Learning about Emergent Learning, Part 1

The Evolution of After Action Reviews (AARs) at the U.S. Army

February 12, 2004

If you want to master organizational change, we recommend that you unleash the power of emergent learning in your organization. Start with After Action Reviews. This report--the first in a multipart series--describes the practice of After Action Reviews at the U.S. Army’s National Training Centers.

[(c) 2004 Signet Consulting Group. This article was excerpted from: From Post-Mortem to Living Practice: An In-Depth Study of the Evolution of the After Action Review, by Marilyn J. Darling and Charles S. Parry. First published by the Signet Consulting Group in 2000; Reprinted with Permission by the Patricia Seybold Group, Inc.]


"For America's Army the AAR was the key to turning the corner and institutionalizing organizational learning. You probably never become a learning organization in any absolute sense; it can only be something you aspire to, always 'becoming,' never truly 'being.' But, in the Army, the AAR has ingrained a respect for organizational learning, fostering an expectation that decisions and consequent actions will be reviewed in a way that will benefit both the participants and the organization, no matter how painful it may be at the time. The only real failure is the failure to learn." -- General Gordon Sullivan, U.S. Army (Retired)[1].

The After Action Review (AAR) is a technique that was originated by the U.S. Army to improve team performance by reflecting on action. The AAR is considered to be "arguably the major single influence on the revolution in training that took place in the U.S. Army in the more than twenty years following the end of the Vietnam War"[2]. AARs hold the promise of providing a straightforward way to improve performance and generate knowledge around virtually any challenge or opportunity, in virtually any group, whether in a military or civilian organization.

The AAR has gained the notice of organizational learning and knowledge management advocates in the civilian world. Our study has shown us, however, that what the AAR really is and what it represents is frequently misunderstood by outside observers. Some organizations that try to adopt the Army's practice have found that it is not as simple to copy successfully as it might at first appear.


We embarked on this study because, from our exposure to After Action Reviews as they are practiced at their source by the U.S. Army, we saw that the AAR practice offers an exemplary case of what we refer to as Emergent Learning in action.

By Emergent Learning, we mean a practice that a team or business unit uses to improve its planning and performance: one that is simple and repeated; one in which the team uses its own current challenges as its field for learning; and one which relies on tapping into its own experiences and shared thinking as the primary vehicle for improvement. With such a practice, learning "emerges" from the team's own work, rather than (or in addition to) coming from the traditional method of classroom education. An Emergent Learning practice creates immediate performance gains while simultaneously building a team's capacity for improvement. Simply put, Emergent Learning is about getting better at getting better by weaving learning into ongoing work.

The Structure of the U.S. Army
Table A. From Profile of the Army: A Reference Handbook, Institute of Land Warfare, 1997.

The idea of emergence is also about much coming from little: knowledge that builds little by little until it creates something greater in both quantity and quality than what was there to begin with[3].

Completely new knowledge and capabilities emerge over time as such a practice is applied over and over in the course of confronting day-to-day work challenges. What is learned in this way is always pragmatic and contextualized, and therefore of direct value to the enterprise.

Per a KPMG study on Knowledge Management[4], two of the top reasons why the benefits of knowledge management initiatives fail to meet expectations are: 1) "everyday use [is] not integrated into normal working practice;" and 2) there is a "lack of time to learn or [the] system [is] too complicated." As a knowledge-generating tool, After Action Reviews suffer from neither of these flaws. In the U.S. Army, the simplicity of the AAR has allowed its use to spread and take hold, both as a training tool and as a way of "doing business." The practice has become a verb: "Let's AAR that."

In reporting on a 1999 research project conducted for The Conference Board, Brian Hackett commented that, of all the knowledge management practices that have been implemented, the two that have so far created the greatest impact are the simplest: Communities of Practice[5] and After Action Reviews[6]. For 18 of his 30 years in the U.S. Army, Dr. Jack Beach taught at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point as Professor and Director of Psychology Programs in the Dept. of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership. Dr. Beach, now an Organization Leadership Consultant at IBM, calls AARs "probably one of the Army's best inventions."

Over the course of 19 years, the U.S. Army has turned this simple practice into a key tool for improving performance across all levels of leadership. Especially so at the Army's premiere training facility, the National Training Center (NTC) at Fort Irwin, California--a piece of land in the Mojave Desert the size of Rhode Island. In intensive one-month rotations, as many as 8,000 soldiers at once take part in a series of realistic battlefield scenarios, each time using the AAR to extract learning from their experience and apply it to the next day's battle.

Research Questions and Methods

The questions that interested us most were these:

  1. What is it that makes the AAR discipline deliver the kind of results the U.S. Army considers to be instrumental to its evolution as an institution?
  2. What must organizations in the civilian sector do to successfully adopt AARs as a learning practice?
  3. What light might the Army's best practice shed on the underlying principles for success in any discipline aimed at learning through experience?

The AAR, as it is practiced by the U.S. Army, does not exist in a vacuum. As with all "best" practices, this practice has both an "inside" and an "outside"[7].

The practice itself (the part most visible to outside observers) is the inside of the practice. At the surface level, the inside of the AAR practice seems straightforward enough--after an event, gather a group with a facilitator and answer a series of questions.

However, as the study will describe, the importance of the relationship between a practice and its environment--the "outside" of the practice--is often underestimated by outside observers...


1) Sullivan, Gordon and Harper, Michael, Hope is Not a Method (New York: Broadway Books), 1997, p. 193.

2) Chapman, Anne, The National Training Centre Matures, 1985-1993, TRADOC Historical Monograph Series, 1997, p. 218.

3) Holland, John, Emergence: From Chaos to Order (Reading: Perseus Books), 1998.

4) Reported in Knowledge Management, June 2000, p. 31.

5) Communities of Practice are informal groups that self-organize across formal organizational boundaries to develop their practice and share knowledge around a particular competency.

6) Reported in a Conference Board presentation on April 12, 2000.

7) Parry, C., Darling, M., Robbins, S., "Putting Best Practices into Practice," The Systems Thinker, Pegasus Communications, Inc., Vol. 8, No. 10, Dec. 1997.


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