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Guidelines for Battle Preparation Become Virtual

August 17, 2009
By Rita Boland
E-mail About the Author

Soldiers can access instructions as well as read blogs, participate in the forum and ask experts questions electronically.

The U.S. Army training community now can take advantage of an online resource that combines official doctrine with traditional and Web 2.0 technologies. Following in the footsteps of other military niches that have created communities on the Internet, training personnel have transformed a tasking to revise a field manual into development of a Web site that offers one-stop shopping for educators’ needs. The online applications are available to anyone with the right credentials, and the more people contribute to the content, the more powerful the tools will become.

The Army Training Network (ATN) went live April 20, 2009, almost three years after the first impetus for the effort. In spring 2006, the Army’s Combined Arms Center (CAC) received direction to rewrite Field Manual (FM) 7-0 Training the Force. “The obvious task is you have to rewrite [FM] 7-1 too because that’s the ‘how-to’ manual for 7-0,” Jimmy Davis, ATN team lead, explains. The leader of CAC-Training (CAC-T) at the time suggested making FM 7-1 a Web-based document. As that idea matured, the team working on the project, including Davis, decided other information also could go on the Web site to assist trainers and educators plan and execute their training.

During the process, additional ideas emerged such as posting training products that would offer personnel examples of best practices so that trainers have an advantage when they begin planning. Once those tools were added, the ATN team wanted to ensure collaboration so it added blog, forum and “Ask a Trainer” features. Efforts began in earnest to develop the ATN in 2008. Davis and three contractors wrote FM 7-0. They contracted with a Web developer out of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and another professional to conduct the server work.

The ATN Web site now contains several tools and documents including FM 7-0, Training for Full Spectrum Operations, published in December 2008, which has hyperlinks in the text that personnel can use to obtain more information. The online “Training Management How-To” will replace the hard copy FM 7-1, Battle Focused Training, but it is still under development and will take several more months to complete. “Eventually we want the ATN to be the one-stop shop for trainers and educators to go to get resources they need in order to plan and execute training,” Davis says. He touts that all-in-one capability as a major advantage of the site. Another benefit to posting content online versus publishing it in a hardbound copy is the ability to keep content relevant. The manual’s content writers can post pieces of the replacement to FM 7-1 (now “Training Management How-To”) as they finish them, instead of waiting to complete the entire book.

“There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t tweak something on the site, whether it’s the content or the look and feel or whatever,” Davis explains. “We’re constantly looking to make sure the site remains fresh in look and feel. And then again we change the content frequently as well.” The ATN team even can push lessons learned from the field out to trainers quickly. When something changes, team members can make the alteration to the online features instantly. “All the information they get is going to be current when they go to the site,” Davis states.

The site’s blog feature offers anyone in the CAC and training communities an opportunity to write about specific issues. It showcases an author’s thoughts on a subject, and although it is not designed to be interactive, readers can post comments. Only two troops—both colonels—have taken advantage of the feature as of June; one discussed Core Mission Essential Task Lists (CMETLs) and the other wrote about the endpoint in chapter one of FM 7-0. Most of the time Davis and his team members write the blog posts.

The team also responds to the questions in the “Ask a Trainer” feature. “That doesn’t mean my team answers the question. Some of the questions we have farmed out to other places within our directorate that people had questions about … most of the questions we get are training or training management, and the resident expertise is right here with us,” Davis explains. To submit their queries, users click the “Ask a Trainer” link, which brings up a form for their questions and the personal data about where they want to receive the responses. In the forum, users can post whatever they want to discuss, and anyone can reply or start their own discussion.

Davis says the biggest selling point is the training products that give users ideas for their own projects. “That’s the most popular thing on the site,” he states. The next most used feature is the content that replaces the content in FM 7-1. The site sees little traffic on the blog front and decent action in the forum.

The feature that most interests Davis personally is the electronic FM 7-0 that includes links that take users to instructions or examples. “That has really not been done anywhere else, and that’s a good start point,” he shares. The ATN team has created the content in the links, though there may come instances where users are directed to another site. Currently the team may obtain information from other places, but it repackages the products to meet the needs of many users.

Though CAC-T originally conceived the ATN idea and now manages it, the tool is intended for use Army-wide including Reserve and Guard components. Anyone with an Army Knowledge Online (AKO) account or common access card can visit the site, post content and ask questions, and the ATN team hopes they will. Davis emphasizes that the more people participate and engage the stronger the resource will become.

CAC-T is encouraging participation from everyone, reaching out to potential users in different ways. A “road show” traveled to various Army destinations to discuss the development of 7-0 and at the same time talked about the ATN. CAC-T also has asked for others to provide their products and information as well as to participate on the blogs. Other efforts include building segments of education on the site into various military classes such as captains career courses.

Col. David Blackburn, USA, the director of the Collective Training Directorate at CAC-T and the level of leadership above Davis, says one thing he has discussed with the ATN team is continually visiting other blogs and including those links to start discussion. He also posts comments himself to encourage others to do the same. The colonel emphasizes that if the site is good, people will use it, so his ATN staff tries to update the content continually to make it worthwhile. “The key I think is keeping it current,” he says. “It’s a place where commanders can go and make their lives easier with respect to training products, thereby saving themselves time.” He also remarks that keeping training products relevant is a major thrust behind the effort to digitize.

Davis believes that traffic and content will increase as time goes by and soldiers become familiar with the Web site. When trainers see the value of the ATN and other CAC tools to make planning and executing training easier, the ATN community will grow, he says.

