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The Battle For Business – Military Methods That Matter

The Battle of Britain was a military campaign of the Second World War, in which the Royal Air Force defended the United Kingdom against attacks of the Luftwaffe. It is the story of a few intrepid pilots.

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Why business needs lessons ?

The vanguard of a battle is an exclusive classroom. Many enduring lessons are learned. Learning is, literally, a matter of life and death.

Today, more than ever, business is a battlefield. The pace of change is unprecedented. Information and capital are available to all. The ecommerce disruption has changed all equations. Survival demands a warlike urgency in developing new products, procuring superior intelligence and being on the offensive. But, management structures, information systems and personnel development programs are antiquated. Legacy mindedness, insularity and inertia are taking businesses to defeat.

They need to unlearn and learn again.

Why learn from the military

Strategy has military origins. The ancient Greek word Stratēgia refers to the art of generalship. The world’s top militaries are management powerhouses. They are unique institutions that have survived over centuries, changed continuously and improved effectiveness. They are home to technical and organizational innovation. The internet owes its origins to a Pentagon sponsored program. The progress of life sciences, aviation, space exploration, engineering, communications technology and system theory owes much to the military.

Besides strategy, we must learn from military operations. Consider the Ladakh standoff currently on between India and China. It teaches us lessons. It is imperative to watch a competitor’s moves in every square mile. Any winning action on part of the adversary means a loss of share. Mass markets must be seen in terms of smaller sub segments. Every hilltop and valley matters. The enemy tests your ability to hold a position, in battle and in market.

A cool headed appreciation of aims

“No plan survives first contact with the enemy” is an axiomatic truth.

Both strategy and operations need a real-time orientation. Everyone must contribute. Decisions ultimately get taken on the ground nearest to the action. A decision architecture must provide for high quality analysis at that level.

In the British Army, during military exercises -with shells bursting on all sides- officers were expected to sit down and write an ‘appreciation’ on a sheet of paper spelling out the details of their aim, the factors which affect its attainment, the inflexible and unchanging constraints, the course of action open to them and the conclusion they had drawn. They began by outlining their position amidst a crisis they faced. It could be a sudden enemy advancement, a broken bridge, a destroyed ammunition depot or a full interruption of communication lines between them and their main formation.

The real stumbling block was always the ‘Aim’ paragraph. For most officers, it is far more difficult to decide what they were trying to do than to propose how to go about it. As for the factors affecting the situation, they were only relevant in so far as they related to the aim. If the aim itself was wrong, nothing else in the appreciation would be right.

Businesses must understand the value of this exercise, conducted in real life situations. The commonest mistake of inexperience is a misjudging the aim and misinterpreting the facts.

Men win wars

Human resource matters above all. Businesses must attract, train and retain the best. We can learn from the armed forces. Men in uniform are on boarded very young and trained for high stakes roles. They are assessed for teamwork, resilience and mental agility.

The Battle of Britain was a military campaign of the Second World War, in which the Royal Air Force defended the United Kingdom against attacks of the Luftwaffe. It is the story of a few intrepid pilots. Winston Churchill said "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." Corporations hungry to win must develop managers like these fighter pilots. Backed by ground support, alert to active monitoring systems, even a few well trained gritty fighters with a bias for action can turn things around.

Even though character outranks ability everywhere, the orientations to command in the various branches of the military have developed somewhat differently. The Navy and the Air Force take a more process-driven approach whereas the Army emphasises individual leadership initiative, collective action, flexibility and quick manoeuvring.

An ordnance officer, navigation expert, fighter pilot, intelligence officer or Special Forces commando will each have a very different set of skills. A captain of a $15 billion aircraft carrier will rely on a technology enabled process whereas the leader of a covert action commando platoon may need to change his plan every minute.

Above all, a code of honour, pride of service and respect for uniform motivates military men. For this, they are willing to die.

Ultimately, it’s a test of apex command

Like war, business is a test of the apex command. The larger the action, the more time must go into planning; the longer it will take to move combatants into position, to reconnoitre, to link up supplies and do coordination with other battle formations. To a conscientious commander, time is the most vital factor of his planning. Proper foresight and correct preliminary action must be aimed to conserve the most precious element under his control – the lives of his men. Therefore, he must keep his tactical plan simple and eliminate as many variable factors as possible. He has to look at as much of the ground as circumstances render accessible to him, first hand. The French have a term - coup d'œil – for a glance that takes in a comprehensive view.

Only then can the command to commence battle be responsibly issued.

If the business world can imbibe these lessons, we will have a richer, happier and more productive world. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Shubhranshu Singh

VP- Domestic & IB, Tata Motors, CVBU

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