.
I

t was Charles Darwin who first proposed that “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

What could today’s public institutions and corporations learn from Darwin as we enter a new period of heightened uncertainty and change? Organizations often look to the military for strategy inspiration and metaphors.

Formally known as the United States Military Academy, West Point occupies a special place in the American consciousness. For more than two centuries it has produced some of the nation’s top military and civilian leaders, including the likes of Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, George S. Patton, and, more recently, David Petraeus.

When one thinks of the Academy’s enduring contributions to the nation, one thinks of the importance of tradition. Throughout its history—a history stretching back to the Revolutionary War—the Academy has held fast to traditional values of Duty, Honor, and Country. Little has changed in this regard since Grant’s day, and one might be excused for thinking that the Academy’s rigid adherence to tradition is its primary strength. On closer inspection, however, one sees that the Academy’s main strength is, in fact, its ability to change and adapt.

Since the Academy’s inception in 1801, the U.S. Army has frequently struggled to adapt when confronted by non-traditional threats. The nature of conflict has changed rapidly over the past century. The rate of change has only increased in recent decades with the emergence of non-traditional and hybrid warfare, such as Viet Cong guerrillas in Vietnam or a change in the nature of conflict like the transition of Iraq and Afghanistan into counterinsurgencies. Globalization, too, has brought with it new threats like state-sponsored international terrorism, ISIS, urban warfare, and the increasing infringement of superpowers on the sovereignty of smaller nations, such as Russian aggression in Ukraine.

In the face of such change, it became clear to the Academy that it needed a long-term and forward-thinking platform to rigorously study modern conflict. In other words, it needed to take a deliberate and proactive approach to adapting.

In December 2014, West Point’s Superintendent approved the Modern War Institute (MWI) concept. MWI would help to expand the boundaries of military and academic knowledge, enhancing the Academy’s military curriculum by reflecting the dynamic and uncertain nature of new operational environments.

“Together with the support of our Superintendent and a generous donor, we were able to establish the Institute in 2015,” says Colonel (retired) Liam Collins, co-founder of MWI. In establishing the Institute, says Collins, “Our mission was to generate new knowledge for the profession of arms, and to provide the Army and the Nation with an intellectual resource for solving military problems.” Collins, a career Special Forces officer, has conducted operational deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, Africa, and South America. He is a graduate of West Point, where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering. He has graduated from several top military courses, including Ranger School, and earned numerous military awards and decorations, including two valorous awards for his actions in combat. He earned his PhD from Princeton and was previously the director of West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center.

Setting up MWI was no easy task, as Collins did not have the luxury of drawing on large financial resources and instead had to look to unconventional sources of funding. “Most people,” Collins says, “would be surprised to know that much of the Institute’s functions and production is reliant on donor funding.”

MWI helps to educate cadets through its lecture and panel series, as well as through its research. During the academic year, the Institute hosts dozens of lectures on a broad variety of topics relating to modern warfare. Speakers have ranged from Generals, such as Stan McChrystal and Dave Petraeus, to scholars like Andrew Bacevich and Mara Karlin, to Medal of Honor Recipients and to authors like Sebastian Junger and Max Brooks. The Institute has also hosted some people you might not expect, such as Alan Alda and Dennis Rodman.

True to its name, the Institute has embraced modern technology, creating a digital platform to deliver courses on military science, strategic studies, leadership and other subjects. It has also created a series of podcasts, the “MWI Podcast Series,” which is now publically available on the Institute’s website.

Collins would like to see the initiation of a new series of case studies in leadership. He points out that case studies are an effective pedagogical tool widely used in business and law schools.

The Institute helps to train Cadets in the summer through training scenarios that reflect the current operational environment. Additionally, the Institute conducts experiments during summer training to test different learning techniques, publishing academic papers with its findings.

Collins notes that the Institute’s core functions are “to research, educate, and integrate,” and it strives to carry out these functions in an interdisciplinary environment.

