic training conditions made for stronger reinforcement of required skills.
Professionals drill incessantly. Amateurs, not so much. Therefore, if you only drill occasionally, wring every drop of practical learning out of the experience.
They key to success in this example is to replicate in training the conditions expected for the skills’ use. You don’t have to restructure your office into a pseudo-military commando group to teach better fire safety skills. All you have to do is change how you train: post exercise controllers at key points to exhort the workers to follow protocol. Perform guided walk-throughs at half-speed for orientation, then multiple times at full speed for proficiency. Add environmental inputs like simulated smoke and sound effects. Demand full accountability from floor monitors at the rally points. Make a designated worker call the fire brigade with a live actor on the other end. For advanced practice, block an emergency door or place debris in the stairwells to slow things down. Most importantly, chastise every participant who doesn’t take the training seriously – hold them accountable to standards.
If that seems like a lot of unnecessary work, consider how mortifying it would be to have to have to call a worker’s next-of-kin after a building fire (or a forklift accident, a heart attack, or any other work centre disaster) to break the news that the family’s loved one didn’t make it out. Not because of the event itself, but because your company didn’t bother to train the deceased properly because your office culture didn’t take the threat seriously. Imagine trying to live with that guilt and shame afterwards.
One last note: most skills don’t need to be trained under life-or death conditions. There’s never been an office photocopier made that requires that intensity of operator training. On the other hand, every office has at least a few inherently dangerous tasks to perform where mistakes have real, irreversible consequences. When teaching the skills required to perform those tasks, it’s a prudent idea to borrow from the military’s approach and train your people under realistically conditions to ensure that every worker will react correct under sudden stress.
 That’s a slightly different working of the statement I made at the end of the article; I edited it for clarity, since I wasn’t sufficiently clear in the original. Sorry about that.
 Connell’s idea has been adapted many times and will likely be a go-to plot for screenwriters for decades to come.
 Although the military actually teaches these skills this way in the form of the ‘Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape’ course that aircrew members endure to prepare them for surviving being shot down behind enemy lines.
 Source: Robyn R. M. Gershon, Lori A. Magda, Halley E. M. Riley, and Martin F. Sherman, The World Trade Center evacuation study: Factors associated with initiation and length of time for evacuation, available here.
POC is Keil Hubert, firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.