Carr discusses how a non-deterministic approach to human capability
will allow the Ministry of Defence to fully realise the potential of
Over millennia, humans have developed
their ability to organise themselves in order to achieve ever more
ambitious outcomes. Humans have evolved their capabilities from
collaboration in small groups and making tools to help sustain the
group, to global interactions using tools to achieve a wide range of
outcomes relevant to many different interests.
World views that
can be manipulated to predict outcomes can be used to manage the systems
people create. Human history is underpinned by the continuous
modification of our world views to accommodate new purposes. Today, some
of our ambitions may include managing the global economy, making
transportation safe, ensuring that people learn and share what they
learn. These ambitions require rather complex world views to help us
organise ourselves and create effective tools.
developments in world views during the last century arise from different
approaches to complexity. In particular, these non-deterministic
approaches address situations where we are uncertain about key factors
and even if we were certain, there would not necessarily be a
predictable relationship between causes and effects or parts and their
sums. Much progress has been made in finding non-deterministic ways of
understanding the world to help us achieve our more complex goals. We
now have a wealth of world views, tools and techniques that do not
depend on predictability, such as complexity theory, systems thinking
and agile software programming.
It would seem obvious that a less
mechanistic world view would be a comfortable place for accommodating
the complexity of human beings. As social organisms, we function
naturally through interactions and interdependencies, adapting to
context and often producing unintended consequences. This behaviour
seems to require a systems world view.
In the Ministry of Defence
(MOD), the practical approach of identifying different Defence Lines of
Development (DLOD) is an approach that works well for deterministic
programmes but in a world where many defence problems are uncertain, and
therefore the defence goals are uncertain, the systems being developed
need to be complex and able to accommodate uncertainty. In order to
support a systems approach that embeds ergonomics and human factors, we
need a more holistic understanding of the relationships and roles of
people as part of the defence capability. This approach means having a
useful world view of human capability.
Human capability is the
collective impact that people have on the capability of an enterprise.
The concept includes the results of their actions, thinking and
intentions as well as the demands from their physical and mental needs.
It is the product of all the influences on people at any one time, and
therefore it varies as influences vary over time.
organisations are influenced and influence each other. Influences can be
internal, such as motivation, or external, such as environment.
Managing human capability is a matter of managing these influences to
achieve desired outcomes. In many cases of organisational failure, there
has been too much reliance on one or two influences, such as official
process and a lack of attention to other influences, such as the design
of technology. Insight can be lost through automation, ingenuity can be
lost through poor information management, the opportunities for
innovation and learning can be lost through technology dependency. By
contrast, well designed technology and team complementing can reduce
workload, increase the span of human awareness, and multiply analytical
The MOD has taken a capability approach to the
acquisition of new defence systems, as a way of trying to achieve the
agility necessary for dealing with complex needs. Capability acquisition
means focusing on the outcome rather than the manner of achieving it.
The aim is to withhold assumptions and decisions about solutions as long
as possible in order to accommodate changing needs and understanding.
MOD’s challenge is to implement a systems world view from within
organisations that have evolved from deterministic world views. One of
the problems this evolution has created is that the partitioning within
DLOD tends to drive human factors into partitions too, making it
difficult to take a systems approach. Issues such as health, training,
leadership and information management are addressed within different
partitions across MOD and the Forces. Finding a way to get these
different areas to interact in an organic manner is in itself a problem,
given the political, social and economic contexts.
capability effectively is a significant enabler for the overall
effectiveness of any enterprise. In defence this success has been
described as being increasingly dependent on human qualities such as
effective thinking and social understanding, rather than simply superior
firepower and technical capacities. Military publications such as The Future Character of Conflict
emphasise increasing demands on people, who must provide the crucial
‘agile edge’ in operations. This makes it even more important to develop
human capability effectively.
Lord Levene’s Defence Reform report
of 2011 (http://bit.ly/1bjIKMA) highlighted the need for defence to
place greater emphasis on developing human capability ‘in the round’,
which means addressing all the significant internal and external
influences, managing those that can be managed and making allowances for
those that cannot. This approach requires a strategic understanding of
the balance between technical and human capability and how it influences
agility in the operating environment.
So how does MOD develop
defence’s human capability? Alongside developing leadership skills,
building ethos, training for procedures and supporting health, MOD has
been implementing human factors integration within acquisition processes
to ensure that equipment and systems are designed to meet the needs of
users within their operating environment. These are several strands of
development that contribute to human capability but there is no obvious
place or time to integrate these into a coherent element. There is no
organisational or process infrastructure to ensure that the high level
human capability outcomes are being achieved by the sum of all the
Defence requirements are shaped by increasing resource
constraints and uncertainty in the operating environment. This fact has
focused MOD’s intent on generating an adaptive military capability. As a
consequence, acquisition processes themselves have become more complex
and seek to deliver defence capability outcomes in an integrated,
dynamic manner. This aim requires a deep understanding of the essential
attributes of capability and what affects them. Strategic guidance about
human capability is needed to inform high level decisions about
investment and to identify the critical effects that arise from
interdependencies across DLOD and acquisition portfolios.
where do we need human capability to provide agility, understanding,
interpretation, innovation, ingenuity, trust and ethical judgement? The
evidence from organisational failures is that such human capabilities
are at risk of being inadvertently degraded by the uncoordinated
combination of technologies and processes and organisational factors,
and we certainly risk losing opportunities to enhance them. Human
capability should be recognised as a key ingredient to military
capability so that it is managed as an integrated product: the sum of
internal and external influences. If this approach is not taken, the
combined effect of influences will be a matter of chance, will not
deliver the best effectiveness and efficiency, and will increase the
risk of failure.
MOD should develop an organisational and process
infrastructure that allows human capability requirements to be
identified and that can steer its influences in a coherent manner. This
approach will allow military capability to gain maximum value from its
people and the attributes they can bring to the whole defence
By Karen Carr, Professor of Human Systems at Cranfield University, working at the Defence Academy
First published in The Ergonomist, issue 524, February 2014