There is no typical day at the Institute. During the academic year, the Institute will host dozens of lectures on a broad variety of topics relating to modern war. When not teaching, faculty members sometimes find themselves providing support to the Army. Collins, for example “moonlighted” for two years providing support to General (retired) John Abizaid when he was appointed as Senior Defense Advisor to Ukraine. Collins travelled back-and-forth to Ukraine for two years with General Abizaid, studying Russian Hybrid Warfare in Ukraine and using the knowledge he gained to enhance the Cadet curriculum at MWI.

Collins notes that the Institute is not a typical graduate school with PhD candidates conducting academic research. Instead, research is practical in nature. The Institute has a summer course called “Contemporary Battlefield Assessments,” in which cadets travel to study a recent conflict. For example, says Collins, “we have conducted research trips to Sri Lanka and Colombia to study civil war termination; Georgia to study the 2008 Russia-Georgia war; the Baltics and Ukraine to study Russian hybrid war and deterring Russian aggression; and India to study the Mumbai attacks and counterinsurgency in Kashmir.” After each trip, cadets report their findings, some of which are incorporated into different courses.

Collins notes that studying history is critical to adapting to new environments. “As Mark Twain said, ‘history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes,’” Collins notes. “It is therefore important to study the past as it shapes and informs the future.”

In the context of today’s economic crisis precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, it has never been more important to try to learn lessons from what has been done before in response to previous crises and adapt those lessons to our current situation. Many large corporations have already established innovation labs to study the potential impact of new technologies on their businesses and to look for ways to keep ahead of it and avoid disruption of their business models.

Perhaps corporations and public institutions now could benefit also by establishing adaptability institutes within their organizations along the lines of MWI. Adaptability labs would conduct rigorous research into how organizations can best adjust to current and future change. Like MWI, their purpose would be to research, educate and integrate. Their research would have to be practically grounded, and they would have to find innovative ways to disseminate their findings and recommendations across the organization to nurture a culture of adaptability.

About
Paul Nash
:
Toronto-based Correspondent Paul Nash is a frequent China commentator and serves as a Senior Contributing Editor at Diplomatic Courier.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

A Lesson in Adaptability from West Point

May 1, 2020

I

t was Charles Darwin who first proposed that “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

What could today’s public institutions and corporations learn from Darwin as we enter a new period of heightened uncertainty and change? Organizations often look to the military for strategy inspiration and metaphors.

Formally known as the United States Military Academy, West Point occupies a special place in the American consciousness. For more than two centuries it has produced some of the nation’s top military and civilian leaders, including the likes of Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, George S. Patton, and, more recently, David Petraeus.

When one thinks of the Academy’s enduring contributions to the nation, one thinks of the importance of tradition. Throughout its history—a history stretching back to the Revolutionary War—the Academy has held fast to traditional values of Duty, Honor, and Country. Little has changed in this regard since Grant’s day, and one might be excused for thinking that the Academy’s rigid adherence to tradition is its primary strength. On closer inspection, however, one sees that the Academy’s main strength is, in fact, its ability to change and adapt.

Since the Academy’s inception in 1801, the U.S. Army has frequently struggled to adapt when confronted by non-traditional threats. The nature of conflict has changed rapidly over the past century. The rate of change has only increased in recent decades with the emergence of non-traditional and hybrid warfare, such as Viet Cong guerrillas in Vietnam or a change in the nature of conflict like the transition of Iraq and Afghanistan into counterinsurgencies. Globalization, too, has brought with it new threats like state-sponsored international terrorism, ISIS, urban warfare, and the increasing infringement of superpowers on the sovereignty of smaller nations, such as Russian aggression in Ukraine.

In the face of such change, it became clear to the Academy that it needed a long-term and forward-thinking platform to rigorously study modern conflict. In other words, it needed to take a deliberate and proactive approach to adapting.

In December 2014, West Point’s Superintendent approved the Modern War Institute (MWI) concept. MWI would help to expand the boundaries of military and academic knowledge, enhancing the Academy’s military curriculum by reflecting the dynamic and uncertain nature of new operational environments.

