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What is really going on beneath the surface? What is the nature of the bifurcation that is unfolding? That's what interests me.

The Lesson's of Vimy

Lessons from Vimy – How to be a Learning Organization

Don't we have a responsibility to teach Canada's youth about our soldiers' sacrifices and achievements at Vimy Ridge -- a huge wartime event that some argue marked the birth of Canada's real nationhood? If I could, I would take all Canadian children to Vimy Ridge, or a similar site, and have them stand in the battlefield. There, surrounded by shell holes and remnants of shrapnel balls and spent bullets, they would understand more.

Maryanne Lewell a teenager from Saint John, N.B

Rediscovering the Learning Organization


Many of us are struggling to understand what a "Learning Organization" is. It surely is an organization that can learn so that it can cope with change. In stable times this is not that important but at times such as today when we endure a bifurcation it is a survival issue. 


By 1917 it had become clear that no one knew how to break the stalemate of the Western Front. The new defensive technology had overwhelmed the intellect and the mindset of the Generals. As a matter of survival, the Canadian Corps becamea Learning organization. Here is their story and here is how they did it..


Let's go back then to an Easter morning, April 9th 1917, when a group of Canadians showed that they had “learned” how to master a new technology. For on that morning, to the surprise of its allies and to its adversary, the Canadian Corps did the impossible and took Vimy Ridge. The Corps had earned its place. It had shown to others and to itself that it was the new master of the modern battlefield. The Canadian Corps won battles and took objectives that that only led to slaughter and failure for the professional armies of France, England and Germany. By the end of the war, the Canadian Corps had become the key to victory and its commander, a militia Colonel and real estate salesman, had become viewed as Haig’s potential successor as commander of the British army


How was it that an army that was only 3,000 strong in 1914 could muster the skill to achieve what had defeated the experts? How was it that an army lead by amateurs could by 1917 be described as being “the best organized and most effective unit in the world today.” (Robert Borden) It had become a true “Learning Organization” It had stopped trying to repeat the old doctrine and had built into its structure the ability to react, learn and adapt to its new environment.


Why are the answers to these questions important for us today in 2001?


We face the same problems today as the commanders and their men faced in 1914-18. We struggle to apply a new set of technology that we don’t fully understand. Our response to lack of progress is to push harder using the old and familiar rule book.


The more we apply the rules of the 1970’s the more we risk looking like many generals and armies of the Great War. “Trained during the late 19th century, the British generals were confronted by the weapons technology of the 20th. Rather than evaluate the premise on which the war was being fought, they applied the old concepts or merely improved tactics” (George Cassar – Beyond Courage).


The Canadian Corps was unique in the Great War – because it developed and applied the new rule book. It ended the stalemate and showed how the new technology could be applied. Our forefathers learned how to breakout and to breakthrough. They learned how to learn in the crucible of war. If we are humble enough, we can go back and learn from them.


Culture and Planning

For the first two years of the war, the Canadians, the amateurs, had assumed that the experts knew what they were doing. By the Somme, the amateurs recognized that if they  followed the “book” they too would die in large numbers for no gains. The Canadians did not know what the new book was in 1916 so Julian Byng and his successor, the Canadian Arthur Currie, decided, that the Canadian Corps would become what we call today a “Learning Organization”.


The Canadian army was different in several respects from its European counterparts. It was an all volunteer force. They had a very different profile to the industrialized slum dwellers of Manchester or the estate workers of Germany. “Canadians were unaccustomed to showing respect and deference to anyone who could not stand firmly on his own two feet without the supports of wealth or title”. (Currie).The officer corps was remarkably coherent and caring.  “We were a close knit organization. We served with people that we knew – there was a personal acquaintance and a personal friendship; we had a feeling of personal responsibility for the men’s well being.” (MacNaughton)


This was the raw material of the CEF – an organization that was inclined to taking personal responsibility. An organization that was inclined to care for each other. An organization that was not inclined to take bull from anyone. The CEF was incredibly fortunate that its first commander, a Briton, Julian Byng was able to recognize this quality and the need to run the CEF differently.


