The Three Types of Organizational Learning

The German Army was arguably the most tactically proficient force during the First World War. Much of their effectiveness was a product of the adaptation of their command structures, small arms, and small unit tactics to the demands of trench warfare. Germany eventually lost the war due, in no small part, to their failure to also learn key lessons and adapt at the operational and strategic levels. The German Army’s successful tactical adaptation and failure to adapt at the strategic and operational levels show that a military can, paradoxically, both excel at organizational learning and fail to learn at the same time.

This paradox has a straightforward cause. There are three different types of organizational learning, and each requires different processes. Militaries need to establish processes for all three types of learning to adapt effectively and efficiently. Within a military context, adaptation is organizational changes that better solve problems posed by the environment and adversary. Innovation is similar, but takes place in peacetime without either the pressures of combat or the opportunity for real-time feedback.[1] Fortunately for today’s military professionals, the German military’s struggles on the Western Front provide insight into the character of organizational learning. This article will examine the German military’s organizational learning during the First World War, introduce a new model of organizational learning, argue that each type of learning has distinct processes, and explore the importance of organizational learning for today’s militaries.

Excelling at Only One Type of Learning: The German Military of the First World War

During the second month of the First World War, the German government released the September Program, announcing their pursuit of extensive territorial gains.[2] They planned to set conditions for expansion by first defeating the French army, followed quickly by the Russians. The plan would allow Germany to concentrate its forces throughout the war, and to quickly annihilate opposing armies, thus avoiding a war of attrition.[3] German elites believed a rapid victory would prevent their adversaries from capitalizing on their economic advantages and prevent a cabinet war from becoming a people’s war that could destabilize German domestic politics.[4]

When the war started, Germany’s operational methods focused on maneuvering to annihilate opposing armies, and its tactics concentrated on skirmish lines making frontal attacks.[5] By the end of August 1914, casualties were high, but the war was still one of maneuver whose characteristics were yet to indicate a future of trench warfare. By September, there were reports of trench positions with interlocking fields of machine gun fire on the Aisne. By October, disorganized maneuver had begun transitioning into a form of mutual siege warfare that featured both high casualties and indecisive results.[6]

Germany’s initial plans and methods were no longer well suited for the realities its army faced, and its strategy was questionable. Pre-war staff exercises relied on assumptions about maneuver that were no longer valid.[7] H.M. Tomlinson claimed “the whole library of military science and history was as obsolete by the end of November 1914 as the runes of witchcraft.”[8] If the Germans wanted to end the war successfully without drawing it out, they needed to adapt their tactics, operational methods, and potentially even their strategy.

The Germans developed new infantry tactics and weapons that improved their ability to conduct frontal attacks and continued to attempt to break through and annihilate Allied armies. Their progress culminated in Germany’s 1918 Spring Offensive, but their tactical adaptations did not lead to operational or strategic success. In fact, the Spring Offensive made unprecedented territorial gains but failed to accomplish any of its operational or strategic objectives.

The Three Types of Learning

The Sacred Way, Verdun. (UIG/Getty Images)

The German military’s tactical success contrasted with their operational and strategic failures are most easily understood using a model of organizational learning. Models provide pre-existing structure or context for facts, creating faster and more efficient comprehension and processing. A model’s value is based on its parsimony and explanatory utility, not its perfect representation of reality, and models are not necessarily correct.[9] Therefore, while this model is based on the author’s personal observation of military organizations from the platoon to division level, strategy development in government organizations, and the study of military history, there are other models of organizational learning that are equally correct, but serve different purposes.

Organizations learn in three distinctly different ways, each of which is associated with different processes:

  • Method Optimization. Method optimization improves the current method without questioning if the general approach is correct or pursues a desirable goal. Method optimization attempts to answer the question, “How can we do what we are doing more effectively?”

  • Method Selection. Method selection discovers the best method for accomplishing a fixed objective without questioning the validity of the objective. It attempts to answer the question, “Is what we are trying to do the best way to accomplish our objective?”

