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Professional Military Education (PME) Conference
6-8 December 2018

The Defence Academy ran a first international Professional Military Education (PME) conference at Shrivenham 4-6 December 2018. Its focus was on how best to deliver PME in a demanding geo-strategic and challenging resource context, and it had a particular emphasis on sharing experience and areas of innovation. Peer institutions from allies were invited and 25 members from 17 overseas institutions attended from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany and Italy, along with UK representatives from Army HQ, Navy Command HQ, Dstl and the Defence Academy itself.

The conference was an acknowledged success and identified several significant areas where we can learn from, and contribute to, our common PME endeavour. Critically, it raised the question of whether we should all be taking a more holistic, inclusive and collaborative approach to PME. Not doing so may lead to failure in the face of the changing character of defence, security and conflict.

Conference report

The conference confirmed that:

  • the strategic drivers and implications for PME are near identically understood
  • a need for a more holistic, inclusive approach to PME exists, deeply interwoven with career management across individuals’ continuum of service
  • failure to adapt will lead to failure in the face of the challenges and pace of technological change
  • there is a strong appetite from all stakeholders to internationalise and cohere (exchangeable) PME

Several themes were consistently raised and acknowledged as a priority for the success of the future
development of PME.  They include: developing individual human capability through career; creative and critical thinking in ambiguity and international from the start; development of strategic thinkers as a career stream to the top; better incorporation of Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) intellectual talent into PME; urgent inclusion of disruptive technologies into curricula; and adapting the means and methods of education to better utilise the latest research into adult learning and to accommodate Gen Z +.

Human capability

PME must be considered as just one part of developing human capability. A through-career approach must be taken to education with a continuum of learning. It must be integrated with effective talent management and HR policies and systems that are able to cope with the complexity of more personalised learning pathways. With an education half-life measured in less than a decade, people will need to be regularly equipped and re-equipped with the skills and knowledge they need, and this must consider the PME needs of all serving not just the few. This also requires us to understand and account for individuals’ experiential learning and we must employ people in roles that get the most benefit out of their knowledge, skills and experience.  Although learning design must take a learner-centric approach, the ultimate focus must be on the outcomes for defence: we must develop methods and tools to assess the latter.  

Creative and critical thinking

The VUCA environment demands that we prepare leaders at all levels who can think critically and creatively. This requires a high degree of reflexive self-knowledge and cognitive agility.  Institutions presented different approaches to achieving this, but the most effective would require a substantive departure from our conventional learning pathways, learning design and methods of delivery.  They need to include the three aspects of ‘triple loop learning’: did we do things right; did we do the right thing; and how do we decide what is right?

Strategic thinkers


PME must be more effective at developing individuals who can think strategically.  However, only a very few have the innate talent to be true strategists and these people must be actively identified, developed, nurtured and employed when identified, not rank dependant. They may not always be the people destined for the highest command positions; strategists can write strategy and strategically-minded individuals can execute strategy through campaigns and operations.

Non-Commissioned Officer talent

There is growing concern that we are not fully developing and utilising the talent of our more intellectually capable NCOs and that we need to further democratise PME.  Some nations are incorporating selected NCOs as intellectual peers in officer education programmes, with benefits to the NCOs and to the officers with whom they learn.


Disruptive technologies


There is growing concern that we are not educating to deal with increasingly rapid technological development, particularly the development and proliferation of potentially disruptive technologies.  This includes the ability to think and operate effectively when access to technology is unexpectedly denied, and to deal with the ethical and legal ambiguity that future leaders are likely to face.

Means and methods of education


There was strong support for face-to-face learning to continue at the core of PME. This is predominantly driven by the need to develop higher-order thinking, to share experiences, and to establish relationships, trust and networks (including internationally).  It was felt that distance learning does have a significant role to play but primarily as: a means to access learning when face-to-face learning is neither viable nor appropriate; and as part of a blend with face-to-face learning.  Note that, in a PME context, there was no evidence known of improved learner outcomes through distance learning vs face-to-face learning.  However, distance learning is particularly applicable to those who are not selected to attend residential courses.  PME methods must adapt to meet the threats and opportunities of the future geo-political, defence, security and education environments, and to meet the challenges of constrained resources.  The following were considered priorities: 

  • courses should continue to become more modular with the ability to personalise learning pathways i.e. for there to be more choice to meet the needs of the individual and of Defence.  This should incorporate appropriate recognition and exploitation of experiential learning and distance learning, including providing learning at the point of need
  • there should be more opportunity for learning through discovery, with the potential for repeated practice and learning through safe failure. Wargaming, case-study approaches and masters by research are increasingly being incorporated into programmes 
  • utilising wider and diverse approaches, such as mentoring and coaching learners to facilitate experiential learning based on reflection and subsequent synthesis, enables creative and critical thinking
Not covered


Note that discussions were wide ranging but time, and the self-selecting nature of the presented topics, precluded covering all the issues that are acknowledged to need addressing. Key topics not covered include:

  • how can outcomes and return on investment be determined
  • the relative value of Masters’ level education vs achieving Masters’ qualifications
  • formal learning vs on-the-job (including just-in-time) vs informal learning
  • individual ‘sprints’ vs through-life journeys
  • how we can best develop, recognise and reward our staff involved in the development and delivery of PME
  • the design of modern, physical learning spaces
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