The Army Signal Corps Must Change its Culture
James Torrence and Joseph Pishock
The flexibility of the network allows scalability to support the commander’s requirements as additional units enter or leave an operational area. The Signal Corps expands, extends or contracts the network based on mission requirements. The signal element plans for the appropriate support based on commander’s intent and the environmental and mission variables.[i]
-- Army Field Manual 6-02, Signal Support to Operations
The Army Signal Corps is at a crossroads. Is the purpose of the Signal Corps to comply with network security directives or accomplish the mission while accepting prudent risk? The answer is not clear. The conflicting priorities of security and mission accomplishment create an environment where Signal Corps leaders are uncertain as to where they can assume risk. Leaders in the Signal Corps must contend[ii] with Command Cyber Operational Readiness Inspections (CCORIs) and Installation Campus Area Network (ICAN) accreditation checklists, while also trying to “provide seamless, secure, continuous, and dynamic communications” to the warfighter in garrison and combat environments.[iii] There is a running joke within the Signal Corps that it is acceptable to fail missions but not a CCORI (the networks must comply with security standards, but that does not mean that the networks need to work).[iv] In January 2018, Army Chief Information Officer (CIO)/G-6, Lieutenant General Bruce Crawford, argued that “cyber policy must move from a compliance to a readiness focus.”[v] Crawford recognizes that policy focused on “compliance with existing rules and regulations cannot deal well with novelty, complexity, and uncertainty.”[vi]
Signal Corps leaders spend an inordinate amount of time implementing security directives and preparing for inspections on their network even though the “network is not user-friendly, intuitive, or flexible enough to support [the] mission in the most effective manner and demands a heavy reliance on industry field service representatives to operate and sustain.”[vii] In September 2017, “after spending billions of dollars on next-generation tactical communications gear, Army leaders have decided it [the network] won’t work and they need a different approach.”[viii] In January 2018, Crawford, argued that the “network that we currently have is not the network we believe we need to fight and win against a peer adversary.”[ix] Crawford further argued that the existing network is complex, fragile, and vulnerable.[x] In February 2018, Major General Peter Gallagher argued that “the Army must converge many disparate networks” and “flatten the architecture in a way where it’s more dynamic, intuitive, and self-healing.”[xi] Signal Corps leaders are clear - the Army needs a new network.[xii]
Army communicators recognize that the network is fundamentally broken. What has not been discussed is how the current Army network has inadvertently broken the culture of the Signal Corps. The Signal Corps has a culture rooted in compliance. Risk expert Sidney Dekker argues that compliance helps deal with identified risks, but that compliance is “virtually incapable of pointing us to the risks we don’t yet know about – the gradual drift into catastrophic failure that occurs underneath a shiny surface of green audits [e.g., checklists] and low incident rates.”[xiii] Peter Senge argues that “if people don’t have their own visions, all they can do is ‘sign up’ for someone else’s. The result is compliance, never commitment.”[xiv] Edgar Schein reinforces Senge’s arguments and claims: “organizations that pessimistically assume either that they are dominated by others and/or assume that their environments are fixed, will find it difficult to conceive of new ideas and will find it even more difficult to marshall the energy to try out new ideas.”[xv] A compliant culture focused on static solutions and checklists stifles innovation, creates leaders unprepared to respond to complex problems, and provides a false sense of security.
With a network where the permissions and authority to make changes are based on checklists and held at the highest Army echelons, the Signal Corps will never transition from a culture of compliance to a culture of commitment. Air Force Colonel John F. Price argues that the “continually altering threats” in the contemporary operational environment necessitate that military leaders “promote a clear understanding of innovation and work to shape the military’s culture of compliance into one of disciplined creativity.”[xvi] The Signal Corps must foster and champion innovation, which it cannot do with the existing culture of compliance.
