Learning Organizations: When Wrens Take Down Wolfpacks

A Women's Royal Naval Service plotter at work in the Operations Room at Derby House in Liverpool, the headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief Western Approaches, September 1944.

What does the World War II naval campaign known as the Battle of the Atlantic have to do with learning and innovation?

Quite a lot, as it turns out. Early in the war, Britain found itself in a precarious position. While being an island nation provided defensive advantages, it also came with logistical challenges. Food, armaments, and other vital supplies as well as reinforcements had to come to it by sea. The shipping lanes were heavily threatened, primarily by the German u-boat (submarine) fleet. Needing more than a million tons of imports per week, maintaining the flow of goods was a matter of survival.

Businesses may not have to worry about literal torpedoes severing their lifelines, but they are at risk due to a number of factors. Whether its changing technology or tastes, competitive pressures, or even criminal activity, organizations cannot afford to sit idle. In his post “Heraclitus was wrong about innovation”, Greger Wikstrand talked about the mismatch between the speed of change (high) and rate of innovation (not fast enough). This is a recurrent theme in our ongoing discussion of innovation (we’ve been trading posts on the subject for over a year now).

The British response to the threat involved many facets, but an article I saw yesterday about one response in particular struck a chord. “The Wargaming “Wrens” of the Western Approaches Tactical Unit” told the story of a group of officers and ratings of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (nicknamed “Wrens”) who, under the command of a naval officer, Captain Gilbert Roberts, revolutionized British anti-submarine warfare (ASW). Their mandate was to “…explore and evaluate new tactics and then to pass them on to escort captains in a dedicated ASW course”.

Using simulation (wargaming) to develop and improve tactics was an unorthodox proposition, particularly in the eyes of Admiral Percy Noble, who was responsible for Britain’s shipping lifeline. However, Admiral Noble was capable of appreciating the value of unorthodox methods:

A sceptical Sir Percy Noble arrived with his staff the next day and watched as the team worked through a series of attacks on convoy HG.76. As Roberts described the logic behind their assumptions about the tactics being used by the U-Boats and demonstrated the counter move, one that Wren Officer Laidlaw had mischievously named Raspberry, Sir Percy changed his view of the unit. From now on the WATU would be regular visitors to the Operations Room and all escort officers were expected to attend the course.

Each of the courses looked at ASW and surface attacks on a convoy and the students were encouraged to take part in the wargames that evaluated potential new tactics. Raspbery was soon followed by Strawberry, Goosebery and Pineapple and as the RN went over to the offensive, the tactical priority shifted to hunting and killing U Boats. Roberts continued as Director of WATU but was also appointed as Assistant Chief of Staff Intelligence at Western Approaches Command.

This type of learning culture, such as I described in “Learning to Deal with the Inevitable”, was key to winning the naval war. Clinging to tradition would have led to a fatal inertia.

One aspect of the WATU approach that I find particularly interesting is the use of simulation to limit risk during learning. Experiments involving real ships cost real lives when they don’t pan out. Simulation (assuming sufficient validity of the theoretical underpinnings of the model used) is a technique that can be used to explore more without sending costs through the roof.

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2 thoughts on “Learning Organizations: When Wrens Take Down Wolfpacks

    • Excellent. I wonder if any work was done by Google with something similar when working out the details of the sensor package, navigating traffic, etc. Ultimately you need to work with real vehicles in real traffic, but the more you can learn before that point the fewer lawyers you kill via stress.

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