He encouraged the development of  a culture that would release the potential of this extraordinary group of men.


Lesson #1 – Organize to learn – Creating a “Learning Organization” is an objective of many organizations today. At the heart of a Learning Organization are high levels of feedback and interactivity. The lessons have to flow up the chain of command where they are then synthesized into improved doctrine or tactics. This process increases the effectiveness, resilience and health of the organization.


We can cut through all the jargon surrounding the topic and observe the master practitioner, Arthur Currie and learn how he created a Learning Organization.

Currie shows us that the key to a successful Learning Organization is to create a culture of enquiry – where questioning and feedback become second nature. Currie created both a process and an environment where Feedback became an essential part of Canadian operational doctrine.


Part of  the process was a procedure known as “Lessons Learned”. All officers were encouraged to report up the line routinely problems and solutions. Lessons from the “Lessons” were built continuously into the how the staff saw events and reacted to them..


Part of the process was a culture of receptivity. “As a corps commander, Currie was highly receptive to criticism and suggestions and was open to new ideas provided that they were practical. Practicality above all might describe the Canadian corps approach to war – the Canadian Corps had learned to learn from their experience during war.” (Schreiber).


Part of the process is to create a culture where enquiry and creativity are supported and rewarded. Currie created the right environment at his HQ for creativity. In 1917, Currie operated a shirtsleeves HQ. To get his staff to open up, he would always profess his own ignorance. “He would say – I don’t know. Will you explain?”


Part of the process is to understand the technology. He had been a gunner and knew the language of the new technology and could see the subtleties of the new ideas. “It was a very wonderful thing to have behind us a man who knew the language in which these problems were being tackled, who was entirely sympathetic and who trusted us and who would take our views on the matter if he approved of them – and woe betide you if you put up something he could not approve of – and carry them to the senior formations to get us the approval and support to do the jobs that we had.” (MacNaughton talking about Currie)


Part of the process is to seek the advice of others. Currie was a brilliant man who did not tolerate fools either above or below him. But part of his appeal to his staff who genuinely loved him was his humility. “I am not clever enough to guess at this game. I have to get everything down and figure it out. It is harder work than being brilliant but safer.” (Dancocks – Currie) He had the wisdom to know that he did not know and that finding out the new was going to take a lot of work.


Lesson #2 – Plan InclusivelyIn the modern workplace workload and burnout have become growing and significant issues. One of the root causes is a disconnect between those who plan and those who do.


Much of the Workload issues and the related stress of the modern workplace can be laid at the door of having too detailed plans at the top.


At the heart of burnout is the issue of Control. All the research shows that health and effectiveness are directly connected to the amount of control that people have over the key decisions in their life


What was remarkable was the involvement that Byng and Currie developed in planning. “Although the plan for the capture of Vimy Ridge was worked out to the last detail, it was not drafted entirely from maps ( read spread sheets for the modern equivalent) as if it were a theoretical staff exercise. Senior officers spent long hours studying the ground and battalion commanders, company commanders and even subalterns were encouraged to comment on their part of the operation and to make suggestions for improvement.” A full scale model was built and all troops were sent through it several times “until each man knew not only his own task but the tasks of those in his immediate vicinity.” (Goodspeed – the Road Past Vimy) Maps were issued to the men. Even today, in a modern organization this scale of involvement in planning is rare.


The lesson is that Commanders need  to restrict their part of the planning to the objective, the frontage and the weight of the attack. They then need to allow those closer to the action to fill in the blanks.


The risk in modern planning is that all the details are worked out at the top creating an unreality and a sense of helplessness for the organization that has to carry out the plan.
Lesson #3 – Insist on a meritocracy so that you have an effective chain of command


All high performing organizations share one factor, they have outstanding leaders. At first, General Byng was faced with all the normal pressures of political pressure to keep cronies in leadership positions. But with the firing of Sam Hughes, the Minister responsible for the Army, Byng cleaned house at the Corps. He replaced 1 division commander, 2 brigade commanders and15 battalion commanders. From April 1917 onwards, only talent was allowed to get the job.


