‘Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.’ (George Santayana)
As I go on the journey from infantry officer to civilian via the MBA at Said Business School in Oxford I’m constantly seeking to identify areas of crossover between the military and the private sector. Currently trending for me is the use of historical examples to learn from, and my interest in this has been piqued recently for several reasons.
Firstly, we are using more and more case studies in our classes. Pre-reading for a lot of modules inevitably includes some theory and one or two examples of where the theory has been applied in the real world; recent ones have included Apple’s accounting methodology, Toyota’s production systems, Southwest Airlines’ culture, and more. These are of course amongst the most well-known cases for business students, but at Oxford we are in a fortunate position and able to leverage personal contacts of lecturers to enable access to more exclusive – and arguably exciting – cases; these have recently included, inter alia, having the team from BAML that worked on the Ferrari IPO talk to us, and the Morgan Stanley section that worked on the Fox / Disney / Comcast deal – 3 days after the notorious auction actually happened. In the world of M&A this is as close to the coalface as most students will get while studying.
Secondly, there has been some criticism of Harvard Business School’s use of the case study recently in business education press, with some people believing that it is too male / US-centric, too lacking in current examples, and would benefit from more focus on learning and testing robust theory (although there are counterarguments to all of these). Like most things there is likely an Aristotlean Golden Mean, and the case study is one club in a golf bag that can be used to teach.
Finally – and this is where the military analogy emerges – I am a big proponent of making use of historical military examples to learn from. In the military this normally takes the form of a Battlefield Study (unfortunately officially abbreviated to BS), where a unit of any size will go to an actual battlefield, look at the ground, examine the history, and discuss the event – particularly with a view to drawing out lessons that can be applied in the modern context. It can be a week-long activity or a day out; it can involve 50+ people or half-a-dozen. It normally involves an officer framing the discussion around current doctrine and theory, supported by a professional historian that knows the event inside-out. One of my final tasks before leaving the Army was to run a week-long BS examining the Allied penetrations into Germany in late 1944, as well as take a glimpse at the famous German counter-attack that became known as the Battle of the Bulge. We framed the BS in the context of a western coalition fighting a peer / near-peer combined arms adversary in terrain that quickly varied from rolling countryside to thick woods to complex cities; the links with NATO’s current focus were obvious.
A Battlefield Study by a King Panzer left after the Battle of the Bulge, Author briefs at Hill 400 in BergBerg Germany
So what are the parallels?
Wood clearance in the Hurtgen Forest
In sum, the case is a wonderful tool for study. The ability to take theory – whether it’s Blue Ocean theory or the Principles of Defence – and see them acted out in practice delivers far more learning than either method would individually. The power of combinations is a real thing, and the military / private parallels are a real thing.Back to top of article