Phil Baldoni


The ADF’s future capability necessarily involves a growing specialised workforce. Understanding, embracing and integrating their role into operational doctrine and leadership models will maximise the benefits and minimise the pitfalls.

This article examines two interrelated aspects of leadership and command in the ADF, with an eye to the future.

One aspect of it is cultural. It is about the ADF’s organisational culture, and it touches on some of the themes of the Afghanistan Inquiry Report. It is written at a time when the ADF’s response to the Report is under development.[1] No criticism is implied here: the Report is profoundly shocking in not only for the nature of the incidents, the number and the span of time covered – it requires a profound response. I look forward to a future when those elements of this article are a relic of the past.

The other aspect is more enduring, and it relates to issues of mission command. The ADF seeks a technological edge (or at least to remain competitive) in the face of increased strategic competition.[2] Our strategic documents recognise that the nature of the workforce is changing.[3] While the complexity of equipment, systems, and systems-of-systems will grow increasingly complex, the human grey matter in the loop remains the same. Increasing task and tool complexity, and increasing potential consequences for failure, favour depth of skill over breadth. The tendency towards specialisation and expertise presents challenges to communication and integration across a force seeking to be tactically and strategically flexible and responsive.

This article focuses on these two aspects to consider organisational culture and vulnerability, now and into the future. It combines observations on the nature of organisations now; and workforce and task trends into the future. It will explore how the increasing specialisation of the ADF workforce could contribute to a cultural and a functional maladaptation: an increased vulnerability to one of the dangers writ large through the Report (the normalisation of deviance); and increased complexity of mission command. It aims to contribute to the Afghanistan Inquiry Reform Plan’s Cultural Reform Stream[4] and discussion on future leadership doctrine, and suggests two areas for further study.

The increasing specialisation of the ADF Workforce

There is no need to accept intuitively that the march of technology results in increasing requirements for specialisation: there has long been acceptance that organisations tend to require streams of specialisation as they become larger, and their tasks become more complex.[5] Militaries are not alone in this. Healthcare is another field where the stakes (literally life and death) are comparatively high. The Journal of the American Medical Association noted an increase in medical specialisations in the USA from 18 in 1960 to 158 in 2011.[6] Response to the strategic environment and the ADF’s increasingly modern technological capabilities have resulted in novel methods of career management. This has included experimentation with the recruitment of cyber specialists outside of traditional career management models.[7] It has also seen the establishment of a Specialist Service Soldier stream, a career path where progression is predicated on technical proficiency rather than the traditional milestone career courses focussed on leadership and generalist military skills.

This increased specialisation of individuals also manifests in increasingly specialised organisational structures. A survey of the ADF’s history shows the aggregation of increasingly technical platforms and workforces into specialist units, Force Element Groups and similar structures at the expense of generic organisations.[8]  A contemporary example can be seen in the evolution of the ADF’s health capability. In the land domain, the last two decades have seen the transition from a distributed model of healthcare delivery to centralisation in companies, then specialist health battalions progressing to, under Army’s Force Structure Implementation Plan, the establishment of a health brigade. Broadly speaking, this grouping of experts allows the following:

Management of scarcity: meeting the increased requirements to most effectively use small numbers of highly skilled specialists. Specialists tend to be organisationally expensive: they require investment in time and money to become experts.

Managing development and currency: providing specialist knowledge to manage development opportunities for specialists to keep them abreast of best practice. Like other functions such as intelligence and cyber, in the health field these developmental opportunities often require access to other agencies or to commercial industry.

Managing governance: Meeting the requirement for specialist knowledge to meet credentialling and legal requirements for practitioners. Many other functions, such as aviation, have governance regimes that are best met through similar centralisation.

This tendency to specialisation has traditionally caused concern. It exists in tension with a preference, noticeable across militaries, for the flexibility deemed inherent in more homogenous structures. Militaries have correspondingly pursued organisational simplification and reduction in specialisation to improve responsiveness and flexibility.[9] There are two other areas of concern that leaders should consider: the vulnerability of specialist organisations inside more generalist structures to normalised deviance, and the complexities of incorporating increasing specialisation in mission command.