  • Goal Selection. The third type of organizational learning, goal selection, determines if the selected goal is feasible, reasonable, and desirable. Goal selection attempts to answer the question, “Should we try to accomplish our objective, or select another objective?”

Recognizing that there are three different types of learning will help organizations optimize their ability to adapt by identifying the types of learning they excel at, the types they struggle with, and what associated processes they need to improve.

Organizational Learning Processes

Each type of learning requires different processes. Method optimization requires bottom-up reviews of recent activities. Military organizations should create feedback mechanisms between doctrine writers, equipment manufacturers, and the front-line units that incorporate information from the bottom-up reviews.[10] The Germans used these processes to develop stormtroop tactics, light machine guns, carbines, and flamethrowers. To succeed, method optimization requires critical thinking, creative problem solving, and a willingness to thoroughly review operations; it does not require the ability to examine the broader environment or strategy outside of the unit’s mission.

Method selection requires the evaluation of the approach using metrics tied to the objective, and the comparison of the results to the potential outcomes of other techniques. Ideally, this entails testing multiple techniques to measure their relative effect.[11] For effective goal selection to take place, leaders must understand the environment and the state of operations; evaluate ends, ways, means, risks, and assumptions in current and projected operational environments; and assess the feasibility and desirability of objectives within that framework.

Goal selection learning is usually more challenging than the other two types of learning.[12] Questioning the feasibility and desirability of objectives requires the development and use of inherently subjective metrics, such as domestic political support, budgetary strength and priorities, and relationships with allies. Goal selection’s subjectivity means that military organizations cannot rely on processes as much as the other two types. Instead, they have to rely on the education, imagination, and emotional maturity of their leaders. Despite this, the acknowledgement that goal selection is different from—but just as important as—the other types of learning is important.

The German Military and the Three Types of Learning

The Germany military’s bottom up development of new tactics led to the publication of the 1917 edition of Training Manual for Foot Troops in War and Attack in Position Warfare.[13] Strong ties between industry, doctrine writers, and front line troops led to the creation of weapons that were more effective for trench warfare, like light machine guns, flamethrowers, and carbines.[14]

General Erich von Falkenhayn, Chief of the German General Staff from September 1914 until 29 August 1916. (Albert Meyer/Wikimedia)

Even though the German military improved its trench warfare tactics, it did not display effective method selection or goal selection. The German Chief of Staff, Falkenhayn, briefly and unsuccessfully attempted a strategy of attrition at Verdun before his subordinates reverted to trying to seize terrain and break through Allied lines.[15] Otherwise, the German army failed to seriously consider other operational or strategic approaches on the Western Front. While German attempts to annihilate their adversaries often resulted in attrition, they still planned for more aggressive, casualty intensive, decisive battles. The disconnect between the planned strategy and the strategy the Germans were forced to execute resulted in the attrition of their own forces. As a result, after the failure of the 1918 Spring Offensive, the German military found itself with few options.

For method selection to have taken place, the German military would have needed to ask if they should continue to attack to achieve breakthroughs, or if there was a better way to destroy the Allied armies. Other options could have included elastic defenses designed to bait French and British militaries into overcommitting to costly offensives, limited attacks, and other operational methods. Each could then be tested against a common set of metrics tied to the destruction of allied forces, such as relative casualty rates between Allied and German forces. The German military’s cultural fixation on decisive battle made analysis using method selection particularly difficult, but this highlights the importance of a model that explicitly recognizes the need for the analysis of methods.

Tactical experimentation might seem like a waste of resources, particularly lives. Experimentation’s proper point of comparison though, is not an optimized tactical solution, something that rarely occurs. Instead, the correct point of comparison is a military that continues to pursue a method without knowing if it is the best way to accomplish their objectives.

The Germans also could have explored goal selection by reassessing their policy goals. As mentioned above, the September Program announced Germany’s intention to expand its territory at the expense of its neighbors, including the French.[16] For goal selection to take place, the German government would have to reassess its policy objectives through an ends, ways, means, risks, and assumptions framework. If found unrealistic or undesirable, the German government and military would need to determine if they could develop new goals their adversaries would have found palatable enough to agree on better terms. Instead, due to a variety of factors that included the German military’s lack of method selection and goal selection, they were left to negotiate from a position of weakness in 1918.

