The Digital Army (S2 E13)
Lieutenant-Colonel Chris Marshall: It doesn’t matter what rank you have, what trade you have, if you have the aptitude to learn digital and data analytics skills—we want to train you.
Captain Adam Orton: Hi! This is Captain Adam Orton with the Canadian Army Podcast, and this episode is going to be about the Digital Army. Everybody in the military has, at some point in their careers, experienced the frustration of trying to move a memo or some piece of paper up and down the chain of command and encountered all sorts of problems along the way, as we face down the barrel of bureaucracy. With me today, I have two guests. They’re trying to change the way we do business so that all of this stuff can happen in the digital realm. Lieutenant-Colonel Chris Marshall and Lieutenant-Colonel Tom McMullen. Welcome to the podcast, gentlemen.
LCol Chris Marshall: Hey, Adam. How are you?
LCol Tom McMullen: Hey, Adam. Great to be here.
Capt Orton: They’re both from the Canadian Army Headquarters here in Ottawa, and we’re gonna be talking a little bit more about this topic. So, maybe for just the people on the ground right now, what does this all mean? LCol McMullen?
LCol McMullen: Yeah, so, I guess Adam—great question. It’s a lot of things. You know, there’s a lot of different buzzwords getting tossed around: “digital transformation, digitalization, digitization.” At the end of the day, I mean, it’s how does the Canadian Army adapt to the current operating environment. And by operating environment, not only in terms of operational and tactical, and you know, the business we have to do for our mission sets, but also here in the headquarters, institutionally, in terms of how do we plug into society at large—because society has been undergoing this digital change over the last generation, really. And the Army is behind. I don’t think that's a surprise to anybody. People realize when they go to work with an army unit, they’re kind of going through this time warp where they’re going back in time—and they’re using processes and equipment and tools that were really designed for twenty years ago. So that’s really the key message here, is the Army needs to adapt and evolve. Call it digital transformation, call it what you want—but we need to get with the current times so that we can remain operationally effective for what we’re asked to do.
Capt Orton: Lieutenant-Colonel Marshall, did you want to add to that?
LCol Marshall: Yeah. Thanks, Adam. And thanks, Tom. Absolutely. Change is in the air. If you look at what’s going on culturally, if you look at what’s going on in the digital space, you know, the Commander has two priorities right now. And my understanding is that his priorities are that of a change in the Army culture, as well as getting after digital. So why can’t we do these both at the same time? I think digital collaboration is the way of the future—flattening communications as best we can to get the message out to people the soonest. But, if I look at the Army culture and conduct order that just dropped, like there’s four phases to that. So it’s listening, understanding, acting, and assessing. And this is what we have to do to get after digital today.
Capt Orton: So, what are we talking about here? You know, more apps? I mean, I think some of the challenges that some of the troops are facing, also, is like—we have a lot of these different platforms, with Office 365 now being in place. And then you have ACIMS, which is more on the Defence network and things like that. Lieutenant Colonel Marshall, how are we going to make that a little bit more functional for the people using them?
LCol Marshall: Hey, this is a great question, Adam. This is something my team and that of the Army IMOs are gripped with every day. We have two information environments we’re trying to maintain, you know. Is it necessarily an information management problem that we need to solve today? I would argue the answer is actually “yes.” And it’s something we’re going to push for as part of our Army reconstitution of information management. The bottom line, we’re fractured. We have two information environments: we have ACIMS, we have Defence 365. You know, and that’s just on the unclassified side. So, how do we bring those together? I think that's where we need really smart people—like the Signals Corps to come in and help us get that sorted out. The sooner we can bring those environments together, the better.
