February 1, 2011  

A better way to educate

Online courses should supplement officer education

Keeping up the professionalism and developing the talent of the officer force while in a prolonged war requires a new strategy for achieving necessary sequential officer education. Shorter-duration residencies away from home station at leader development schools should be the answer, where an individual remains assigned to his current organization and is scheduled to return quickly. Simply stated, we must greatly increase the use of modern education technology by online and correspondence venues — versus long-term residence — to achieve and maintain officer executive and professional education and development.

Obviously this will require a reduction in the number of permanent changes of station to full-time senior service colleges, fellowships, doctoral programs, master’s programs, command and staff colleges, and other full-ride degree programs and their equivalents. All of these professional degree opportunities and requirements can be met through online or distance education programs, or through part-time programs while officers stay on the job. Application of education and skills learned will be more immediately manifest in organizations because officers remain on assignment while learning.

While recognizing that military and civilian education remains essential to officer development, simultaneous accomplishment (SA) — the practice of working on and completing military or civilian education requirements while assigned to a unit and leading and producing — ensures schooling requirements can be met through an assortment of correspondence, local seminar, distance education and nonresident continuing education methods fully functional in the 21st century.

Through the reduction of full-time programs, the number of institutional Army officer positions can be brought back in line with previous documentation. Officers assigned to headquarters, commands and other organizations would work their normal jobs and, at the same time, achieve professional education requirements — according to their rank and timing — through distance education or part-time schooling. Additionally, because of SA, more officers with recent wartime and operational experience would be available for positions in headquarters and commands.

Taking talented officers out of the work force for what amounts to several years is like a football team’s coach and owner taking some of their most skilled players out for a game or two and telling them to “go work on memorizing the playbook some more, or go hit the gym harder than you’ve ever had a chance to before.” Those players will come back improved in selected areas, most likely at the expense the team losing a game or two — great for bolstering the individual’s credentials, but not so great for the organization.

Many professionals get to a point where they conduct dual education and work duties similar to the proposed SA. For example, physicians in their internship or residency phases earn their professional degree credentials while they provide health care services. And public school teachers are expected to obtain their master’s degrees on their own time if they hope to progress. Field grade is a good time for Army officers to do the same, and I suggest this is the time to accept the responsibility of SA.

Few personnel, if any, employed as administrative and military/civilian education specialists in the command staff college (CSC) and senior service college (SSC) system need lose their jobs if SA is embraced because officer education needs will remain. The Army’s Command and General Staff College (CGSC) once had a superb nonresident program. It would need to ramp up again and run year-round with increased entry points for versatility — likely utilizing existing resident program faculty. Short-term resident phases would be needed over the approximately two-year distance education version of CSC; ideal timing would be two-week sessions at the middle and end of the course. The superbly run Army War College Distance Education Program already does this. Civilian education administration requirements would also remain — just with a different way of working them.

If money and time away from the organization were not the critical factors they are, junior leaders could complete their basic course twice and Ranger school could be extended to 18 weeks, making officers doubly prepared for their duties when they hit their units. However, the reality is that we have to make prudent decisions about how long leaders can be out for school before requiring them to start leading and producing in units. Twenty-first-century technology allows us to facilitate more of certain types of leader development, specifically via distance education while on the job. At or just slightly before field grade is the time when leaders are responsible enough and have sufficient junior leader grounding and maturity that they should be ready for SA.


Officers must know they are being rewarded for their superior effort, and as such SA should be associated with selection criteria for below-the-zone, or fast-track, promotion. While SA alone cannot trump superior job performance as a factor for promotion, it should become a more important evaluation factor than it has been in the past. There are additional ways to reward SA, such as assignment location or job position of choice, and leadership can undoubtedly come up with other rewards beyond simply the intrinsic satisfaction of SA.

Some senior leaders have followed officer development and education routes such as correspondence CGSC, part-time graduate school, college of continuing education and distance education SSC. However, this has been the exception, not the rule.

One way to get this solidly into Army culture is to create a section in the officer evaluation report that highlights these accomplishments, with this notation given genuine consideration at promotion boards. Examples of genuine consideration are:

• Elimination of below-the-zone promotion possibility without SA.

• Increased potential for below-the-zone promotion corresponding to maximum use of distance education programs for sequential education and development with simultaneous significant contributions to the organization.

• General linkage of SA to promotion.

Without this consideration being shown, it becomes too tough a pill to swallow for the majority of officers. If the SA concept is to succeed, it cannot simply be thrown out there as just available, optional or recommended. It is a hard measure of commitment and should be rewarded as such. It will work if the reward is significant and obvious, such as below-the-zone selection rate improvement. It is proven to be doable, even with a typical mix of overseas, combat, tactical unit and institutional assignments — although clearly it is challenging and admittedly there are intermittent stretches of time in any officer’s career during which coursework is essentially impossible. These times come and go though, and all this must be taken into consideration by the individual officer’s rater and senior rater and identified in the officer evaluation report. Modern technology has changed college education such that today more students pursue higher education online and while working. Accredited online degree programs provide offerings virtually anywhere there is Web access. Local course offerings, including evening and weekend classes, also have increased worldwide.