Specialisation and the vulnerability of closed communities

‘Normalised deviance’ refers to the potential for parts of an organisation to accept behaviour that differs from organisational values. Variations on the term can be found in diverse fields. It will be familiar to students of risk management and safety as ‘organisational drift’.[1] It is a theme in the root causes of accidents in aviation safety.[11] It is also a consistent theme in the Afghanistan Inquiry Report in describing the conditions that led the commission of war crimes.[12]

There are several factors that make an increasingly specialised ADF vulnerable to normalised deviance. This is not to say that increasing specialisation leads to normalised deviance which leads to risk of atrocity. Atrocity is the dark apotheosis of a matrix of bad outcomes including more prosaic risks such as injury, mission failure or breach of legislation.[13] The first factor relates to the changeability of the strategic environment that the ADF is expected to adapt to. Continual transformation and reform will be required.[14] In any organisational change, there will be winners and losers. Changing criteria for success, reallocation of resources, or changes to the perceived importance of one’s role are contributing factors to deviance from organisational norms.[15] The second factor is shown in the Afghanistan Inquiry Report: the danger of organisations that are ‘impenetrable’, by virtue of specialised skills, language or command arrangements. The more an organisation includes areas of specialised knowledge (referred to by Vaughan as ‘structural secrecy’) and processes, the harder it is for deviation from organisational norms to be detected and averted by those outside of it.[16] Thirdly, the opportunity for normalised deviance facilitated by impenetrability can be increased when hierarchies do ‘little to monitor or audit the activities of lower-level participants’.[17]  A lack of monitoring may not be ascribed to negligence: it could be engendered by a physical separation from commanders, poor organisational alignment or the difficulty of a non-expert commander attempting oversight of a specialist capability. This last issue of monitoring, and particularly the monitoring of specialist organisations, intersects with the challenge of specialist organisations in a mission command environment.  

Specialisation, mission command and the difficulties in translation

This section discusses two challenges for the command of an increasingly specialised workforce. The first is resolving the incongruence of specialisation of functions (i.e. those who ‘do’) and the desirability for breadth in commanders. The second is that the ADF construct for mission command could better account for this dichotomy.

There is an issue that as functions become more complex and specialised, communication (making the complex simple and the simple compelling) becomes more challenging. This is also not a new phenomenon—I have fond memories of a frustrated peer threatening to explain MILIS functions to me using sock-puppets—but is an issue that promises to increase with increased specialisation. The impact of operational and tactical events on them will become harder to quantify by non-expert staff, especially as the physical distance or span of subordination distance between the commander/staff and the specialist increases. Recognition of the advantages and pitfalls of increased access to information technology on command and control is already a part of ADF doctrine.[18] But best-practice information flow is of no utility if the parties to it do not understand the language that the other is speaking. An increase in specialisation requires an increase in efforts to communicate meaningfully. This is a shared responsibility. On one side are commanders who are deliberately educated for breadth rather than depth.[19] In addition to understanding what a special capability ‘brings to the fight’, they need to understand the conditions, prerequisites, and requirements that the specialist needs to generate their effects. On the other side, specialists need to ensure that leaders and decision makers provide the warnings and indicators they need to support devolved decision making in a mission command environment. Warnings and indicators are only useful if they include the right type of information and provision of it in time to inform decision and action. Thus, specialist requirements may have to be factored into the design of common operating pictures. This is alluded to, but not explicitly stated, in current ADF operational doctrine on managing the operational environment.[20] It is also not yet recognised in the ADF’s approach to command.

There is a curious issue in our doctrinal approach to mission command. The language in the ADDP 00.1 on understanding is described as a one-way flow: for the system to work, subordinates must understand their commanders’ intent and the broader context.[21] There is a missing element here: Commanders must understand the requirements for successful employment of specialist elements and have sufficient understanding of their requirements and vulnerabilities to adapt in a timely fashion. Similar to the communications issues previously discussed, there are two aspects to this: knowing what could go wrong and what means could fix it; and a temporal aspect that involves setting conditions so that warnings and indicators can be observed, analysed and addressed in a timely fashion.

Conclusions and further work

This article has described some reasons why the ADF’s future capability is likely to be delivered by an increasingly specialised workforce and identified a number of systemic vulnerabilities that could result. The vulnerabilities in communication and command are essentially structural and could, with modification to the ADF’s intellectual approach and doctrine, be mitigated. The vulnerabilities described in the first section, relating to normalised deviance, would appear to be more challenging.