LCol McMullen: Yeah, I also found that like, it’s easy to knee jerk reaction and to say “oh, add another system.” And we’ve all seen this before. Like, we’re trying to solve problems by adding on top of the pile we already have. So, like Chris said, we need to start converging and removing things—but it’s not just the systems and the IT pieces; people automatically default to that when they think digital, they think “oh, it's the tools and it's the systems.” But it’s really, it’s the process, and it’s the people. It’s the culture, and it’s how we think about things. And just because the process we currently have and the way we’re structured doesn’t mean those things—there’s no sacred cows. Right? We can’t change those things. So it’s a classic example of the leave pass process. When you put your leave pass in—you used to have to print it, sign it, send it across the chain of command, and then get to the orderly room. Now we’ve digitized that, sure. We’re using modern MASS or we’re using whatever PKI signature and sending a PDF, but the process is still the same. So, we’re not really using the full kind of potential of these digital tools. Because we’re, we’re still a bit handcuffed with the existing processes. So it’s really rethinking the way we do our business.
Capt Orton: I like that to use, you know, the very concrete example of the leave pass. Because I think everybody in the military has some story of submitting a leave pass, and then going through this process and kind of disappearing behind a desk or something like that. And sometimes it’s a challenge. And it’s something that, you know, in the modern era, a pretty easy challenge to overcome with only a couple of easy changes—which we’ve already started implementing.
Speaking a little bit more to the, you know, process of kind of creating this change, you talked about, you know, listening. Lieutenant-Colonel McMullen, what’s being done right now to kind of determine the scope of that challenge? And how are we listening?
LCol McMullen: Yeah, absolutely. So, I mean, this is part of it. It’s getting the message out. So in my day job, within the headquarters, my primary responsibility is looking at capability development and all these projects that are coming online in the CFARS space in the next ten years. But, on this side, and this has really been an initiative through General Ayotte and the Chief of Army Strategy, is getting a tiger team together. So we’ve gotten this tiger team from all kinds of aspects of the Army—there’s divisional representation, representation across the Army headquarters, to really scope out the problem space. You know, I think Einstein said this: “if you have a problem, you know, I would spend ninety percent of the time looking at the problem space and ten percent of the time applying the solution set.” So, we’re still very much in that problem space development. Making sure we understand the problem. But, also, we have a bias to action, and we want to start getting these quick wins—getting some momentum going.
So, the past six months, we’ve been looking at the problem space. We’ve been looking at culture, some of the challenges we have right now, the frustrations, the systems we have, the processes. And also where we want to be. And now it’s a matter of really getting a roadmap in terms of where we are today at the start line and where we want to be, and that’s gonna be the journey we’re going to be on. Ideas have no rank. So, we need input from the collective army. We actually need to do a better job of getting the word out that this is actually going on. So, it is part of the Canadian Army Modernization Strategy. So, that call-to-action is getting sent across the Army. But, hopefully, it gets filtered down to the right levels, because we really need this input.
LCol Marshall: Yeah. And I just want to acknowledge, like, the great work the digital tiger team has done in bringing together that sort of first level operational strategic level view of where we need to go. In tandem, I’m working with Tom as a fireteam partner, where we’re trying to get some early wins, and see where we can find economies of effort to inform what decisions we have to make in our investment thesis to get after a digital Army. So, between Tom and I, you know, we do this quite happily, because we know that this is going to make a better Army one day for us. But, yeah, this is the listening phase. And part of the listening phase is not just listening to what the people have to say to us, as what they would like to see change—we all want the easier leave pass, absolutely—but, at the same time, we have to listen to what the data is telling us. We have all this great data, and I need people to come work for us that are able to see through the problem set and extract those insights in the data. So we can better understand the problem.
Capt Orton: So, speaking of getting the right people in the right place to help with this, is anything being done to try and get those people? Because surely, within the Army, you have a lot of people. People are multitalented. You have infantry soldiers who have backgrounds in information management or whatever. How are you getting the people to where they need to be?
LCol Marshall: So the Canadian Army is partnering with an Australian-based firm, where we’re able to hire folks without data analytic skills. There’s a few things that we’re doing with them. First is providing data and analytics training to members of the Canadian Army. A message has gone out on social media and through your chain of command. So, if you’re interested in learning more about data and analytics and getting some more skills for your resume, please sign up and do the training. As well, when we have a digital sort of future-focused workforce, for now enabling COs to self-solve their digital capability gaps. Our friends in the Australian Army invested in this space very early—and now they have data analysts at each level down to unit level across their entire army. I think we need to do the same in our army. And it doesn’t matter what rank you have, what trade you have—if you have the aptitude to learn digital and data and analytic skills, we want to train you.