Leadership is the critical organizational issue in times of change. Leadership in this context is the ability to deal with change.   There was no time to train for Leadership in the 1914-1918 war. The Commander got leadership by sending clear signals that anything less was not tolerated. The clearest signal of all is that poor leaders were fired and only talent was promoted.


Management was not the priority at the front. General Turner, who was sacked by Byng, was a VC and a fine manager but was only a mediocre leader. His excellent management skills were shown in his job for the rest of the war where he brilliantly ran the Reinforcement processes in Britain. What was needed in Britain was a manager. What was needed in France at the head of a division was a leader.


What is needed to guide modern organizations through change is leadership.

Lesson #4 Responsibility for all action and activity is in the chain of command and not in the staff. If there is a leadership vacuum, large organizations have to build in a centralized control system.


The average manager in a traditional large organization today has an ambiguous role and ambiguo us authority. Very complex central control systems have been built up to monitor and check every decision. Even decisions within the authority of the manager are routinely second guessed. The risk is that a reliance on a centralized system of control  creates helplessness on the part of the manager and the employee.


Canadians in the Corps understood that taking responsibility was personal. Currie’s view was that “Discipline is simply the self control that makes you do the right thing at all times.” Currie recognized that we each need to be treated as an adult with an area of personal space where we have autonomy or authority to act and choose. Research shows us that people with very limited autonomy become ill and ultimately incapable of making decisions.


Have we defined the role and scope of each manager so that they have authority and accountability? Have we done this for the employee? What are the costs in money, resources and health in substituting a centralized control system for the chain of command? What is the relative effectiveness of the two?


Organization and Operations

The hallmark of the Canadian Corps was that it could and did execute the most complex and dangerous missions. Vimy is the most famous but there were other operations that were much more challenging which the Corps pulled off.


At the heart of Byng and Currie’s success was their emphasis on the human and social dimensions of organization. In modern organizations, we tend to see these issues as soft. We tend to think only functionally. Leaders focus on the mission. Currie with a much tougher job than any of us have today put the human and social issues at the top of his agenda. He did not see these issues as being “soft” but as essential.


Currie knew that high morale and self-confidence were the hallmarks of a high performing organization.


Lesson #1 Ensure that those in the front line are embedded in an organization that fits their human needs and which can perform the core tasks of war – Currie insisted that the platoon be protected and strengthened as the core unit of the army. The emphasis on viable platoons “made each man feel that he was not merely part of a big battalion but that he was one of a little group of chums, a team all working in the same way for the same end.” (Dancocks – Currie).


We have lost the understanding of the need to locate individuals in a community that they can trust. Currie’s deep understanding of the role of the platoon was that it was the smallest unit capable of performing all the core tasks of front line infantry. So the platoon had a functional design but it also had a social design.


Today we often risk seeing our world as only being functional. We often do not pay enough attention to how work teams are designed and operated as social organizations. We under perform when we are isolated or when we are located in too large a unit to be human. We under perform when units are not seen as being social as well as functional


The platoon recreates both in terms of numbers (about 40 people) and relationships the social work unit of the hunter gatherer tribe. We as primates are designed to combine our social needs with work. The Tribe/Platoon is not an intellectual construct but the evolved high performance unit of human endeavor.


Any organization, will be weak if this basic organizational building block is not understood and applied.


Lesson #2 keep your head office small and clever and keep the front line capability high – Partly because we have often violated the need to organize on a human level at the frontline, modern organizations have substituted a centralized control system for the chain of command. Managers have lost power and workers have lost their own sense of taking personal responsibility for their actions. Head offices have become relatively large and self-important placing both a budgetary and psychological strain on the effectiveness of the organization..


Currie did everything in his power to prevent this from happening to the Corps.


In 1918, as the manpower shortage worked its way into the French and British armies, it was decided to reduce the number of battalions in a division. It was suggested to Currie that the Corps do the same. Then result would have been smaller  but more divisions which would have justified calling the Canadian Corps an Army which would in turn have created a new command layer, the Army. The carrot for this deal was that Currie would have become the General in charge.


Currie refused.


