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Knowledge Management

From Smart Weapons to Smart Marines: Developing The Knowledge Warrior


Like business operations, military operations are fast paced and are often conducted in chaotic environments where decisions are obscured by the fog of war otherwise known as confusion. Much of this confusion exists as a result of the information-age advancements which have created a high tech military with poorly educated personnel. To combat this problem, the military needs to transform its personnel into knowledge warriors – men and women capable of employing technologies to use information in ways that seamlessly generates the kind of knowledge needed to outpace a continuously changing enemy. This post seeks to identify a few guiding principles to assist the Marine Corps in developing a program to do this.


Like any other branch of military service, the Marine Corps has seen many developments since the beginning of the industrial-age. Many of these developments came in the form of improved weaponry, but with the introduction of the computer and the World Wide Web, the Marine Corps began to experience improvements in its ability to collect and process information needed to prosecute the enemy. These developments also brought with them, the need to develop new processes for conducting operations. It was not long before the Marine Corps understood that success in what has now become known as the information-age required the synergy of its people, its processes, and its technologies. The Marine Corps sought to answer this need with the creation of the information management officer (IMO) position.

The IMO is the person responsible for both managing how the military uses its information and for managing the processes associated with the management of that information. The one area, however, that has seemed to outpace the Marine Corps’ ability to maintain the synergy between its people, processes, and technologies has been the advances in technologies that continue to propel the Marine Corps in a direction it is unable to fully realize. What the Marine Corps needs is a knowledge management (KM) program to manage its human potential in order to realize its full potential in combat and to achieve what Joint Vision 2020 calls decision superiority. According to Joint Vision 2020:

The joint force must be able to take advantage of superior information converted to superior knowledge to achieve ‘decision superiority’ – better decisions arrived at and implemented faster than an opponent can react, or in a noncombat situation, at a tempo that allows the force to shape the situation or react to changes and accomplish its mission. Decision superiority does not automatically result from information superiority. Organizational and doctrinal adaptation, relevant training and experience, and the proper command and control mechanisms and tools are equally necessary. (United States Department of Defense, 2000)

Commanders exercise command and control of situations by leveraging information and applying knowledge gained through the understanding of that information.  They make decisions in order to quickly control the challenges that confront them.  In order to make these decisions, they not only require quality information to understand situations and events, but they also require competent staff members who can provide the information and understanding needed to produce the knowledge required to make those decisions.  Critical to the receipt and use of quality information is the management of this information, and the processes and procedures that move isolated points of data to well-developed repositories of knowledge.

The creation of a successful KM program is no small feat. Implementation of a successful KM program requires an understanding of what knowledge is and how knowledge is created. This concept of what knowledge is and how it is created has been studied throughout history, and there are many ideas, theories, and concepts that view knowledge from varying perspectives. This paper takes a dispensationalist approach to arranging what may seem like divergent perspectives, regarding how knowledge is developed, into a unified series of guiding principles. These guiding principles can inform the design and implementation of a knowledge management program, focused on transforming Marines into capable knowledge warriors.

Principle 1: Knowledge is a product of the senses

Human beings are essentially very complex information processing organisms. We are comprised of various sensory organs that provide us with the ability to navigate the world around us. The top five sensory organs most people are familiar with include sight, sound, taste, touch, and hearing. “In epistemology, ‘empiricism’ refers to a distinctive approach which claims that all knowledge comes from the senses…” (Hammersley, 2004).  This ability to sense things gives us the ability to perceive or to interpret the information our sensory organs provide us. Perception is one of the four faculties outlined by Plato which are needed to develop knowledge. The other three faculties include reasoning, understanding, and faith (Plato, trans. 1998).  Perception is the beginning of the process of developing knowledge. According to Aristotle perception can lead to memory which leads to experience which can lead to either skill or understanding (Aristotle, trans. 1993). This leads us to the need to develop practical ways or methods for utilizing perception.

Operationalizing these theoretical concepts, in our attempt to transform Marines into knowledge warriors, requires us to define ways that improve our perceptual abilities. According to John Ratey (2002), “The brain is shaped by the perceptions it experiences, so we may be able to get our brains into better shape by becoming aware of what and how we perceive.”  In fact, self-awareness is important to developing shared awareness, which is what organizations must achieve in order to remain competitive as shared awareness brings with it such benefits as improved agility. Another way to define ways to improve perceptual abilities is to define what one loses when damage is done to the brain. Research, in the field of neuroscience, highlighting facts about how the brain works can help in defining ways to improve perception. In the documentary entitled Athene’s Theory of Everything, we are told that the human brain is a network of neurons whose neural connections are the result of different experiences that, through repeated stimulation and training, we can strengthen, thus providing the means of creating any skill (AtheneWins, 2011). Our brains essentially “become the information that it receives…input shapes the way we experience the next input…[and our] nerve cells self-organize when they have been trained enough by repeated contact with a particular stimulus” (Ratey, 2002). Becoming self-aware can help us improve the effects of perceptual experience.