Capt Orton: And surely we’ll put the link in the show notes so if people are interested, they can definitely have a look at that themselves.
LCol McMullen: And, I will say, as well, like, I guess, the current way we’re structured and the way we can look at a person’s MPR or their background and their qualifications. You know, we’ll be able to tell if a soldier has their QL3 and have whatever education—but it’s sometimes tough to see, you know, who has aptitudes for data analytics. There’s a bit of a test. It’ll determine right away if you have an aptitude for it. And it’s not the typical thing where you think it's going to be people with a programming background or technical background; it’s really people with, you know, creative thinking and thinking outside the box, and some of these things. So, that’s really—we’re trying to find and mine this talent throughout the Army. You know, with all of the soldiers that we have throughout the Army, there’s so much talent out there—how do we unlock and find that talent? And they can start working on problems at a local level and start solving local problems.
Chris, do you have any thoughts on this?
LCol Marshall: Well, one of the early insights we gave is that folks in the Combat Arms who may not be viewed as the best to move into a digital realm, actually are the best at abstract reasoning and working in 3D spaces. Which are very, very important aptitudes if you’re going to work in data and digital. So, I would challenge everyone to at least try the test. And the great thing is, when you’re done at the end of the test, it will actually advise based on your personality, your archetype, your aptitude—whether or not you can go into like cyber, data, or an engineering type skill set.
Capt Orton: So, you have a program that's kind of developed to identify people who have certain aptitudes in these fields. We’re going through the listening process right now. Speaking a little bit about early wins, are there any other successes that have kind of moved the ball forwards and towards achieving these goals that we have set out?
LCol Marshall: Absolutely. One of the early wins, I would say that has come through the Director Army Staff and the Canadian Army headquarters is the establishment of an analytics support centre. We have people on the ground now that are able to collect the problems that are out there. It’s the shout out to the ACIMS analytics portal where you can submit your problems and have people work on it for you. But, yeah, that is one of the first early things that has come out.
Capt Orton: Anything else you want to add?
LCol McMullen: I'll just say on that, yeah, the data analytics hub—that is something that we’ve got support on actually from a kind of higher Government of Canada initiatives and the Canadian School of Public Service. They have a digital accelerator program; we are able to get an Army sponsored team over there. And they were able to work on this problem over the course of a few months and develop this portal. So anybody throughout the Army is able to submit through this portal a data analytics problem they want to have worked on. And then it’s great, at least, we’re tracking some of the problems that are out there. And we’re able to kind of have that single front door from which we can kind of input these things. Because otherwise, you know, it’s easy for us and the Army headquarters to try to think about the problems that the divisions and the units have out there. We just don’t know. And, you know, a problematic unit in Edmonton is not gonna be the same problem of a unit in Valcartier or Halifax. And we understand that, but that’s the power of digital. Some of these problems are the same, some of the solutions can be applied the same. So, if a great solution is innovated somewhere in Halifax, and hey, we can apply it across to the rest of the Army. Why not? There’s the power of digital right there.
Capt Orton: LCol Marshall, can you give me an example of a problem that army analytics could be solving?
LCol Marshall: Yeah, absolutely. One of the most exciting problems, I think, that we’re working on right now is getting a better understanding of army readiness. Not that we don't know what it is. But it is such a complex subject. It’s not like we’re sending a frigate out into the ocean, or a plane over here. The Army is and forwarding its land power, creates task tailored capabilities to achieve a certain mission. And, so, when we design these capability packs, it requires different levels of readiness for different things. So, readiness can be a very nebulous concept. And when you’re trying to mine that through an ad hoc method, it can be quite complex.