“Together with the support of our Superintendent and a generous donor, we were able to establish the Institute in 2015,” says Colonel (retired) Liam Collins, co-founder of MWI. In establishing the Institute, says Collins, “Our mission was to generate new knowledge for the profession of arms, and to provide the Army and the Nation with an intellectual resource for solving military problems.” Collins, a career Special Forces officer, has conducted operational deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, Africa, and South America. He is a graduate of West Point, where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering. He has graduated from several top military courses, including Ranger School, and earned numerous military awards and decorations, including two valorous awards for his actions in combat. He earned his PhD from Princeton and was previously the director of West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center.

Setting up MWI was no easy task, as Collins did not have the luxury of drawing on large financial resources and instead had to look to unconventional sources of funding. “Most people,” Collins says, “would be surprised to know that much of the Institute’s functions and production is reliant on donor funding.”

MWI helps to educate cadets through its lecture and panel series, as well as through its research. During the academic year, the Institute hosts dozens of lectures on a broad variety of topics relating to modern warfare. Speakers have ranged from Generals, such as Stan McChrystal and Dave Petraeus, to scholars like Andrew Bacevich and Mara Karlin, to Medal of Honor Recipients and to authors like Sebastian Junger and Max Brooks. The Institute has also hosted some people you might not expect, such as Alan Alda and Dennis Rodman.

True to its name, the Institute has embraced modern technology, creating a digital platform to deliver courses on military science, strategic studies, leadership and other subjects. It has also created a series of podcasts, the “MWI Podcast Series,” which is now publically available on the Institute’s website.

Collins would like to see the initiation of a new series of case studies in leadership. He points out that case studies are an effective pedagogical tool widely used in business and law schools.

The Institute helps to train Cadets in the summer through training scenarios that reflect the current operational environment. Additionally, the Institute conducts experiments during summer training to test different learning techniques, publishing academic papers with its findings.

Collins notes that the Institute’s core functions are “to research, educate, and integrate,” and it strives to carry out these functions in an interdisciplinary environment.

There is no typical day at the Institute. During the academic year, the Institute will host dozens of lectures on a broad variety of topics relating to modern war. When not teaching, faculty members sometimes find themselves providing support to the Army. Collins, for example “moonlighted” for two years providing support to General (retired) John Abizaid when he was appointed as Senior Defense Advisor to Ukraine. Collins travelled back-and-forth to Ukraine for two years with General Abizaid, studying Russian Hybrid Warfare in Ukraine and using the knowledge he gained to enhance the Cadet curriculum at MWI.

Collins notes that the Institute is not a typical graduate school with PhD candidates conducting academic research. Instead, research is practical in nature. The Institute has a summer course called “Contemporary Battlefield Assessments,” in which cadets travel to study a recent conflict. For example, says Collins, “we have conducted research trips to Sri Lanka and Colombia to study civil war termination; Georgia to study the 2008 Russia-Georgia war; the Baltics and Ukraine to study Russian hybrid war and deterring Russian aggression; and India to study the Mumbai attacks and counterinsurgency in Kashmir.” After each trip, cadets report their findings, some of which are incorporated into different courses.

Collins notes that studying history is critical to adapting to new environments. “As Mark Twain said, ‘history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes,’” Collins notes. “It is therefore important to study the past as it shapes and informs the future.”

In the context of today’s economic crisis precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, it has never been more important to try to learn lessons from what has been done before in response to previous crises and adapt those lessons to our current situation. Many large corporations have already established innovation labs to study the potential impact of new technologies on their businesses and to look for ways to keep ahead of it and avoid disruption of their business models.

Perhaps corporations and public institutions now could benefit also by establishing adaptability institutes within their organizations along the lines of MWI. Adaptability labs would conduct rigorous research into how organizations can best adjust to current and future change. Like MWI, their purpose would be to research, educate and integrate. Their research would have to be practically grounded, and they would have to find innovative ways to disseminate their findings and recommendations across the organization to nurture a culture of adaptability.

About
Paul Nash
:
Toronto-based Correspondent Paul Nash is a frequent China commentator and serves as a Senior Contributing Editor at Diplomatic Courier.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.