The Signal Corps must change its culture to ensure its people are as adaptable, flexible, dynamic, and intuitive as the network it covets. To win future wars in complex environments against near-peer adversaries, the Signal Corps must shift from a culture of compliance to a culture of accepting prudent risk. Jim Collins argues that “thoughtless reliance on technology is not an asset.”[xvii] The Signal Corps cannot take advantage of a modern network if its culture is rooted in compliance. Transforming the Signal Corps culture to “one where subordinates are free to innovate will require senior leaders to provide less detailed direction and structure.”[xviii] Additionally, “senior leaders will have to increase the time and energy spent on developing and improving subordinate leaders – not the system of procedures, checklists, or ‘the model.’”[xix] Having the right organizational culture “drives the development of capabilities, operational concepts, and leaders required to be successful in a complex and uncertain environment.”[xx]
Approaching Culture Change
The culture of the Signal Corps must change if we hope to win the next war. The current generation of Signal Corps leaders trained on a static, inflexible network requiring layers of bureaucracy to make even the smallest of changes. Army Colonel Jeff Worthington argues that “todays junior leaders are schooled using yesterday’s curriculum to meet yesterday’s operational tempo.”[xxi] Crawford argues that “we’re moving into a new age where gone are the days when technology that allows you to orient, decide, and act faster is tied to a fixed command post or office.”[xxii] Knowing that the solution for a static network is coming, the change in the paradigm of Signal Corps leaders must start now. A culture that promotes commitment, rewards calculated risk, and decentralizes decision-making is necessary to create the adaptable leaders. To create a new culture, Signal Corps leaders must understand how to approach the problem and where to focus their initial efforts to make meaningful change.
Culture change is not easy. Talking about changing culture does not produce results. Instead, culture change begins by targeting specific behaviors that must change to bring about a larger shift in the organization.[xxiii] Many leaders take charge of organizations that have an “entire laundry list of hoped-for cultural traits: collaborative, innovative, a meritocracy, risk taking, focused on quality, and more.”[xxiv] When the list is too large, no change occurs because there is no clear starting point. Additionally, many leaders “dwell on the negative traits of [their] culture” without addressing the unexpected strengths that developed from the existing culture.[xxv] The Signal Corps must do two things: identify the positive traits of the existing culture that a new culture must retain and decide what specific behaviors to target to bring about organizational change. It is not possible to change an entire organizational culture in one fell swoop, and not everything in the existing organizational culture is bad.[xxvi]
Positive Traits of the Existing Signal Corps Culture
The Signal Corp’s broken culture is no one’s fault; a series of interconnected decisions over a long period of time drifted the Signal Corps to failure. Sidney Dekker argues that “failure does not come from the occasional, abnormal dysfunction or breakdown of these [organizational] structures, processes and tasks, but is an inevitable byproduct of their normal functioning.”[xxvii] The focus on static networks in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with the need to secure our networks in the face of rising cyber threats, created a culture of limited mobility and compliance. The Signal Corps accomplished the mission in Iraq and Afghanistan but is now ill-prepared to provide communications support in different types of conflict. It is time for the Signal Corps to change. Before changing the Signal Corps culture, leaders must identify and preserve the strengths of the existing culture.
Officers, non-commissioned officers, and soldiers in the Signal Corps have experience making risk decisions on the network during deployments to austere environments in Iraq and Afghanistan. During deployments to remote locations, signal leaders at the company and battalion controlled call managers, network infrastructure, and risk decisions on the network. As the U.S. consolidated its footprint in Iraq and Afghanistan, control of the network became more centralized. After base consolidation, signal leaders that previously controlled their tactical networks were told they lacked the qualifications to make risk decisions and could no longer run their network. The Signal Corps must find a way to harness the knowledge of leaders that managed a network without centralized control in combat. The Signal Corps must continue to learn from its population (whether it is a junior soldier, or a field grade officer) that innovated in an environment where success depended on signal leaders making risk decisions. The Signal Corps was successful in Iraq and Afghanistan because leaders were forced to control their network in places where centralization and compliance from a higher authority was not possible.
Currently, the Signal Corps produces leaders that are well-educated, intelligent, adept at following rules regulations and checklists, compliant, risk-averse, not empowered, constrained, and forced to operate in a manner that does not replicate environments they will face in combat. The education and intelligence of the Signal Corps leaders is a strength. Additionally, understanding rules, regulations and checklists is also a strength. Before one can accept prudent risk, he/she must understand the standards and the opportunity cost of a risk decision. However, the characteristics of compliance, risk-aversion, constrained leaders, and training differently than we fight must be discarded if the Signal Corps wants to change its culture. Signal Corps leadership must advocate for intelligent, educated leaders that understand standards. Furthermore, Signal Corps leaders must be empowered to make decisions and take risks when standards inhibit mission accomplishment or when the enemy refuses to adhere to our standards. The next step for Signal Corps leadership is to choose organizational behaviors within the Signal Corps to begin the shift in culture.
