Saturday, April 28, 2007

Ode to Cologne

ITEC 2007
This was my fourth year talking at Europe’s largest defence training and simulation conference, this year in Cologne. Cologne, lying on the Rhine with its huge Gothic cathedral, is in many ways a better venue than larger, more famous cities. The city was bombed flat in the second world war, apart from the Cathedral, which was left standing as a navigational landmark for the RAF (handy having military experts on hand). It really is spectacular and has a verticality in the design, both inside and out, that enhances its height. Every feature, points upwards so that the building seems to be straining and reaching for the skies. This is in marked contrast to the more earthbound and settled pose of most English cathedrals.

The defence e-learning community is a tight-knit group and they’re very passionate about what they do. Give the necessarily disciplined and traditional environment, there are fantastic pockets of best practice that make other sectors look like dinosaurs. Their use of gaming, simulations, team training and general willingness to listen to new ideas (even those as outlandish as mine) is a constant surprise.

Military-industrial complex
Eisenhower, in his valedictory address, warned against the all-too-cosy alliance between the military and its large industrial partners, and never has this warning been so relevant. Equipment-lead training has led to an extreme focus on equipment training, rather than equipping people to deal with the real problems they face on the ground, so the exhibition and conference are still skewed towards large, expensive simulators. The bulk of the exhibition was flight, vehicle and weapon simulators. The new ‘war among the people’ demands a new approach to training. We don’t seem to be engaged in aerial dog-fights and tank battles an more.

Military-entertainment complex
This new world could be describes as the military-entertainment complex, where e-learning, gaming, video and other web-based phenomena are used to help provide the bulk of the training needs. The interesting stuff was to be found around the periphery of the exhibition among the smaller companies. There were the e-learning companies, who are now starting to provide good content and advice on a whole range of mainstream training needs. There’s the games/simulations companies, using existing games, games engines or other tools such as Flash, to produce low cost simulations on convoy protection, roadblocks, forward operations, cultural awareness and language training. This is where the real action should be.

‘Physical’ and ‘psychological’ fidelity
An underlying problem in military training is the failure to recognise the fundamental difference between ‘physical’ and ‘psychological’ fidelity. So, how real should simulations be? It’s a mistake to think that physical fidelity is an absolute virtue in simulations. A stripped down version of reality will often suffice, and in fact can often provide greater focus for the learner. The important consideration in making such decisions is to be selective in a way that focuses on the psychologically significant aspects of the situation in a way that highlights the learning objectives.

All in all this conference can be seen as a mirror of the problems we all face in 21st century military action and training. Too much money is still being spent within the old 'cold-war' model, while the world has moved on. One can almost use the conference as a diagnostic tool to identify why Iraq has gone so badly wrong. The good news is that the post-industrial model has taken hold within the military and there are some excellent examples of how technology can be used to make present and future military operations more relevant and humane. the move from the military-industrial complex to the military-entertainment complex is well underway.

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