As a force the Royal Marines are changing, rapidly.
This change has been accelerated by the Integrated Review, of which a renewed focus in UK Government on the use of innovative, emerging technology is a core component. As Royal Marines we must honour our Commando mindset of ‘be the first to understand; the first to adapt and respond; and the first to overcome’. We must channel this by being the first to overcome the challenges faced in modern warfare – this means being first to understand new technologies as well as the first to adapt to and use them. There is little surprise that the military can learn a lot from private sector technology, but it’s worth noting that service personnel can add reciprocal value. The Commando mindset is also representative of life in a technology start-up. This means that the radical concept, of mixing military with private sector tech, may not be so radical after all.
We have made a start. Yet, there is still much to do if we want to become the technologically enhanced fighting force to which we aspire. Defence-wide change is happening. We have seen this in the formation of innovation hubs and accelerators across all three Services to facilitate the procurement of technology; these hubs aim to bypass the slow procurement processes and contracts which have been a huge barrier to innovation. However, structural change must be partnered with an organisational shift in culture and upskilling of personnel to be effective – a move to a culture where we treat risk as opportunity must be a priority. We need new ideas; we need to be able to trial technology quickly and fail fast; and we need to be able to scale rapidly the technology that we want to keep.
The inaugural Percy Hobart Fellowship has offered members of the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Royal Fleet Auxiliary and Navy Civilians a chance to work alongside technology start-ups; to understand how iterative processes work and to see how the “fail fast” culture can be of benefit to Defence. Over the next few months, it will be interesting to see if the Fellows can drive meaningful change through disruptive behaviours or techniques like Agile methodology. Continuing the Percy Hobart Fellowship with some alterations to the content and structure would be extremely beneficial to Defence; such changes could ensure the fellowship’s reach further into all three Services, helping to create a wider group of alumni who are keen to drive change.
For Defence to become an early adopter of technology, we need people with the right skills and a network that stretches across both public and private sector. Tacit knowledge of working with frontier technology and investors will be vital. We also need to ensure that we have the correct governance and policy structures in place to enable these shifts in procurement, testing and implementation. Users – in our case Marines – must be in regular direct communications with the teams that are delivering projects and their feedback must be implemented swiftly with minimal sign off required. The existing methods of layering bureaucracy on policy hinders our ability to innovate as a fighting force.
The Percy Hobart Fellowship, though beneficial, is not enough. Key to successful implementation of a growth culture that facilitates innovation will be pursuing further unconventional learning for Service Personnel. Whether that be on short Agile courses or placements in industry, more needs to be done in order to build on the momentum that is gathering. Individuals with talent in specific areas of technology should be carefully managed and upskilled accordingly. Why outsource responsibility for User Experience, Content and Project Management when we have the people with the mindset and skills to do it in Service.
It is critical that senior leadership is upskilled in digital transformation too; the onus should not be solely on bottom-up change. An organisational change and digital transformation programme of the scale required in the Royal Navy requires changes in mindset at all levels. Military careers should also be adapted to facilitate the right person is in the right role with the right skills to deliver digital transformation. This will likely require a rank-agnostic approach to filling certain technical roles – something that the military is not accustomed to. All of this will require nuanced career management and an understanding across Defence that technical management and leadership roles are not tied to rank.
The Royal Marines alumni from this course are keen to promote an innovative culture by creating a rank-agnostic community, where members who have an interest in innovation and technology can share ideas and discuss proposals. We hope to share our knowledge and experience across the wider Royal Navy, provoke discussion on how to deliver digital transformation, and use the platforms available to us in Defence to create meaningful change. In addition, we wish to create a biannual Royal Marines Innovation and Technology Symposium. We hope this will become somewhere that bottom up innovation can thrive. To do this we must first understand that not all ideas will have revolutionary outcomes, and that many will fail. Accepting failure and seeing it as a change to learn will be key to making the Future Commando Force a success.
A misconception that new technology substitutes for policy change holds us back. Policy should be adapted knowing that we have new technology tools at our disposal while maintaining the governance structure required to ensure its long-term success. Working in the technology sector on a placement has been a truly formative experience. Maybe it is exactly what the Royal Navy needs: the ability to learn from modern day sources of innovation and technological integration while upskilling its workforce and providing a service to startups for the privilege. Should all Royal Marines spend time in a tech startup? No, but a consistent dialogue between tech start-ups and the military would benefit all.
If the Royal Marines, and broader Defence, is to be truly innovative, adopt the right technology early and deliver a competent force to combat emerging threats then the organisational culture shift needs to happen now. The leadership in the Royal Navy are striving to position the Service for widespread digital transformation and innovative cultural change. We must not let this desire fade when leadership changes but continue with ever increasing need to maximise the use of technology and to exploit methodologies and ideas from the civilian sector. We have started with the Percy Hobart Fellowship. More must be done to build on this and create the institutional knowledge required to deliver innovation and technology in the future.
Colt Callaghan is a Marine working in Navy Digital and has worked for The Future Fox. Tom Patrick is a Royal Marines Major and has worked for Red Sift. Both are Percy Hobart Fellows.