Like Aristotle and Plato, Descartes discusses the importance of sensory input in developing knowledge when he mentions “in men it is to some degree a perfection to be capable of perceiving by means of the senses…” (The Classical Library, 2002). However, Descartes focuses on defining the limitations – the result of prejudices and personal bias – of sensory input as a sole source of developing knowledge. This limitation of sensory input in developing knowledge makes the next guiding principle all that much more important as the next ingredient for establishing decision superiority.

Principle 2: Knowledge is the result of reasoning

Decision making requires us to do something with the information, or raw data, we collect in order to give it meaning. Sensory inputs regarding how cool it may suddenly feel in the middle of a hot summer day when merged with visual input of a dark sky, and the olfactory input of precipitation may prompt one to consider taking an umbrella with them. Although a very simple example of the need to do something with the sensory inputs, this example highlights the role of reasoning, or our ability to make sense of things,  as it relates to knowledge development and decision making. The theoretical foundation of reasoning can be found in rationalism, which “is based on the idea that reliable knowledge is derived from the use of ‘pure’ reason, from establishing indisputable axioms and then using formal logic to arrive at conclusions” (Blaikie, 2004).

Reasoning, one of the four faculties introduced by Plato, was discussed to some degree by every other philosopher who came after Plato. According to Kant, “Intelligence divorced from judgment produces nothing but foolishness. Understanding is the knowledge of the general. Judgment is the· application of the general to the particular. Reason is the power of understanding the connection between the general and the particular” (Kant, 1906). Put another way, reason is essentially the use of associations and comparisons to gain an understanding of the relationships between the sensory inputs which generates knowledge. Learning achieves meaning through reasoning and significance through an established foundation in experience; thus knowledge “is a product of both sense and understanding” (Gorham, 2012).

In discussing the language of the mind, Steven Pinker (1999) suggests that we use analogies and metaphors to gain an understanding of sensory inputs. He states, “We pry our faculties loose from the domains they were designed to work in, and use their machinery to make sense of new domains that abstractly resemble the old ones” (Steven Pinker, 1999). The ideas Steven Pinker offers, concerning the language of the mind, build on the ideas aforementioned regarding perception and the power of becoming self-aware, giving us an existentialist and pragmatic perspective on knowledge development. Existentialism defines a “…continual recreation of the self through experience,” (Dixon, 2006) and pragmatism defines a continual recreation of practical ideas through experience (Halton, 2004).

Operationalizing these theoretical concepts, in our attempt to transform Marines into knowledge warriors, requires us to define or design an organizational language that can be used to improve reasoning. Indeed, many organizations already have their own language that may be industry-specific or organizational-specific. Issues that may exist with this language may be due to the size and dispersion of the organization which creates room for disparity, and compartmentalization of the organization based on the differences in language. This is true for the Marine Corps and requires the development of a standard that can be used to aid in the development of shared awareness.

Principle 3: Knowledge is a product of change

The importance of change as the catalyst for continual growth as it relates to knowledge development builds on the idea of change through experience aforementioned in the theories of existentialism and pragmatism. Here, we add yet another theory:  phenomenology focuses on identifying the structures that characterize our experiences; linking us to the objects we experience (Hammersley, 2003). The phenomenological perspective coupled with the perspective received from existentialism provides the understanding of not only experiencing, but being of being changed by the experience. This change creates a cycle of continuous knowledge development and growth as described by the pragmatic perspective where ideas are continually recreated through experience. As previously quoted, according to Aristotle perception can lead to memory which leads to experience which can lead to either skill or understanding (Aristotle, trans. 1993) and, after establishing understanding, reflection takes us through the cycle again, creating new perceptions, experiences, and understanding.

True knowledge is developed in layers and memory is an important tool in the cycle of knowledge creation. From the field of neuroscience, we learn that memory has several functions that allow us to build on the information received through sensory inputs so that we can develop knowledge about an object (Horton, 2012). For instance, we use our perceptual representational system to recognize an object; using our semantic memory system, we may call the round object a ball; using our episodic memory system, we may recall the last experience we threw the ball and that the ball bounces when it comes into contact with another object (Ratey, 2002).. This complex layering of information through our sensory systems and reflection allows us to develop rich knowledge about an object (Horton, 2012).

Operationalizing these theoretical concepts, in our attempt to transform Marines into knowledge warriors, requires us to consider the design and purpose of what the Marine Corps calls sustainment and refresher training. The idea of the learning organization is captured in this idea of change where we continue to build on the knowledge previously developed, but a sustainment training program introduces a very stagnant concept. Transforming the sustainment and refresher training program into a lifelong learning program would allow the Marine Corps to operationalize the concepts discussed under the principle and power of change.

Principle 4: Knowledge is the result of certain environmental conditions

This principle highlights the importance of the organizational and operational environments and builds on two theories: behaviorism and humanism. Behaviorism establishes principles emphasizing “relationships between behavior and the physical and social environment, particularly the contingencies of reinforcement that control the occurrence, strength, and choice of behaviors” (Molm, 2004). Humanism “addressed the growing knowledge about human culture globally and emphasized the variety and multifariousness of human cultural forms in space and time and in their historical changeability” (Rüsen, 2012).  People are the most important aspect of any organization, and the one thing that can help organizations expand their capabilities is to design an environment that exploits the human potential.