Encouragingly, the literature on normalisation of deviance is extensive, and includes the study of militaries and organisations with similar structures and demands to the ADF.[22] Where there is a gap is in the study of the ADF itself. A promising area for inquiry to reconcile the needs for increasing specialisation with the increased risks of normalised deviance and mitigating communication issues is that of ‘trading zones’. This is a concept by historian and philosopher of science Peter Galison describing how ‘people from vastly different theoretical, practical, or cultural perspectives can interact meaningfully about subjects which they understand from seemingly incommensurable points of view’.[23] Effectively, a ‘trading zones’ approach offers an intellectual approach to integrating a specialist workforce into a cohesive whole.

A second area of potential study are groups within the ADF which already offer models that bridge the specialist/generalist divide to positive effect. Visible examples include the submariner community in Navy, and the Royal Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (RAEME) community in Army. These groups, which have an identity across a variety of specialised functions and across enlisted personnel and officers, tend to share several characteristics. These include shared symbols, highly active community organisations outside of work environments, and the continued inclusions of former ADF members through associations and social media forums. The result, a sense of belonging and esprit de corps expressed in a way that is congruent with ADF values, shows that even as the ADF grapples with the Afghanistan Inquiry Report, there are positive lessons to be learned from within.

Author bio:

Lieutenant Colonel Phil Baldoni is a Royal Australian Corps of Transport officer, with experience in supporting land and joint force operations. He is currently posted as a Syndicate Director and Guidance Officer for the Australian Command and Staff Course at the Australian War College.


ADF, Inspector General of the ADF. Afghanistan Inquiry Report. Canberra: Commonwealth, 2020.

Albright, James. 'Normalization of Deviance - SOPs Are Not a Suggestion.' Business and Commercial Aviation, no. January 2017 (2017): 40-43.

Bosone, John W. 'The Erosion of Public Trust: Normalization of Deviance in the Air Force.' Air University, 2016.

Bury, Patrick. 'Barossa Night: Cohesion in the British Army Officer Corps.' The British journal of Sociology 68, no. 2 (2017): 314-45.

Chandler, Stephen H. Hanks; Gaylen N. 'Patterns of Functional Specialization in Emerging High Tech.' Journal of Small Business Management 32, no. 2 (Apr 1994) (1994): 23-37.

Commonwealth. 2016 Defence White Paper. Canberra: Department of Defence, 2016.

———. 2020 Defence Strategic Update. Canberra: Department of Defence, 2020.

———. Addp 00.1 Command and Control. Edn 2 AL 1 ed. Canberra: Defence Publishing Service, 2019.

———. Addp 3.0 Campaigns and Operations. AL1 ed. Canberra: Defence Publishing Service, 2014.

———. Afghanistan Inquiry Report Reform Plan. Online: Department of Defence, 2021.

———. The Australian Joint Professional Military Education Continuum. Canberra: Defence Publishing Service, 2019.

———. Defence Aviation Safety Manual. 3rd ed ed. Canberra: Defence Publishing Service, 2021.

Fuchs, Allan S. Detsky; Stephen R. Gauthier; Victor R. 'Specialization in Medicine - How Much Is Appropriate.' Journal of the American Medical Association 307, no. 5 (2012): 463-64.

M.B. Berman, C.L. Batten. Increasing Future Fighter Weapon System Performance by Integrating Basing, Support, and Air Vehicle Requirements. USAF (Santa Monica: Rand Corporation, 1983 1983).

Silverii, L. Scott. Cop Culture: Why Good Cops Go Bad. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2014.

———. 'A Darker Shade of Blue: From Public Servant to Professional Deviant: Law Enforcement's Special Operations Culture.' PhD in Urban Studies, University of New Orleans Theses and Dissertations, 2011.

Susanne C. Monahan, Beth A. Quinn. 'Beyond "Bad Apples" and "Weak Leaders" - Towards a Neo-Institutional Explanation of Organizational Deviance.' Theoretical Criminology 10, no. 3 (2006): 361-85.

Vaughan, Dianne. 'The Dark Side of Organizations: Mistake, Misconduct and Disaster.' Annual Review of Sociology 25, no. 1999 (1999): 271-305.

Werhane, Michael E. Gorman; Patricia H. Using Trading Zones to Prevent Normalized Deviance in Organizations. Chap. 12 In Trading Zones and Interactional Expertise: Creating New Kinds of Collaboration, edited by Michael E Gorman, 245-64. London and Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2010.