Organizational Learning Today

Then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously said, "You go to war with the Army you have.” (CBS News)

Organizational learning remains an important component of military performance. Militaries are unlikely to begin wars optimized for the challenges they will encounter. General-purpose forces often train for general combat operations rather than tailoring their personnel selection, training, and education for a specific threat. There are notable exceptions in areas of longstanding hostility, but even when units do train for specific threats, they are likely to encounter unexpected events or conditions. Even if an army begins a war optimized, it is unlikely to remain so. Because adversaries attempt to negate strengths and target weaknesses, successful techniques will become less effective, and the most successful sometimes become ineffective the fastest.[17]

Militaries are unlikely to begin wars optimized for the challenges they will encounter…Even if an army begins a war optimized, it is unlikely to remain so.

Militaries seeking to adapt effectively and efficiently need to include all three types of learning in their doctrine. The American military already has structures and processes in place for method optimization, such as after action reviews, the Center for Army Lessons Learned, and groups from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq charged with countering improvised explosive devices. It needs to create similar practices for method selection and goal selection.

The American military’s joint planning process includes a portion intended to help commanders conduct an ends, ways, means assessment of campaign plans.[18] While this is a step towards addressing goal selection, it is only a step, and neglects method optimization and method selection. Importantly, joint doctrine address ends, ways, means assessments as a step in the planning process, but not as a type of learning that organizations must do as operations progress. More explicit statements addressing all three types of learning and requiring their inclusion in the planning and execution process would improve both service and joint doctrines.

Method selection learning practices would include a doctrinal requirement during operational and strategic planning to explicitly name measurable objectives with metrics and a timeline, to evaluate alternate methods, and a willingness to shift methods rather than doubling down when objectives are not met. Goal selection requires a deliberate, regular, and explicit evaluation of ends, ways, means, risks, and assumptions.

Organizational learning is an important component of military success. The German military adapted its small unit tactics to trench warfare, but its failure to thoroughly ask if attacking was the best way to destroy the Entente’s armies or if that should be their goal at all combined with other factors to lead them to failure. Militaries that follow the German example and focus on method optimization while neglecting method selection and goal selection will be able to adapt and succeed at the tactical level, but will often be unable to translate that into broader successes.

Justin Lynch is an officer in the National Guard, and a member of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum and Military Writers Guild. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not represent those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: German soldiers haul a granatenwerfer - a type of grenade or mortar thrower - forward in support of advancing stormtroops, 15 July 1918. (Imperial War Museums)


[1] Williamson Murray, Military Adaptation in War: With Fear of Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011) 1-2.

[2] Jorn Leonhard, Pandoras’s Box: A History of the First World War (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2018), 155.

[3] John Keegan, The First World War (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), 30-32.

[4] Leonhard, 42-43.

[5] Bruce I. Gudmundsson, Stormtroop Tactics: Innovation in the German Army, 1914-1918 (Santa Barbara: Praeger Press, 1995), 11-12.

[6] Hubert C. Johnson, Breakthrough!: Tactics, Technology, and the Search for Victory on the Western Front in World War I (New York: Presidio Press, 1994), 57-60.

[7] Strachan, 58.

[8] Cathal Nolan, The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 362.

[9] Gary King, Robert Keohane and Sidney Verba, Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 49.

[10] Strachan, Hew, The First World War (New York: Penguin Group, 2003), 312.

[11] Eric Ries, The Lean Startup: How Constant Innovation Creates Radically Successful Businesses (New York: Penguin Random House, 2011), 38-52.

[12] Colin Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 279.

[13] Ibid., 147-149.

[14] Strachan, 312.

[15] Gudmundsson, 70-71.

[16] Leonhard, 155.

[17] Edward Luttwak, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1987), 28-31.

[18] United States Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication 5-0 (Washington D.C.: Joint Staff, 2017), VI-3.