The site averages approximately 200 hits a day, down from the thousand a day in the first week, but holding steady. “That’s about what we expected,” Davis says. “It’s going to take time for the word to get out, going to take time for people to realize this product is here and for people to go out and find what’s important to them and make their own contributions. We know it’s going to grow over time.”

As traffic increases, information sharing should grow as well. One way users could collaborate on the ATN is through sharing how ideas or products worked for them. Trainers could visit the site, obtain initial ideas about how to conduct a certain exercise, modify it for their needs and then return to the site to share those modifications with others. Col. Blackburn says sharing information is the benefit of the ATN, preventing soldiers from duplicating efforts. He explains that copying what others have done improves the units’ efficiency because they have more time to concentrate on the important facets of their jobs.

The colonel believes decision makers will benefit from reading blogs and feedback. As responses increase on senior issues, senior commanders can find information about specific subjects in which they have interest as well as gauge the Army’s temperature. When generals reach O-9 and O-10, he says, they can find it difficult to know what is occurring at the company and battalion levels.

According to Davis, every product on the site has a comment feature, and his team hopes users will take advantage of those feedback mechanisms. “Our whole focus has really been to change the Army’s mindset about how it looks at training,” Davis says. “Especially in this day when we’re trying to train for full-spectrum operations, there’s so much information out there in so many different places. We’re trying to grab all that information and put it in one place so a commander or trainer or educator or leader will have access to data that he wouldn’t have had access to previously.” He continues that the site should help trainers look at problems differently even if they have completed certain tasks multiple times before.

In current operations, most training is top-down driven with units preparing to deploy receiving instruction on what training they will receive. “As the Army gets past these sets of particular problems, we’re going to need some resources that kind of go back to the basics of training … those are the kind of things we’re going to provide,” Davis explains. The ATN will try to reeducate the Army in training management as troops have more time stateside.

It also will help troops training for deployment to obtain lessons more rapidly from those already in the field. “When we first started in Iraq and Afghanistan, things  were changing so quickly in theater that there was no real mechanism for getting that information back to units who were getting ready to go,” Davis says. The ATN team is trying to make information available as soon as possible through the Web site so warfighters have a chance to train with the new data before they head overseas. “That’s where we think we’re going to have a big impact on the Army,” Davis states. Current plans do not include collaboration with other military branches in this effort, though Davis says that certainly is possible.

The overall goal is to make the ATN that one-stop shop for everything training, but the team members have several smaller goals along the way. One is to have a complete link from FM 7-0 to the how-to execution of that manual and the techniques for executing training. Another is to create packages of products for trainers and educators that they can use in their units. For example, if a trainer wants to know how to train a unit in its CMETL, he can go to the ATN and see doctrine from FM 7-0. Another product will show how to apply the doctrine (previously that would have been in FM 7-1), and from there the site will take him to examples of how the CMETL works on the Digital Training Management System and show him ways other units have developed CMETL. “It’s kind of a tutorial for lack of a better word,” Davis explains. “So that package will give them everything they need to know on a particular topic.” He adds that ATN will collect all the relevant pieces of information so users can grab what they need for their training requirements.

Davis says the team will call the ATN successful as long as it provides soldiers what they need in terms of training, and he believes the site has enough mechanisms built into the systems so users can tell the team what they want and need. “Really the bottom line is this is only going to be as good a Web site or as good a tool as trainers and educators make it,” he emphasizes. “It can’t be me and my team doing it. It’s got to be the trainers and educators. They’ve got to be the ones to provide the content, to provide the discussion, to provide the ideas for making this thing work.”

At least one user agrees wholeheartedly. 1st Lt. John Bacon, ARNG, the J-3 executive officer at the Ohio National Guard Joint Force Headquarters, believes the ATN is a good concept and says, “I think it has potential to become a very useful tool as long as people continue to contribute to it.” Lt. Bacon uses the ATN in two roles, more directly in his full-time job at the headquarters but also in his position as a company commander during his duty weekends. He shares that the site has made his jobs easier by giving him a point of reference to what might be common problems. It also enables him to find tools to enhance his ability to plan and execute training.

The lieutenant states that the ATN’s survival is based on people using and contributing to the site, and he definitely recommends it to everyone involved in training. Over the long term, he believes it will become a better reference for gaining and contributing knowledge. Lt. Bacon says the site saves him time and gives him new ideas as well as helps him think in new perspectives.

Recommendations he has for the site include adding the ability for users to rate products based on their usefulness and to enter comments about why they rated products as they did. “I’m thinking it would be on a five-star basis,” Lt. Bacon says. He also would like the capability to sort items and solutions based on those ratings.

Another feature he thinks would improve the site is a searchable database module that would allow users to enter multiple criteria such as keyword and date. It also would be helpful to add solution categories users could submit to receive solutions under specific headings—“basically like a drop-down way to categorize the solutions,” the lieutenant explains. He says the current database does not function that way, and he is interested to see if it will be used as a database or repository. Despite the change he suggests, the young soldier promotes the site as an advantage. “I think it’s a good tool, and we’ll see where it ends up going,” he shares. “I think it’s got potential.”

WEB RESOURCES
Army Training Network: https://atn.army.mil
Combined Arms Center-Training: http://usacac.army.mil/CAC2/cac-t/
Digital Training Management System: https://dtms.army.mil/
Ohio National Guard: http://ong.ohio.gov/