Culture Change & Mission Command
FM 6-02, the doctrine for providing signal support, does not provide any meaningful insight as to the type of leaders required to support signal operations. FM 6-02 does not discuss initiative, risk-taking, or the importance of focusing on tactical operations. Instead, it describes the use of processes, management systems, equipment and procedures to provide a network for the Army.[xxviii] Fortunately, the Army has established principles of Mission Command. Applying principles of Mission Command will not fix the Signal Corps because “mission command requires a specific mindset, requisite training and experience of leaders and led, and an organizational culture to work.”[xxix] But, imagining a future state where the Signal Corps is successful using mission command in a complex operational environment is the foundation upon which a new culture, mindset, and training plan must be built.
The behaviors that lead to successful mission command implementation must be the focus of a culture change. The Signal Corps must transition from slow, risk-averse, and deliberate managers to rapid, adaptive and – ultimately – agile leaders. Mission command “is the exercise of authority and direction by the commander using mission orders to enable disciplined initiative within the commander’s intent to empower agile and adaptive leaders in the conduct of unified land operations.”[xxx] The Signal Corps must understand how it envisions its leaders leveraging the six principles of mission command to initiate its culture change from compliance to commitment. The following proposals under each principle of mission command should jumpstart conversation and lead to broader dialogue within the Signal Corps.
Build Cohesive Teams through Mutual Trust
Effective networks operate on trust, the “political and emotional connections between people who must rely on each other to accomplish tasks.”[xxxi] Army Chief of Staff, General Milley, describes trust as “the very essence of mission command.”[xxxii] However, in the Signal Corps, trust is not possible because regulations limit decision-making to a select few strategic communicators that work for commanders outside the tactical chain of command. Decision-makers that do not have a vested interest in the results of their decisions have no incentive to take risk.[xxxiii] The cumulative effect of the formation of cyber organizations and the centralization of control is a vast “power-distance index” between those who need communications and those who deliver services.[xxxiv]
To close this distance, tactical communicators must integrate into strategic units to build the human relationships that lead to cohesive teams.[xxxv] Network Enterprise Technology Command (NETCOM) has a program known as the Supported Command Integration Program (SCIP) which allows tactical communicators to work inside of their local Network Enterprise Centers (NECs).[xxxvi] It is not enough. Tactical communicators must also work in the Regional Cyber Centers (RCCs) and Regional Hub Nodes (RHNs) to build teams across each echelon. Signal brigades and RCCs must place Liaison Officers (LNOs) in each other’s organization to repair the damage in trust brought about by separating the organizations (previously RCCs fell under signal brigades).
Creating a Shared Understanding
Ironically, the Signal Corps provides the networks that connect collaborative warfighting tools but fails to employ collaborative technologies towards its own mission. Operating and securing a network is a continuous endeavor requiring constant synchronization. The back-and-forth sharing of information increases awareness and provides everyone context regarding current and future operations. To improve collaboration amongst communicators, critical network operations centers must maintain connections with one another and units they support in an open and collaborative format (i.e., video conference, chat windows, publicly viewable portals, etc.).
Lessons must be taken from the experiences of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in Iraq where General McChrystal ran daily video conferences in which he openly and honestly discussed problems and speculated on possible solutions.[xxxvii] Key priorities were posted for all to see on a publicly viewable portal page and updated daily. Regardless of time zone or physical location, everyone in the organization shared the same understanding. Subordinates leveraged modern collaborative tools and connected with counterparts to accomplish missions even if that meant going against an established process. Collaborative tools and a common understanding allowed for oversight without the need for formal, process-based approvals. Under McChrystal, subordinates were fast, flexible and agile - everything the Signal Corps is not but aspires to be.[xxxviii]
Hypothetically, a tactical unit waiting on an RCC action for a training mission would benefit from knowing that the RCC was currently dealing with a higher priority crisis such as a cyber intrusion. Additionally, if properly synchronized and enabled by the right collaborative tools, the RCC could leverage any available cyber defense soldiers in tactical units to assist with their problem – speeding their ability to return to other priorities of work. A shared understanding can help both tactical and strategic communicators accomplish their missions.
