Fostering a Culture of Innovation in Defence

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Hannah Croft

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How do you create the conditions for innovative thinking to flourish? Is it possible to create a culture of innovation, or to teach it? How can an organisation become comfortable with risk, or even failure?

These are some of the questions that permeated throughout discussions at the annual Disruptive Technology for Defence Transformation conference this September, and Defence IQ will be publishing a series of articles exploring the concept of ‘innovation in defence’ in response.

The UK MOD’s Innovation Strategy

This year the UK MOD released four strategic white papers that reflect its current thinking on innovation in defence and new approaches to the military-industrial relationship. The Defence Technology Framework, Defence Innovation Priorities, The Digital and IT Functional Strategy and the SME Action Plan 2019-2022 demonstrate the major cultural shift taking place in the UK and indeed across the allied defence communities; the recognition that acquisition decision-making and processes, commercial policy and  industrial relationships must evolve to keep pace with rapid technological innovation and global strategic threats across air, land, maritime, space and cyber.

Sir Simon Bollom
Sir Simon Bollom, Chief Executive Officer of DE&S spoke about this cultural shift at length at the Disruptive Technology for Defence Transformation conference. Knowing that the primacy of the commercial market in innovation will remain, Sir Simon argued that government and military must establish closer ties with both traditional and non-traditional defence suppliers and ‘explore improvements of our processes’ to maximise efficiency and exploit emerging technologies.

Of course, the perennial challenge for the UK MOD is balancing their commitment to innovation and a renewed ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ with a responsibility to the tax payer.  The ‘Defence Innovation Priorities’ document notes that innovative behaviours must be ‘incentivised’ within the MOD, and there must be a ‘willingness –indeed expectation –to accept risk responsibility across the enterprise’. Whilst they have invested a lot in new technologies via the Defence Innovation Fund, the question of how to instill a new culture within the defence enterprise remains the most difficult to answer. 

Engagement, argued Sir Simon, will be a key part of this process. The MOD will look to work more closely with defence contractors and ‘broaden the net’ to interface with SMEs and start-ups. Delivery agents and frontline users will be more joined up, and warfighters will be more closely involved in technology experimentation at the pre-concept phase too.

‘It is not will, but inertia’

The UK is not the only one looking at the issue of innovation. The U.S. Department of Defense is fostering a culture of innovation through ‘both innovative business practices and innovative capability development’. This has included the setting up of the Defense Innovation Board, a commercial-led advisory board that tries to bring a ‘Silicon Valley kind of thinking’ to defence technology. In a statement given in 2018, the Board’s Chairman Dr Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, offered his perspective on the obstacles to innovate in the defence community. He cited instances of misplaced incentives, entrenched and outdated processes and regulations, diffused decision-making and ‘prevailing norms that reward perfunctory compliance or reticence of supervisors to consider new approaches’. In short, he puts, ‘it is not will, but inertia that hinders innovation’.

Similar feelings were expressed at Disruptive Technology for Defence Transformation, although it was encouraging to hear about the steps DE&S is taking to improve things, particularly in regard to the articulation of requirements and delivery of new capabilities.

‘That requirements process’, Dr Schmidt argued, ‘is now the single greatest barrier to rapid technological advancement’. Whilst intended to  maximize consensus among users and drive precision into the defense industrial base, the DOD’s acquisition process ‘does more to hinder rapid adoption of commercial technologies than it does to facilitate it’.

Innovation Enablers

The UK’s ‘Transformative Digital Initiative’ looks to tackle this challenge. Sir Simon spoke of the advantages of digital technologies and how they can change processes to tailor approval routes, make the acquisition system cheaper, shorten decision making, reduce programme length, and drive greater productivity without compromising safety. In one example he mentioned the adoption of robotic process automation (RPA), which will enable the MOD to integrate its disparate data and systems, improving inventory transactions and information accuracy.

Read about the applications of blockchain in defence here.

Digital Twin technology also looks to be a promising innovation enabler. Citing the automotive industry as an example, Sir Simon spoke in detail about the advantages of digital twins in reducing the cost and time of testing and evaluation processes; another means through which the military can deliver capabilities to the warfighter more rapidly.

Culture cannot be manufactured like a technology. Rather, it is cultivated through personnel, via training, leadership structures, working environments and relationships. As such there is no single panacea for innovation; rather the UK MOD must continue to devolve innovation initiatives across the enterprise and, crucially, acknowledge success stories when they arise.

Next week’s article will focus in on one such success story: the Royal Navy.

Read more from the conference here.