Participants in SA usually could be assigned to full or near-full mission positions and responsibilities. Participation should be voluntary, although completion would remain essentially a requirement for promotion — much the same as current officer education requirements and qualifying assignments.


If this change in doing business is too much to bite off all at once, the Army can partially test — i.e., for graduate schooling only — the theory in a sort of microcosm with a small group such as its new crew of cyber operations leaders. Both officers and certain enlisted personnel could attempt this. Initiating this as policy makes sense because cyberwar is unlikely to subside anytime soon, and education is easily understood to be necessary with this technical and important mission. The cyber ops sector was also chosen because of the importance of mission, relative newness, the assumption of “want to be there” versus “forced to be there,” relative small size of the work force and the availability of education means. Program success evaluation at the senior leader level would be necessary every year or so.

Another way to initially ease the transition and also ensure senior leadership is kept aware of modern distance education methods is for the leadership to take the lead on SA. As such, a near-future goal could be that before selection to the senior leader ranks, an officer will have completed at least two of four professional development opportunities (CSC, master’s degree, SSC or doctoral degree) by distance education. This could be handled much like the goal (even if subject to waiver possibility) of foreign language competency or joint-duty assignment for senior leaders.

Regardless of start location, supervisors must implement this with a dose of reality and cannot realistically expect workdays to exceed nine hours of productivity for those officers engaged in SA, no matter what the organization’s norms. Responsible missions should be assigned on a pro rata basis sometimes. For the sake of example and mathematical ease, and assuming an ROTC instructor works an average of 12 productive hours daily, the SA officer’s assigned ROTC recruiting mission and training load would be three-quarters that of the other officers.

Only when SA is endorsed can we begin to develop leaders who truly have the firsthand experience necessary to start instilling a real cost-savings culture in the Army — a culture our political leadership has repeatedly asked for over the years. Unfortunately, “answers” such as Total Quality Management and Lean Six Sigma have provided only temporary and topical satisfaction, and the requests ultimately continue. When leaders can make the claim of personal experience of SA’s satisfaction and confidence, only then can they start to require a real cost-savings culture expectation of their organizations.

Senior Army leadership recognizes that our leader development should produce agile, adaptive, inquisitive leaders. Efforts for SA can achieve this. Full-ride civilian and other schooling must become associated with the “old Army.” We are an Army that must embrace the new, available learning techniques while doing more than ever. This is the way to build a corps of leaders who truly live a culture of cost savings being demanded of us — by living the experience.


Here is a real-world example of the difference between a cost-savings culture and not: When a unit or organization needed to accomplish some “catch-up” task that required a complete rewrite (because of, say, the need for updates over time, or the existence of a somewhat haphazard set of standard operating procedures), it used to be that an officer would roll up his sleeves, spend a lot more weekends and nights working late, pull it all together, and get it published and back in the hands of the unit’s soldiers. Today it is much more likely that a contract is awarded and a team of contractors comes into the organization and learns from it, then produces a document at some cost. This practice — and the associated extra cost — happens because organizations are not executing the spirit of SA. Executing SA takes the strength to say, “We can get the job done ourselves.”

The protracted wars we are involved in make this strategy more important than ever. There will always be “now” requirements demanding leadership’s attention. They have seemed to increase exponentially in recent years, and the smart prediction is that this trend will continue. Senior service colleges, command and staff colleges, and civilian education programs must leverage 21st-century education technology to make this happen at increased levels. The Army War College already has a challenging and relevant distance education program, and in previous years the Command and General Staff College had a sufficiently meaningful program of correspondence that could easily be converted to current online technology. Equally fortunate is the recent increase in academic online delivery means for bachelor’s through doctoral degrees. To continue to turn up our collective noses at these myriad educational opportunities seems the height of snobbishness.

While this discussion has focused on the Army for sake of example, it should apply equally to the other services. The next generation of uniformed officers must be more versatile than the previous, and passing the test of SA proves this increased versatility. Ultimately, this is about simultaneously achieving officer professional education and development while prosecuting a protracted war or other increased requirements. This strategy achieves this while also getting wartime experienced officers assigned to our institutional Army. Much as our action-oriented Army can shun the temporary duty habit of yore for the video teleconference efficiency of today, we can also apply SA in our time-constrained environment. Finally, embracing SA provides the added benefit of increasing our number of officers who have been developed and inspired by the notion of a real-world culture of cost savings.

Retired Col. Gwynne T. Burke is a former U.S. Army field artillery officer and comptroller.