Providing a Clear Commander’s Intent
Providing a clear commander’s intent is linked closely to creating a shared understanding but difficult within the Signal Corps since NETCOM moved from a unit reporting directly to the Army CIO/G6 to one reporting to Army Cyber.[xxxix] Since 2010, the creation of a cyber capability has been a top priority for the Army. Leadership researcher John Kotter asserts that the “the single most visible factor that distinguishes major cultural changes that succeed from those that fail is competent leadership.”[xl] Competent general officer-level emphasis on network security successfully changed culture, secured a network suffering from intrusions, and brought the formal structure of Army Cyber into existence. However, the Signal Corps now needs that same level of leadership and narrative to shift its culture towards enabling its communicators.
The CIO/G6 and other senior leaders continue to discuss culture change, but we must get specific.[xli] No narrative exists that counters the all-important CCORI. To unify efforts and overcome the institutional adherence to the CCORI, senior leaders must track the status of major tactical exercises such as warfighters and ramp-ups for combat training center rotations. Once leaders see the difficulty connecting, transiting firewalls, scheduling resources and other friction points, they can issue clear intent. With clear commander’s intent, subordinates can take risks within Network Operations (NETOPS) to accomplish missions, even if those risks involve going against a process (likely a process meant for a previous problem and not applicable to evolving operational environments).
Exercising Disciplined Initiative
Exercising Disciplined Initiative is only possible if subordinates know what the boss wants. The critical position to enabling subordinate initiative is the dual-hatted Theater Signal Commander (TSC) / Major Army Command (MACOM) G6.[xlii] This general officer is the first leader able to accept any risk within Department of Defense Information Network (DODIN) and can fuse together the G6s and S6s who rely on the network provided by signal brigades and guarded by cyber units. A weekly “Operations and Intelligence” meeting that includes the division G6, supported S6s, and strategic signal counterparts will create positive changes in the signal community. Separate meetings that cater to a strategic audience or a G6/S6 specific forum do not address the competing demands of network security and mission accomplishment. An “Operations and Intelligence” meeting must be focused on near-term events that expose problems and close the gap between the high-level commander and subordinates entrusted to take action on his/her behalf. Ideally, the permissions and authorities are delegated below the general officer level, allowing the theater signal brigades and corps-level G6s to become the point of operational orientation.
Use of Mission Orders
Using mission orders augments the synchronization between tactical and strategic communicators. The outcome of the weekly Theater Signal Commander update becomes a Fragmentation Order (FRAGO) that prioritizes tasks for the signal community from the top-down. Currently, the Signal Corps is process driven and relies on automated systems meant to track tasks by volume. Users submit trouble tickets into databases, and work flow emerges from the bottom-up. In a trouble-ticket based system, leadership and commander emphasis is entirely reactive. Weekly FRAGOs prioritizing operations from the G6 will provide subordinates the context of their trouble tickets and automated work flows (clear guidance will also help prioritizing which trouble tickets to complete first). FRAGOs also require subordinates to identify, plan and execute implied tasks. Extracting and planning implied tasks requires creative thinking and forces both individuals and organizations to operate outside the bounds of process (especially when an existing process is outdated, obsolete, or does not apply).
Accepting Prudent Risk
Accepting Prudent Risk is the outcome of the other five principles of mission command and is easier to do if there is a feedback mechanism to track ongoing efforts. FM 6-02 charges almost every Signal echelon with a NETOPS responsibility,[xliii] but no single unit has the capacity to do it alone. Communicators must consolidate various “un-current operations” nodes into proper NETOPS centers built around RCCs and TSCs. RCCs and TSCs must combine their efforts physically or virtually to create reliable, credible and disciplined organizations necessary to run theater communications. With shared understanding created by a clear commander’s intent (distributed across echelons with collaborative tools), it is possible to delegate permissions currently held by general officers down to lower levels.[xliv] The delegation of permissions from a general officer to the RCC director/commander or TSC commander results in decisions being made by those who are closer to the problem and directly responsible for mission success. Responsibility for solving problems and having the resources to do so, creates leaders more willing to accept prudent risk even though their actions may conflict with an existing process.