Currie never lost sight of the fact that the Corps was a tool designed to do a job and that this tool was made up of human beings.


His insight all the time was to filter all organizational decisions around whether the outcome would be an improvement or degradation of the tool and its human needs.


A lesson for us today is to ask whether we think as clearly about the effectiveness of our organization to perform its mission and whether we too understand that the tool is not a machine but a society of people. It is ironic that Currie never lost sight of the human factor at a time when machines ruled the world.



Lesson #3 Create a Department for the New – New ideas are very threatening to the establishment and require “Outsiders” who are not contaminated by the conventional thinking.


The people with the thinking required to make the breakout will not fit comfortably with the mainstream.

The block to innovative thinking is the power of the old assumptions and the fragility of the new before they are tested. The lesson for the modern organization is to create the container where the new can flourish and be protected from the cynical and the conventional.


As IT is the new dominating technology today, so the artillery was the new dominating technology of the 1914-19 war. The doctrine trap is that the technology drove a powerful managerial and administrative load. Most of its managers came from an administrative background. The same is true of IT. Many of the early practitioners have come from a Mainframe Culture. They have a centralizing and managerial mindset.


Running the line artillery in 1917 was a lot like running the big processing operation of a big IT operation. Logistics are at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Where are the guns? Where is the ammunition? What is the fire plan? Where are the horse replacements and their feed and so on. The managerial issues were compelling and important.


But the strategic and leadership issue was to find out how to deploy artillery so that it could break the stalemate. How would it link to infantry? How would it be used to counter other artillery? How would it be used to substitute shells for lives?


Byng and later Currie saw that they would not be able to answer these kinds of questions unless they developed an organization that was not subject to the day to day managerial imperatives of running the artillery. They would have to create a new organization whose sole job to was answer the effective deployment questions. This is what they did when they created and supported the Counter Battery Staff Office. They found the most creative man, MacNaughton, a university professor, and gave him the job of running the Counter Battery Staff Office. The CBO. By doing this they created a safe container for innovation and gave the “New” more official power than the old.


MacNaughton in turn created the space for innovation below him. “He brought the sound rangers down to the Canadian Corps. Great scientists like Darwin, Bragg ( 25 and a Noble Prize winner for Physics) and professor Bull who had the temerity to take an oscillograph into the reserve line to record the actual waves coming from the guns. “He (MacNaughton) was considered a dangerous radical by all the old timers.” ( Swetenham)


The outcome – The Corps became the paramount artillery force on the Western front and used its superior skill in this area to dominate their front and to pull off their challenging missions.


If we want to use IT with the same success then we can look at the lessons learned by Byng and Currie.



·        That you need a container for the innovators if they are to be productive

·        That you need to find an innovative leader who can see beyond the obvious and inspire deep thinkers

·        That this group will feed you not only new practice but strategic intelligence on the changing environment.

·        That this group had to have real power. The CBO reported directly to the Commander and at times was given a line command of all the artillery. When a very challenging task was on the table – the CBO was given temporary command of the artillery. This is a very unusual and complex role. It gave Currie the flexibility to have his brain team move into line management in times when brains were needed but it also recognized for most of the time when logistics was the managerial issue that the regular managers were in charge.


Lesson #4 The support groups’ role is not primarily a control function.


Currie placed great emphasis on two support groups, the Engineers and the Transport team. Currie built up his engineering capability and his transport capability so that the Corps could maneuver with more flexibility than any other large unit in the war. This gave the Corps the strategic ability to take the initiative.


The lesson for us today is that we can easily forget that the point of any organization is to perform complex tasks. Any organization will have their equivalent of the infantry who make contact with the other. These frontline troops have to be able to make contact cheaply – IT or in 1918 the artillery – they have to be able to stay in the line and to move.


Much of our so called support units are today part of a huge burden of control which was not needed in 1918 because the mechanism for control was firmly put into the chain of command.


Do we pass this test? Is our support group dedicated to keep our font line troops in the field and to give them strategic and tactical flexibility? What are the relative costs of the support units and how essential and how capable are they in providing the frontline with the ability to move and to stay engaged with mission?



