Upskill to innovate: How a focus on personnel keeps defence on the front-foot

To meet unforeseen threats with agile solutions, maintaining a digitally-literate workforce is essential in modern defence. From encouraging innovation, to improving efficiency and autonomy, there are wide-ranging benefits to having digitally-confident personnel. The question remains, can we achieve this through training and culture alone?

Broad-shouldered, combative and diligent at following orders; all features we might use to describe the model military personnel of 1922. A century later and the picture looks profoundly different. Leading military powers are increasingly focused on how to achieve a technological edge and operational advantage against potential adversaries. Subsequently, the skillset of a modern defence worker has evolved rapidly, moving beyond only war-fighting.

Defence today demands a huge diversity of skills - reflecting the increasingly vast scope of professions across the services. Though the Russian invasion of Ukraine shows conflict on the ground is far from obsolete, this by no means undermines the need for a shift in skill sets; indeed it seems the threats of ‘tomorrow’ are here today. Any measure of strategic advantage in today’s military forces depends on the availability and quality of the human-talent pipeline. Yet, there remains a limited pool of suitable recruits with the level of digital and data literacy required to foster the culture of innovation needed to tackle the threats of the modern world.

Without dedicated processes to attract and upskill a mix of human talent, the risk of innovation stalling against the threats of tomorrow is staggering. In recent years, the drive to incorporate a range of professionals - from coders, to programmers, to inventors - into the military has proved essential. However it continues to be clear that this culture of recruitment, training and innovation is required at pace should it prove a successful solution.

“The word disruption was quite negative in the military… I shout from the rafters at every opportunity that you need people in the room, particularly with senior people, who are prepared to come up and say: “actually, have you thought about doing that in a slightly different manner”

As Morgan Long, of Navy Digital and PHF alumni, noted to us here at PUBLIC, there has historically been resistance to 'disruption' in the military, with entrenched traditional structures ultimately holding back innovation - for instance, a reliance on strict hierarchies and inflexible chains of command. However, the key blockage is not always as tangible as structure, it also bleeds through into surrounding culture. A workforce rigid in attitude and approach, and trained to be change averse, is a workforce that will struggle to innovate.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) have made real progress to counter this emerging issue, emphasising their ambition to address the skills gap and upskill military personnel to be ‘Innovative by Instinct’ in multiple reports. In the Defence & Security Industrial Strategy, there is distinct recognition to empower personnel to be increasingly more agile to meet today’s threat environment. Military personnel require greater confidence to shift and pivot in the face of adapting threats, such as cyber warfare, with minimal blockages. The MoD has actively been making strides in the right direction, though it must ensure that these ambitions become embedded throughout the entire culture rather than in siloes.

Digital and data literacy is no longer a nice-to-have, it’s essential to the defence industry. Without it, innovation will inevitably be stifled or unsuccessful. Digital literacy is the first step through which personnel are enabled to navigate novel technologies with ease. Whilst data literacy is having a base level understanding and appreciation of the power, and therefore the importance of the collection and analysing of data.

Data-driven insights are now a fundamental part of decision-making within defence. This alone means it is crucial for all to have a base level of knowledge of how it works and how best to utilise it in their day-to-day. The benefits of doing so are substantial, leading to greater insights and more strategic outcomes. The combination of both digital and data literacy can be accomplished through engaging and compulsory training courses whilst also ensuring new hires, both at a senior and junior level are digitally literate.

Innovation and defence today must go hand in hand. People are at the heart of lasting innovation. Therefore, in order to confidently shape the defence sector’s digital future, training and mobilising the necessary skills must be the direction going forward. Yet core questions remain around how best to implement and encourage integrated innovation training across the whole armed forces, bringing together different sides of defence and improving collaboration.

Join us at Defence Disrupted as we bring together experts across defence and innovation to discuss how best to conceive and drive through new strategic change initiatives which orchestrate and sustain an entrepreneurial, pro-innovation culture across the armed forces.