Of the many theorists and concepts that can be applied in this principle, Skinner (1971) discusses the importance of the conditions an organization establishes and its effect on knowledge development, Schon (1987) discusses knowledge as a product of professional practice, and Reyes (1997) discusses knowledge as it relates to cultural differences.

Skinner (1971) essentially breaks down experience to the interplay of action and reaction between people, which can be positive – described as freedom – or negative – described as control – depending on the situation. The focus is on the reinforcement of attitudes which itself constitutes learning. Freedom is the “absence of aversive control” (Skinner, 1971).  It is “a matter of contingencies of reinforcement,” (Skinner, 1971) where reinforcement is positive control or response to certain conditions.

Regarding professional practice, Schon (1987), describing how people solve problems, highlights the fact that our different disciplinary backgrounds, organizational roles, histories, interests, and perspectives affect how we frame problems and what facts of a problem we notice. Knowledge is filtered through human beings and all of the characteristics that make us who we are. Discussing the importance of the differences that exist between people, Reyes (1997) suggests that allowing the differences that exist to separate who we are from what we know, creates continual conflict where knowledge has no purpose, meaning, or relevance.

These three perspectives highlight different aspects of the organizational and operational environment that must be taken under consideration, if the organization is to be successful. Operationalizing these theoretical concepts, in our attempt to transform Marines into knowledge warriors, requires us to consider how we might design an environment that reinforces positive responses and exploits the differences that exist between people, both professionally and culturally.

Principle 5: Knowledge is the result of interconnectivity

The last guiding principle deals with the importance of interconnectivity, which views organizations as systems. We have come full circle in our need to design a knowledge management program focused on transforming Marines into capable knowledge warriors. Working as a system, these Marines can now achieve decision superiority through “Organizational and doctrinal adaptation, relevant training and experience, and the proper command and control mechanisms and tools” (United States Department of Defense, 2000) – all of which have been discussed so far from various, but supporting perspectives. Of the theorists and concepts that can be applied in the principle of interconnectivity, Peter Senge (1990) discusses knowledge as the product of socially complex, interconnected environments. Takeuchi and Nonaka (1986) discuss knowledge as the byproduct of flexible, agile environments.

According to MCDP 6, “Military organizations…are complex systems. War is an even more complex phenomenon…A complex system is any system composed of multiple parts, each of which must act individually according to its own circumstances and which, by so acting, changes the circumstances affecting all the other parts” (1996). Peter Senge (1990) describes five disciplines  – shared vision, mental models, team learning, personal mastery, and systems thinking – that can be used in improve systems thinking in organizations as they impact long-term commitment, expose shortcomings, improve strategic focus, and highlight the cause and effect of our actions in the world.

One way to improve the organization’s approach to executing operations is to exploit new concepts for how operations are conducted. Takeuchi and Nonaka (1986) introduce a new concept for product development that leaves the sequential “relay race” approach for a much more holistic approach using the sport of rugby as an example. This approach allows companies to improve speed and flexibility, while exploiting opportunities to improve knowledge development and transfer, between teams that would normally work on projects separately.

Marines make use of several different types of boards, cells, working groups, and meetings, all of which are synchronized by a schedule that gives the commander opportunities to exploit the skills of his staff in order to achieve more in less time. Even so, operationalizing the concepts introduced in this guiding principle may require adjustments to the boards, cells, working groups, and meetings that ultimately improve speed, flexibility, and the development knowledge by exploiting the education, experience, professions, culture, communities, and environments of these knowledge warriors.


All living creatures share similar biological capabilities; however, there are differences that provide some species with incredible capabilities such as the olfactory capabilities of mice, the visual capabilities of birds, or the mental capabilities of human beings. Each human being is unique at some level of complexity due to a number of factors that include culture, location, ethnicity, gender, and disposition as it relates to extreme differences such as someone born with autism. Organizations that exploit the differences in its people will be able to use those differences to expand organizational capabilities. This is a much different concept of management within the Marine Corps than what exists today. The Marine Corps has established an organization of uniformity for ease of command and control. However, command and control in this new age of information and knowledge requires the transformation of Marines into knowledge warriors in order to achieve decision superiority. This transformation, to be truly successful, should also consider adopting a strategy that takes advantage of the unique differences amongst human beings in order to achieve the full realization of what it means to be a knowledge warrior.


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About Daryl Horton

I'm an information and knowledge manager specializing in creating and sustaining learning organizations in a chaotic and often complex environment. I'm also an artist at heart and I do a lot of creative writing.


2 thoughts on “From Smart Weapons to Smart Marines: Developing The Knowledge Warrior

  1. Great piece, Daryl!
    ‘Looking forward to getting back up on the KNet with you; continuing to work and discuss these particular concepts and your insights further…

    Posted by Jamel Neville | October 7, 2012, 3:44 pm

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