LCol McMullen: Yeah, that’s a great point, Chris. Also, I’d say, readiness means different things. So there’s army readiness at large. But if you break it down into its pieces, you know, divisional readiness and brigade unit, so unit CO, you know, for an infantry battalion is gonna have a different metric of readiness, compared to, let’s say, an EW Squadron. So that’s where you can kind of personalize these things. And that’s, again, that goes back a bit to the power of digital. It’s not all one size fits all. You’re able to take the different pieces of data and personalize it for your own purposes. Whether it’s within a unit within a sub unit, whatever. And you’re able to give different metrics based on what you want to see. That’s the power there. There’s no, we’re not going to solve everybody’s problem at the same time, but you’re able to personalize your individual problem sets and make use of this shared kind of data that everybody has access to. But it’s going to use and visualize in different ways.
Capt Orton: So, like, if I think about, you know—it’s not immediately obvious to understand if a mechanized company is ready to go, and what the status of the LAVs are, and the status of all the weaponry, and the soldiers and all of that. We have processes now that exist where, you know, you’re sending up reports via Excel spreadsheets, or whatever. You know, through email or whatever mechanism. But it’s not as easy as going to a website and clicking a couple of buttons and saying “oh, yeah, these battalions are at this percentage ready to go, you know, these tanks are at this percentage ready to go” or whatever. And so, by creating these systems, we can have a better idea of where we sit. And it hasn't been that easy up to that point. Is that a fairly accurate summary of this as a concept?
LCol Marshall: Yeah. And if you just take that concept and apply it to, you know, the last eighteen months that the Army has been participating in Op LASER. So, readiness is something that we consume. We create readiness individually and collectively. And then we apply it to a problem set or a mission—whatever the Army is asked to do of us. And, so now, with such a high tempo over the last eighteen months, being able to take that in-flight picture of what our readiness picture looks like, today, is going to be supremely important as we get ready for the problem sets of tomorrow.
LCol McMullen: Yeah, you know, we have a good accurate understanding of the in-flight picture. But we also have enough—we can extrapolate it out. And, you know, that’s the power of data, again, is to show where we’re going, show the trends, you know, show where the different inputs we should be putting in to course correct. But, you brought up a good point, Adam. It’s like, the mental model we have is very much based on the chain of command. And the way the army is structured, is, let’s take an Excel spreadsheet of going from sub-unit to unit to brigade all the way up to the Army headquarters. And then, we are playing the telephone game. And by the time it gets to the Army headquarters or the staff up there, and the commanders that need to make a decision—is that data still accurate? Is it expired? Is it past due? You need to change a bit of a mental model where everyone should have access to this data, everybody’s got access to this data pool, as things are going in, it’s getting updated. And then the staff and the commanders are able to make decisions based off this data, but based on the decisions they need to make. So you’re not playing this telephone game of going up and down the chain of command. So you’re really changing a bit of the mental model of how people access and, and use data for decision making.
Capt Orton: I appreciate the use of Op LASER. For those that don’t know, that’s the Canadian Armed Forces response to the COVID-19 pandemic. And the frequent changes, you know, talking really quickly about parade state. You know, the sergeant sits down with their section and checks off who’s available, who’s not available in their situation. And again, that’s one of those things that kind of makes its way up in emails. And that information is so flexible in an environment where you have something like COVID-19, where people may become unavailable because they’re isolating, or potential exposures,—or they’re deployed or on task. And those tasks require them to go through isolations. And that’s moving so quickly, that when that information gets to the top level, it can be several days or weeks old. And it’s not always easy to get a good picture of what’s going on.
LCol McMullen: Yeah, exactly. And that’s the power right there yet. You’re able to get a dashboard for whatever level you want to see. You get a dashboard to show, okay, across this organization, I have X people that are here; X people that maybe that are out sick for whatever reason—and you’re able to go back in history and look at some of the trends as well. So, instead of having to rely on playing the telephone game and getting reports up, everybody’s able to access that same kind of shared understanding.
Capt Orton: Talking a little bit more about the kind of assessment and training program, LCol Marshall—what kind of training is available to them once they’ve gone through this kind of assessment model?