[1] Commonwealth, Afghanistan Inquiry Report Reform Plan, 13, 23-24 (Online: Department of Defence, 2021).

[2] Commonwealth, 2020 Defence Strategic Update (Canberra: Department of Defence, 2020), 13.

[3] Commonwealth, 2016 Defence White Paper (Canberra: Department of Defence, 2016), 148.

[4] ADF, Inspector General of the ADF. Afghanistan Inquiry Report. Version 1.0 Canberra: Commonwealth, 2021, p.23

[5] Stephen H. Hanks; Gaylen N. Chandler, 'Patterns of Functional Specialization in Emerging High Tech', Journal of Small Business Management 32, no. 2 (Apr 1994) (1994): 33.

[6] Allan S. Detsky; Stephen R. Gauthier; Victor R. Fuchs, 'Specialization in Medicine - How Much is Appropriate', Journal of the American Medical Association 307, no. 5 (2012): 463.

[7] In 2017, Army appointed a cyber warfare officer as an SSO (in advance of a cyber warfare category being established!) to employ a qualified candidate judged unlikely to pass RMC Duntroon’s physical fitness standards due to injuries.

[8] This is not evenly distributed. There is a plethora of counter-movements. A good example is Army’s Plan BEERSHEBA, which sort to restructure Army’s combat power into three like combat brigades and standard infantry battalions. But a variety of factors including geography, personnel numbers, training capacity and equipment availability have resulted in a level of specialisation between brigades, and in the roles and equipment of infantry battalions.

[9]This is not new. See, for example the risks ascribed to over-specialisation of US Air Force maintenance personnel in 1983 in C.L. Batten M.B. Berman, Increasing Future Fighter Weapon System Performance By Integrating Basing, Support, and Air Vehicle Requirements, USAF (Santa Monica: Rand Corporation, 1983 1983), 14-15.

[10] Commonwealth, Defence Aviation Safety Manual, 3rd ed ed. (Canberra: Defence Publishing Service, 2021), pt 2, 1-17.

[11] James Albright, 'Normalization of Deviance - SOPs are not a suggestion', Business and Commercial Aviation, no. January 2017 (2017): 42.

[12] Inspector General of the ADF, Afghanistan Inquiry Report (Canberra: Commonwealth, 2020), 513, 21, 26.

[13] The genesis of this article was a personal observation of a group of transport drivers with specialist licence codes who saw themselves as exempt from the same constraints as their peers and above the directions of their section commanders without those licence codes. In one case this led to an incident where several drivers were out of communication in a training area, remote from medical or recovery support, when their chain of command believed they were in a different location.

[14] Commonwealth, 2020 Defence Strategic Update, 61.

[15] Dianne Vaughan, 'The Dark Side of Organizations: Mistake, Misconduct and Disaster', Annual Review of Sociology 25, no. 1999 (1999): 275.

[16] Vaughan, 'The Dark Side of Organizations: Mistake, Misconduct and Disaster', 276, 90-91.

[17] Beth A. Quinn Susanne C. Monahan, 'Beyond "Bad Apples" and "Weak Leaders' - Towards a Neo-Institutional Explanation of Organizational Deviance', Theoretical Criminology 10, no. 3 (2006): 374.

[18] Commonwealth, ADDP 00.1 Command and Control, Edn 2 AL 1 ed. (Canberra: Defence Publishing Service, 2019), 2-9.

[19] Commonwealth, The Australian Joint Professional Military Education Continuum (Canberra: Defence Publishing Service, 2019), 16.

[20] Commonwealth, ADDP 3.0 Campaigns and Operations, AL1 ed. (Canberra: Defence Publishing Service, 2014), 9-10 - 9-11.

[21] Commonwealth, ADDP 00.1 Command and Control, 2-10 - 2-11.

[22] While this article has endeavoured to address normalised deviance with a broad brush, examples of sources that address deviance in hierarchical organisations that informed the content include works by Patrick Bury, L. Scott Silverii and John W. Bosone cited below.

[23] Michael E. Gorman; Patricia H. Werhane, 'Using Trading Zones to Prevent Normalized Deviance in Organizations', in Trading Zones and Interactional Expertise: Creating New Kinds of Collaboration, ed. Michael E Gorman (London and Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2010), 245.