Thursday, June 13, 2013

The After Action Review: The US Army’s Method of Internal Evaluations and Analysis

After reading through the selections for this week’s class topic, it hits me that I am no stranger to this process of internally evaluating an organization and selecting and developing their leaders. After spending nearly a decade in the US Army, I have seen this process practically daily as the Soldiers* and Leaders* of the Army conduct exhaustive After Action Reviews, or AARs. This is the process that the Army uses at all echelons to evaluate and assess the level of their effectiveness and identify strengths, weaknesses, and ways to improve. 

The AAR process manifests itself in a myriad of forms depending on the situations that drive the review. Different levels of operations, mission, or training events all call for their own slight variation of the AAR. The audience also has a key role in deciding how the AAR is shaped. It can be a very formal or a completely informal event. The flexibility in the conducting of the AAR lends itself to its effectiveness as it can be tailored to the specific topic and personnel involved in the event. The AAR is also conducted after nearly every event that the Soldiers participate in. This includes daily tasks such as physical training and occupation specific training all the way up to major multi-day training exercises. The AAR is conducted at the very basic, tactical level of just a few Soldiers and their first line leader all the way up to the Major combatant commands. The strategic level AARs are the most extensive and formal, and can span hours if not months. The high level commands have staff sections that focus entirely on evaluations, then assessment of the evaluations, and how to implement the changes needed. 

In its basic form, the AAR looks at four main things: what happened, what was supposed to happen, what went right, and what went wrong. These are typically the informal, tactical level AARs that are conducted by small groups of Soldiers, discussing the results of a recently conducted training event. AARs are to be conducted immediately following an event so that actions during the event are fresh in all participants’ minds and easily discussed. The items that are discussed are written down for future assessment and implementation in order to improve the unit and the training events conducted. Not all comments are to be used and implemented; there however is still the human factor of being disgruntled with how something was handled during the exercise, which is not relevant to the improvement of the training. The act of writing these comments down not only helps the current group of Soldiers conducting the training, but also assists future groups that conduct the same or similar exercises. This shapes the lessons learned and the improvement of the Army as a whole. A single repository for this process called the Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL, collects, analyzes and distributes lessons from small tactical Army operations through major strategic ones. This repository helps Army Leaders learn from the strengths, weaknesses, mistakes and successes of their superiors, peers, and subordinates alike in order to make the Army function more effectively in assigned missions. 

The process and collection of data also contributes to mature Leaders and make them more effective. Leaders get constructive feedback immediately on what they did well and how they can improve. This assists in the molding of effective, talented, and technically and tactically proficient Leaders in the Army. As this is a daily process that is conducted on all levels, I am wondering if the civilian sector wouldn’t benefit from a similar process implementation that analyzes not only their strategic plans, but also the smaller tactical level operations that accomplish daily tasks. The daily tasks directly drive the success of the company’s strategic plan. The civilian sector learned from the military the strategic planning process, why not the daily, tactical level, evaluation and assessment as well?

*In professional Army writing, Soldier, Leader, Family, and Warrior are all capitalized. This is to symbolize the importance of these individuals and groups and show they are worthy of respect. 

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