LCol Marshall: Yeah, there’s lots of options in terms of the training libraries available. We have initially twenty-five seats a month on our initial boot camp. And we’re looking to grow that out as demand increases. But once you get out of the basic data boot camp, you can get into robotics process, automation, visualizations of data, database analysts, database engineering—it can go on and on. We’re looking for people that have experience with the cloud as well, where we’re looking to explore some of the Azure cloud options available to us through Defence today.
LCol McMullen: Yeah, this training is giving you the basics, kind of the fundamental building blocks and then with those ingredients, folks are able to go away and use tools such as Microsoft suite—I know Power BI is a big one—are being able to take a bunch of data that comes in, let’s say on Excel spreadsheets. Well, we’re now able to take this, manipulate that data and visualize it in different ways. So, that’s a bit of the preview there. And, again, these tools are all they’re being used in history; they’re being used outside of the Canadian Army. So they have been kind of vetted. And it's things that if folks think they have an aptitude for data analytics and for doing this kind of thing, it’s kind of a free and easy thing to go through—and then just kind of confirm that they have these aptitudes.
Capt Orton: So, I guess the next question is what comes after this? What’s the next step?
LCol Marshall: So the next step is exactly what Tom and I are working hard on with the digital tiger team, and with the help of our chain of command. Once we get access to our data understanding of the army layer, we’ll then take a look at our capability roadmaps. We need to make some very hard decisions about where we’re going to divest and invest as a Canadian Army, and be able to achieve the Canadian Army Modernization Strategy.
LCol McMullen: Yeah, and at the same time, I mean, the more we can find and kind of mine the talent that we have within the Army, it gives commanders a better sense of “oh, we have all of this talent out there.” That’s kind of untapped right now. And even at the local level, and that's something that comes up over and over as if you’re a unit CO, why would you let one of your soldiers do this training and then they’re just—if they’re really good at it, they’re just going to be pulled over by Army Headquarters to work on our problems? Well, no, we’re not looking to poach anybody—we understand that’s an issue. So it’s—okay, let’s invest in our soldiers; let’s give them the training to fulfil their kind of potential. But they can be working on these local problems that unit COs have. Like if the unit CO wants to create a digital dashboard instead of using whatever tools they’re currently using, then let's untap that talent within their unit. The model is a bit like the Uber model in that you have all of these Uber drivers out there, and you have all of these problems: people looking for rides. Well, let’s match up these people that can work on the problems to the problem sets themselves. And that's kind of that micro work model we’re looking at, with Chris, of achieving here is matching the talent towards the problems that we have.
LCol Marshall: And I think the trick here, Adam, as Tom kind of expressed is, we need to take some of our corps army skills and imbue it into what we’re trying to do today. One of my favourite ones, I remember one of the first things I heard when I actually signed up at the Ontario regiment back in 2001 was like, you know, “our number one job is to take care of our friends.” And, so, if we take that, and, how do we take care of buddy with data and digitization? Well, why don’t we just build the problem set for everyone and then just cut the piece of the pie that we need? So using the slice and dice as we like to call it right? So, if I have a problem with understanding how many vehicles are ready in my unit today, there’s a good chance that the person on the other side of the country has the same problem. So why don’t we just build a solution—create those economies of effort, and just standardize it across? And I think that’s one of the big leadership points that Army Headquarters is going to have to get after is how we standardize this to solve all of our problems in a quick and efficient way.
Capt Orton: All right. Well, thanks very much for taking the time to explain this kind of the problem space we’re working in—and what we’ve got going to make it better. Thanks for coming to the podcast, sirs.
LCol Marshall: Thanks, Adam.
LCol McMullen: Thanks, Adam. Great.
Capt Orton: That was Lieutenant-Colonel Chris Marshall and Lieutenant-Colonel Tom McMullen talking to us about the Digital Army.
If you have an interest in being a participant in this change, you can take a look at the website attached in the show notes, and you can go through the testing yourself and see where your aptitudes lie. As usual, I'm Captain Adam Orton for the Canadian Army Podcast. Orton out.