At the heart of the conventional  British Army doctrine as practiced up to 1916, was the concept of machine rules for control and tactics. So on an August morning in 1916, on a 15 mile front, orderly lines of men rose up from the British lines and walked slowly, in line abreast, towards the German lines. By the end of the day 20,000 of these men were dead and another 40,000 were wounded.


Conventional doctrine held that an amateur army could not be trained to be flexible and that only a rigid formation could apply the weight required on the modern battlefield.


Lesson #1 Use operational tactics that recognize that the local environment is dynamic. The Canadians rejected this doctrine of rigid control and, by using the platoon as the base unit, developed a much more flexible tactical doctrine. Currie recognized that once men went over the top, chaos always broke out and all ideas of controlling rigid formations were unrealistic. The subaltern and his NCO’s needed to have tactical flexibility to deal with all the unforeseen events that would inevitably take place once battle had been joined. He saw so clearly that you can only plan so far and that you have to give the platoon commander the space to react to his immediate environment which will be changing all the time.


Canadians at Vimy and for the rest of the war, moved in platoon sized bunches, with not all the men moving at the same time but moving in rushes with those not moving supplying supporting fire. Canadian were taught to move around obstacles.


The overall tactical lessons of the war were built from these precepts. The Germans responded to the attack by moving from a linear and rigid defence to a defence in depth that was anchored around strong points. Attackers themselves became increasingly more flexible as the war went on. The Germans adopted the Canadian flexible attack in 1918 when they came close to winning the war.



Lesson #2 Look for repeated patterns from your opponent and deal with the larger predictable events. The irony of taking rigid centralized planning down to the local level where there is no predicting local events, is that this type of approach to planning often does not deal with larger scale events that can be predicted. There is too much focus on the trees to see the forest.


MacNaughton was able to develop a clear pattern for the predictable nature of German Counter Attacks. The German doctrine was to hold the front lightly and marshal significant reserves in the rear and then hit the exhausted attacker at a critical moment. MacNaughton developed plans to deal with this predictable event and set up interdiction fire plans that often wiped out the counter attack before it was launched.


Much of the complexity and uncertainty of the modern business environment can be reduced if this kind of pattern recognition becomes part of the staff doctrine.



Lesson #3 As important as it is to have each arm of your force fully capable, the capability of the total force depends on how well the separate forces are integrated in action. In particular, Currie made the operational linkage between the infantry and the artillery. The key role of the artillery was to ensure that the fewest lives were lost in offensive action. In business terms, the role of the artillery was to make a decisive reduction in the price of delivering the goods.


Canadian divisions also had their own engineers and supply experts integrated into the division. This meant that the Canadians were able to move on the battle field with unprecedented flexibility.


Our task today is to see IT, not as merely a way of improving efficiency, but as a tool for “Breakthrough”. A tool where the “Battle” is won in a new way where costs drop dramatically and service levels increase by many times. If we do not look for this breakthrough, we are missing the point.


When we hear today of stress, workload and burnout in the workplace, we must be missing something.


Look at the faces of the men in the photo below, taken on November 11th. Consider the performance of the CEF in the last months of the war. By November 11th, 1918 the Canadian Corps was operating at it highest effectiveness of the war.


Statistics: The American Army’s results, compared to those of the Canadians during the last 100 days of 1918 are instructive. The 650,000 Americans engaged conducted operations for 47 days, the 105,000 Canadians for 100 days. The Americans advanced 55 km, the Canadians 138 km. Americans met 46 German divisions, the Canadians, 47. Casualties per German division faced were 2,170 for the Americans, 975 for the Canadians. The Americans captured 16,000 prisoners, the Canadians captured 31,537. The Americans captured 468 guns, the Canadians 623. American casualties were 100,000, the Canadians 45,830.

How was it that after all these men had endured over 4 years, they were capable of this type of performance?


The answer is that this was an organization that believed in itself because it knew it was the best.


At the heart of this success was the clarity that they all had about their mission.


