The collective impact of human capability

Karen Carr discusses how a non-deterministic approach to human capability will allow the Ministry of Defence to fully realise the potential of complex systems.

Over millennia, humans have developed their ability to organise themselves in order to achieve ever more ambitious outcomes. Humans have evolved their capabilities from collaboration in small groups and making tools to help sustain the group, to global interactions using tools to achieve a wide range of outcomes relevant to many different interests.

World views that can be manipulated to predict outcomes can be used to manage the systems people create. Human history is underpinned by the continuous modification of our world views to accommodate new purposes. Today, some of our ambitions may include managing the global economy, making transportation safe, ensuring that people learn and share what they learn. These ambitions require rather complex world views to help us organise ourselves and create effective tools.

Some important developments in world views during the last century arise from different approaches to complexity. In particular, these non-deterministic approaches address situations where we are uncertain about key factors and even if we were certain, there would not necessarily be a predictable relationship between causes and effects or parts and their sums. Much progress has been made in finding non-deterministic ways of understanding the world to help us achieve our more complex goals. We now have a wealth of world views, tools and techniques that do not depend on predictability, such as complexity theory, systems thinking and agile software programming.

It would seem obvious that a less mechanistic world view would be a comfortable place for accommodating the complexity of human beings. As social organisms, we function naturally through interactions and interdependencies, adapting to context and often producing unintended consequences. This behaviour seems to require a systems world view.

In the Ministry of Defence (MOD), the practical approach of identifying different Defence Lines of Development (DLOD) is an approach that works well for deterministic programmes but in a world where many defence problems are uncertain, and therefore the defence goals are uncertain, the systems being developed need to be complex and able to accommodate uncertainty. In order to support a systems approach that embeds ergonomics and human factors, we need a more holistic understanding of the relationships and roles of people as part of the defence capability. This approach means having a useful world view of human capability.

Human capability is the collective impact that people have on the capability of an enterprise. The concept includes the results of their actions, thinking and intentions as well as the demands from their physical and mental needs. It is the product of all the influences on people at any one time, and therefore it varies as influences vary over time.

Individuals and organisations are influenced and influence each other. Influences can be internal, such as motivation, or external, such as environment. Managing human capability is a matter of managing these influences to achieve desired outcomes. In many cases of organisational failure, there has been too much reliance on one or two influences, such as official process and a lack of attention to other influences, such as the design of technology. Insight can be lost through automation, ingenuity can be lost through poor information management, the opportunities for innovation and learning can be lost through technology dependency. By contrast, well designed technology and team complementing can reduce workload, increase the span of human awareness, and multiply analytical capability.

The MOD has taken a capability approach to the acquisition of new defence systems, as a way of trying to achieve the agility necessary for dealing with complex needs. Capability acquisition means focusing on the outcome rather than the manner of achieving it. The aim is to withhold assumptions and decisions about solutions as long as possible in order to accommodate changing needs and understanding.

The MOD’s challenge is to implement a systems world view from within organisations that have evolved from deterministic world views. One of the problems this evolution has created is that the partitioning within DLOD tends to drive human factors into partitions too, making it difficult to take a systems approach. Issues such as health, training, leadership and information management are addressed within different partitions across MOD and the Forces. Finding a way to get these different areas to interact in an organic manner is in itself a problem, given the political, social and economic contexts.

Managing human capability effectively is a significant enabler for the overall effectiveness of any enterprise. In defence this success has been described as being increasingly dependent on human qualities such as effective thinking and social understanding, rather than simply superior firepower and technical capacities. Military publications such as The Future Character of Conflict emphasise increasing demands on people, who must provide the crucial ‘agile edge’ in operations. This makes it even more important to develop human capability effectively.

Lord Levene’s Defence Reform report of 2011 ( highlighted the need for defence to place greater emphasis on developing human capability ‘in the round’, which means addressing all the significant internal and external influences, managing those that can be managed and making allowances for those that cannot. This approach requires a strategic understanding of the balance between technical and human capability and how it influences agility in the operating environment.

So how does MOD develop defence’s human capability? Alongside developing leadership skills, building ethos, training for procedures and supporting health, MOD has been implementing human factors integration within acquisition processes to ensure that equipment and systems are designed to meet the needs of users within their operating environment. These are several strands of development that contribute to human capability but there is no obvious place or time to integrate these into a coherent element. There is no organisational or process infrastructure to ensure that the high level human capability outcomes are being achieved by the sum of all the strands.

Defence requirements are shaped by increasing resource constraints and uncertainty in the operating environment. This fact has focused MOD’s intent on generating an adaptive military capability. As a consequence, acquisition processes themselves have become more complex and seek to deliver defence capability outcomes in an integrated, dynamic manner. This aim requires a deep understanding of the essential attributes of capability and what affects them. Strategic guidance about human capability is needed to inform high level decisions about investment and to identify the critical effects that arise from interdependencies across DLOD and acquisition portfolios.

When and where do we need human capability to provide agility, understanding, interpretation, innovation, ingenuity, trust and ethical judgement? The evidence from organisational failures is that such human capabilities are at risk of being inadvertently degraded by the uncoordinated combination of technologies and processes and organisational factors, and we certainly risk losing opportunities to enhance them. Human capability should be recognised as a key ingredient to military capability so that it is managed as an integrated product: the sum of internal and external influences. If this approach is not taken, the combined effect of influences will be a matter of chance, will not deliver the best effectiveness and efficiency, and will increase the risk of failure.

MOD should develop an organisational and process infrastructure that allows human capability requirements to be identified and that can steer its influences in a coherent manner. This approach will allow military capability to gain maximum value from its people and the attributes they can bring to the whole defence enterprise.

By Karen Carr, Professor of Human Systems at Cranfield University, working at the Defence Academy

First published in The Ergonomist, issue 524, February 2014