The Signal Corps has a broken culture. CCORIs and checklists, though important, can no longer drive the signal community. The most secure and compliant network in the world is irrelevant if it doesn’t meet the needs of its users. The Army’s current network does not meet the needs of its users. Signal Corps leadership wants a modern network to support the warfighter in conflicts against near-peer threats, but Signal Corps leadership must also champion a new culture to match the traits desired in its network. The Signal Corps must start with understanding its desired future state through the lens of mission command. Understanding how the Signal Corps operates through the lens of mission command creates an opportunity to shape the change in culture, mindset, and training to meet the desired future state of an agile organization. The Army cannot leverage the potential of a modern network if the Signal Corps does not change its culture. A dynamic, agile network will not be effective with static, inflexible managers. The Signal Corps needs leaders capable of making risk decisions, operating in complex environments, and adapting to its users. Worthington reinforces the need for agile leaders: “the task for the Army, the Signal Corps and signal officers is to look to the future and develop officers who can adapt quickly to rapidly changing demands.”[xlv] If the Signal Corps does not change its culture, the money spent on a modern network will be wasted because compliant communicators cannot innovate and pivot when process fails to meet user demands.
[ii] Contend is the correct word. CCORIs are supposed to assist in evaluating the defense of one’s network, but turn into a full-time job for communicators involved in the process.
[iii] DISA, “New Cyber Assessment Program Focuses on Operational Risk,” disa.mil, accessed September 16, 2018, https://disa.mil/NewsandEvents/2017/CCORI; Headquarters, Department of the Army, SIGNAL SUPPORT TO OPERATIONS, 1-3.
[iv] Risk Expert Sidney Dekker says something similar: “you count what you can count, not what counts.” His work targets a culture of compliance as the biggest risk to an organization. His most recent recorded speech on decentralizing, devolving, and decluttering to shift from a culture of compliance to a culture of commitment is on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J0Y0l04vrm8.
[v] Robert Ackerman, “Army Aims for Network Modernization,” afcea.org, accessed September 16, 2018, https://www.afcea.org/content/army-aims-network-modernization.
[vi] Sidney Dekker, The Safety Anarchist: Relying on Human Expertise and Innovation, Reducing Bureaucracy and Compliance (London: Routledge, 2017), 17.
[vii] Bruce Crawford, James Mingus, Gary P. Martin, “Statement before the Subcommittee on Air and Land Forces Committee on the Armed Services United States House of Representatives,” accessed September 16, 2018.
[viii] Loren Thompson, “As U.S. Army Rethinks How Soldiers Will Communicate in Future Combat, Harsh Realities Loom,” forbes.com, accessed September 16, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/lorenthompson/2018/09/07/as-u-s-army-rethinks-how-soldiers-will-communicate-in-future-combat-harsh-realities-loom/#2a447f85342a.
[ix] Robert Ackerman, “Army Aims for Network Modernization.”
[x] Bruce Crawford, James Mingus, Gary P. Martin, “Statement before the Subcommittee on Air and Land Forces Committee on the Armed Services United States House of Representatives,” 3.
[xi] Sean Kimmons, “Team Tasked with Modernizing Army Network Discussed Way Forward with Industry,” army.mil, accessed September 16, 2018, https://www.army.mil/article/200371/team_tasked_with_modernizing_army_network_discusses_way_forward_with_industry.
[xii] Ibid.; Bruce Crawford, James Mingus, Gary P. Martin, “Statement before the Subcommittee on Air and Land Forces Committee on the Armed Services United States House of Representatives,” 3; Robert Ackerman, “Army Aims for Network Modernization.”
[xiii] Sidney Dekker, The Safety Anarchist, xii.
[xiv] Peter Senge, The 5th Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization (New York: Doubleday, 2006), 197.
[xv] Edgar Schein, Organizational Culture (New York: MIT, Sloan School of Management, 1988), https://dspace.mit.edu/bitstream/handle/1721.1/2224/SWP-2088-24854366.pdf?sequenc.., 30.