What is the greater mission of your organization? Is it large enough to appeal to the human spirit? What is the mission of your unit? Is it clear enough and do you know where you fit in it? What is your immediate objective? Can you see it so clearly that no matter what happens you can somehow find your way there?


If you cannot answer all the questions in the positive, you are not in an organization that can perform at a high level no matter what the efficiency or effectiveness that has already been designed into it.


This all volunteer force had signed up for a clear strategic mission.


Have we made our mission at this strategic level clear enough for today?


Do we see our role to support our veterans as a job or as “Calling”? If not as a Calling how do we define our mission so that it speaks to our need to serve others?


Are we clear about our objectives and have we had our thoughts about how to reach them included in the plan?


Currie’s approach to planning ensured that every unit knew exactly what was asked of them and how each unit interacted with another. The key Currie process was to look at the ground and not at the abstract, a map. All major planning took place using either a model or similar ground on the same scale as the objective. All the details of the plan would be worked out by the team that was required to do the work.


His insight was that life is in reality confusing. He understood that you can only plan so far and then you have to create the right type of container for the leader and the team to use their initiative.


Under stress what looks clear on a map is lost on the ground. He knew that if you asked men to attack a trench that the trench in question might only a scratch in the ground by the time the artillery had finished. Men under stress needed clearer objectives than map references they needed objects that were concrete and unmistakable like a hill or a town.


How abstract or real are the missions that we ask our people to undertake? How much do we rely on what the spreadsheet tells us or what the actual environment tells us? How much initiative do we allow for in the plan?


Currie always saw the Corps as a tool that never had as its ultimate purpose a process but always an objective. The Corps relied on many processes to enable it to meet an objective, but everyone was focused on the objective. How many of our plans today have never ending processes as their goal?


Do we make a clear enough distinction between process and purpose?


The Corps was evaluated by itself and by others by the objectives that it won. It was brought into a sector to deliver a result.  If you were a German and learned that the Canadians had arrived in your sector, you knew what was coming. You were going to be attacked and, by late 1917, you knew that you were going to lose.


Lessons for Us

So what has the Corps, Byng and Currie got to do with us today?


The story of the Corps is one where a “small organization” from “over there” learned how to replace a doctrine built by a much larger culture, based on abstractions, process, control and lack of trust with a new doctrine based on practicality, results, order and the harnessing of the human spirit.


The story of the Corps is how this small unit rewrote the book and showed the world how to harness and apply an entirely new set of technology. This a story of changing others by showing the example of a better way.


The story of Byng is how a man imbued by the old system, could have the courage and insight to see what had to be done and to select the agents of change like Currie and MacNaughton to make the changes.


The story of Currie is how an outsider could develop the  leadership required to break free from conventional wisdom. The story of Currie is how a man in the heat of the war of machines could see that it would be the human spirit that would be the decisive factor.


The story of MacNaughton is how a deep thinker could be given the role of thinking through the meaning of the new and of how he was allowed to create a safe container for thinkers and ideas at a time when action seemed more important.


The story of the CEF is how a group of men grew in self confidence and how their feelings of community and competence enabled them not only to endure the unendurable but to excel in performance while living the unendurable.


The story is about an organization that asked itself a number of fundamental questions. Such as what really is our role? Such as how does this new technology really work? Such as what truly is the environment that we are working in? Such as who are we really working with and what do they need to be successful?


These are questions that we often dare not ask ourselves. These are questions that a Learning Organization has to ask itself!


Our Opportunity

Byng took Currie and MacNaughton out of the line in 1917 and sent them to Verdun to see what the French had been doing. They came back and began to plan to change the Corps. The key to success will be now as then, leadership.


Byng did not see reforming the Corps as a “project”, he saw it as a line issue. If we take the same approach, we have a much better chance of being successful.


All large organizations are caught up in a doctrine that does not work anymore. The great wheel of time can rotate again and show that a few dedicated Canadians can teach themselves and so the rest of the world how to break out of a doctrine that does not work anymore and which brings with it a trail of despair and unhappiness.

© Copyright 2002 Robert Paterson. Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.
Last update: 11/09/2002; 11:09:18 AM.