Photo by Alan Quevy, 82nd Training Wing Public Affairs


The appetite for new technology in military training is ravenous, and—for those of us who served in an era of overhead transparency projectors—watching senior leadership at the Pentagon break down barriers to acquiring new educational technology can be exciting. Challenges which invite newcomers to the table are a welcome change to the procedural bottlenecks and regulatory bureaucracy which has historically limited innovation and kept service members training for modern warfare with antiquated materiel. If, though, you find yourself concerned that this race for shiny new widgets has potential for costly mistakes, you’re not alone.

The progressive emergence of military shark tank incubators has allowed small businesses to help defense with big ideas through a streamlined funding process—definitely a good thing—yet it remains to be seen if empirical research is being considered before investing in untested or unproven training methods, or if the military will learn from previous mistakes and cut losses with the same rapid approach. Understandably, the military is actively attempting to push the gaming industry to help with their desire for new technology—an industry filled with companies expertly geared towards maximizing consumer results for continued revenue. This, too, may be cause for concern since the gaming industry’s strategy of rapid consumer growth with little regard for potential harm requires their products to be engaging to the extent of neurological consequences—not necessarily to have a learning objective, and certainly not built upon a framework of educational theory.

“We’ve seen that the gaming technology is advancing at a rate far faster than we can probably keep up with,” said Maj. Gen. Maria Gervais, Deputy Commanding General, U.S. Army Combined Arms Center. “We want to understand what is in the realm of the possible, and work with innovative small businesses and academia.”

Admitting the technology is advancing faster than the pace of military acquisition processes is only half the battle, the rest of the battle lies in acknowledging—and avoiding—these 4 mistakes:

Mistake #1: Establishing technological objectives instead of training objectives. Professor DeGraff, innovation advisor for the DOD, says that innovation doesn’t mean technology…it means abnormal. In order to truly innovate, leaders have to stop looking at new technology that does the same thing. Statements of work for military bids periodically include lines such as “must include virtual reality” without consideration for the mission requirements it needs to fulfill. Seeing new technology and trying to find an application for it is a backwards mistake costing taxpayers millions.

The solution: Start by identifying the unsolved problem. Finding technology for the resolution of a detailed challenge is a valid approach and can help deliver value without losing sight of original goals.


Mistake #2: Investing in prototype technology without having a theoretical framework for evaluation. For example, a recent peer-reviewed systematic evaluation of technology in higher education found that 68% of usage studies lacked any applied framework in learning theory and 46% lacked an empirical evaluation method. This alarming figure is compounded by the fact that it only includes the technology that was actually studied, and then published. This would imply there is an even greater percentage of completely untested technology being used.

The solution: Choose a theoretical framework for research based on specific learning objectives. Effective research begins with questions, hypotheses, and methods. Ensuring academia occupies a seat at the table is essential.


Mistake #3: Investing in technology without consideration of existing contrary research. Features can be described by new users as “good” and “cool” and create a fun experience but can inhibit training—or in some cases, create deep cognitive scars. A positive user experience does not infer a positive training effect. According to the Army, “in military scenarios, the problem can adversely affect the learning experience or lead to negative habit transfer if a soldier can’t realistically take cover or if a vehicle crew is hindered from accurately aiming and firing on an enemy position.” This is seen in recent funding of technology that demonstrates improper weapon handling due to the requirement to wear headsets. Additional studies have shown that some technology applications have cognitive and structural impact on the brain, to include “negative effects on social information processing.” This is particularly significant when using video games for training law enforcement components of the military where social cues are critical towards de-escalation.

The solution: Conduct a thorough and critical literature review of existing science on the subject or technology being evaluated, reveal potentially detrimental information, evaluate its merits, and then consider if it is worth dismissing. AFRL BG Heather Pringle, an academic herself, knows first-hand what researchers bring to the fight and will undoubtedly ensure their role is prominent.


Mistake #4: Wildly grasping for innovation without applying constraints. According to research: “…when there are no constraints on the creative process, complacency sets in, and people follow what psychologists call the path-of-least-resistance – they go for the most intuitive idea that comes to mind rather than investing in the development of better ideas.” Instead of forcing open-ended creativity and getting costly and useless results, it is significantly more productive to specify inputs, processes, and outputs.

The solution: Focus efforts, narrowing on objectives and results. Identify risks and rewards, and achieve real creativity with a return on investment. Ask specific questions and make smaller, wider bets.


Avoidance of these four mistakes and adhering to thorough guidelines for evaluation could have helped the Department of Defense avoid costly lingering blunders like DSTS, and, more recently, SAM-T. Innovation takes more than just forward-thinking, it takes disruption which requires transformative leadership with a diversity and growth mindset. We need prototypes, we need academic research, and we need technological innovations—but technical innovation doesn’t change culture.

The scramble we first need to focus on—the vital effort that needed to be done yesterday—is an investment in the education of those evaluating and using these tools. Focus first on leaders, and the instructors charged with implementing their training objectives. Create a culture of diverse and empowered thinkers. Establish systematic processes which involve creative and critical thinking skills. Only then will innovation bring about growth.



A version of this article was originally published by Security Forces Magazine:

VerPlanck, J. (2021), 4 Mistakes in Military Innovation and How to Avoid Them: What Research Tells Us, Security Forces Magazine, 30(1), pp26-28.