[xvi] John F. Price, “U.S. Military Innovation: Fostering Creativity in a Culture of Compliance,” Air & Space Power Journal September-October 2014, 128-134, accessed October 29, 2019, https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/Portals/10/ASPJ/journals/Volume-28_Issue-5/V-Price.pdf, 128.
[xvii] Jim Collins. Good to Great (New York: HarperCollins 2001), 158.
[xviii] Leonard Wong, “Stifling Innovation: Developing Tomorrow’s Leaders Today,” (Pennsylvania: Army War College, 2002), http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a401393.pdf, 31.
[xx] Andrea Tomann, Insipring Innovation (Pennyslvania: Army War College, 2016), http://publications.armywarcollege.edu/pubs/962.pdf, 3
[xxi] Jeff Worthington, “The Adaptive and Agile Communicator,” afcea.org, accessed October 29, 2018, https://www.afcea.org/content/Article-adaptive-and-agile-communicator.
[xxii] Robert Ackerman, “Army Aims for Network Modernization.”
[xxiii] Jon. R. Katzenbach, Ilona Steffen, and Caroline Kronley, “Cultural Change that Sticks,” hbr.org, accessed September 16, 2018, https://hbr.org/2012/07/cultural-change-that-sticks.
[xxvi] See another article by James Torrence that elaborates on this subject: http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/army-professional-reading-and-creative-thinking
[xxvii] Sidney Dekker. Drift Into Failure (Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company 2011), xii.
[xxviii] Headquarters, Department of the Army, SIGNAL SUPPORT TO OPERATIONS, 1-3.
[xxix] Gordon B. Davis Jr. (U.S. Army Major General (Retired)), email correspondence with James J. Torrence, October 12, 2018.
[xxx] Department of the Army, Commander and Staff Organizations and Operations, FM 6-0. Washington DC: Department of the Army, 2014, https://armypubs.army.mil/epubs/DR_pubs/DR_a/pdf/web/adrp6_0.pdf, 1-1.
[xxxi] W. Warner Burke. Organization Change – Theory and Practice, 4th ed. (California, Sage Publishing, 2013), 268.
[xxxii] C. Todd Lopez, “Trust bedrock of Army profession,” army.mil, accessed September 25, 2018, https://www.army.mil/article/179601/trust_bedrock_of_army_profession.
[xxxiii] Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls this “Skin in the Game.” See his book, Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life for a more in-depth argument about the importance of incurring risk by being invested in achieving a goal.
[xxxiv] Definition: “Power Distance Index (PDI),” businessdictionary.com, accessed September 25, 2018, www.businessdictionary.com/definition/power-distance-index-PDI.html.
[xxxv] Judith A. Ross, “Trust Makes the Team Go ‘Round”, hbr.org, accessed September 25, 2018, https://hbr.org/2008/02/trust-makes-the-team-go-round-1.
[xxxvi] U.S. Army NETCOM Commander, MG John W. Baker, “Supported Command Integration Program,” command message 2017-02, Fort Huachuca, AZ, August 23, 2017.
[xxxvii] Stanley McChrystal, Tantrum Collins, David Silverman, and Chris Fussessl, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement For a Complex World (New York: Penguin, 2015), 227.
[xxxviii] Ibid., 213.
[xxxix] Todd Lopez, “Second Army Cases Colors for The Fourth Time” Army.mil, accessed September 25, 2018, https://www.army.mil/article/185353/second_army_cases_colors_for_fourth_time.
[xl] John P. Kotter and James L. Heskett, Corporate Culture and Performance (New York: Free Press. 1992), 84.
[xli] George I. Seffers, “Army Modernizing Training and Education for Cyber, EW,” afcea.org, accessed September 28, 2018, https://www.afcea.org/content/army-modernizing-training-and-education-cyber-ew; Robert Ackerman, “Army Aims for Network Modernization.”
[xliii] Headquarters, Department of the Army, SIGNAL SUPPORT TO OPERATIONS, 2-1, 2-2.
[xliv] Sidney Dekker argues that leaders should decentralize, devolve, and then declutter to optimize performance in complex environments (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J0Y0l04vrm8).
[xlv] Jeff Worthington, “The Adaptive and Agile Communicator.”