By Ruchin Sodhani
There seems to be a broad agreement among stakeholders that the Indian Army is ripe for a technology-driven transformation, given the country’s ambitions and compulsions. Most of the discourse centres upon warfighting; after all, that is what an army is for.
But wars are rare. Armies spend far longer in peace than in war (not counting low-intensity wars, which are demanding but not in the same way as a full-spectrum war). Since the same peacetime army also fights wars, it follows that its peacetime processes, preoccupations and attitudes are at least as important as its weapons of war. That is where change needs to be rooted for it to bear fruit in the battlefield.
It would make for a long and disparate wish list to spell out things that need to change, so it will help to group them under the rubric of the organisation’s mental model. Mental models come from our understanding of how the world works and they determine how we find our way through it.
One striking attribute of the Army’s collective mental model is the way it approaches information, analysis and decision-making. Its practices are at least forty years past their prime, when all the organisation’s information lived in sheafs of typewritten paper, and a set of human eyes and brains were all that could be brought to its analysis. The silo-bound, seat-of-the-pants style of decision making of that setup is still the norm in the Army. Computers are commonplace, but they are used almost entirely as word processors.
For a complex, massively asset-rich organisation, its implications for both efficiency and effectiveness should be staggering.
The next attribute is the Army’s sense of separateness from the larger world. It has remained a professional and cultural island amid profound changes wrought everywhere by technology. Learning, teaching, analysis, decision making, process – everything has undergone rapid development towards greater effectiveness in the last few decades. Even the supposedly hidebound government bodies of the country have had to change in varying degrees.
While armies everywhere have markers and norms that stand out from the rest, the degree to which the Indian Army has stayed aloof is remarkable. Of course, it is nobody’s case that change must be adopted for its own sake, but to believe that your way is and will remain the best, impervious to time or tide, cannot be anybody’s case either.
The Army’s aversion to objective measures and numbers is its third mental attribute relevant to this piece. It leads to misdiagnosis of the causes of issues that arise from time to time, and to policies that might not just be misconceived but even motivated. Intuition and opinion are inseparable from military (or any other) decision making, but relying entirely on them certainly leads to bad outcomes. It also stifles reason.
Lest it should all start to look uniformly grey, here is the good news. These professional anomalies are relatively easy to remedy. The Indian Army possesses in ample measure the hardest attributes for any army to acquire – professional pride, a culture of excellence, commitment to mission, steadfast discipline and time-tested organisational structures. An injection of process, technology, targeted incentives and disincentives is now called for. It takes only years, not decades or centuries.
A good starting point on the road to change would be a technology backbone to execute processes like inventory and personnel management, administrative routines, procedures and the like. In business parlance, it is often called an ERP (enterprise resource planning) system.
It will not only usher in efficiency, but also alter the old, “manual” mindset that relies on assistants to handle communications and information systems. The system will generate copious data that will enable better analyses, decisions and the foundations upon which to build future technologies. Much of this data will also feed into any battlefield management system that might come into being.
The next useful step will be to introduce objective measures of performance not only for individual and team appraisals, but also for asset utilisation, financial management and other aspects of effectiveness. The aforesaid ERP-like system will enable such objective measures. Also, it will solve the issues currently faced by the Army like inflated grading of officers and the convenient twisting of organisational values (“loyalty”, for instance) to suit narrow interests.
Another fundamental change that the Army needs in order to boost its human capital is in the field of training and development. The current pedagogy relies largely on mechanical, rote learning and teaching. Its prevalence can be gauged from the entrance examination to the Staff College, where mid-level officers destined for bigger roles go after rigorous filtration. The tests demand prescribed, pre-formatted answers even to questions that ostensibly challenge candidates’ critical faculties. Would it then be incorrect to infer that the organisation nurtures a conformist, uncritical outlook?
Opening up the Army to external inputs would be indispensable to the transformation process. Without extensive collaborations and knowledge interchange with other domain professionals, it will be hard for the Army to leapfrog the gaps. This might entail a system of selection and deputations that ensures continuity in long-term projects while protecting the career interests of individuals involved.
The failure to change peacetime practices of the army will have direct consequences for how it performs in war. This is a truism that no one in the Army disagrees with. And yet, there seems to be no impulse within the establishment to take a step in that direction.
That might be the trickiest part of the exercise: building an internal constituency in the Army to initiate and sustain change. No less than an Army Chief – General K Sunderji in 1986 – failed to find an audience receptive to his call for change.
Perhaps it is comforting to believe that you are safe in your splendid isolation. But it is also dangerous, because you do not see the world moving on while your erstwhile ivory tower gets reduced to a professional ghetto.
Author is a supply chain professional who works at the intersection of operations and technology in the ecommerce industry. He served in the Army for twenty years before this.
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