Steve Knode is steering an open-air rig across treacherous terrain. The hills are steep and endless. The dusty red soil swallows the vehicle's tires. The temperature is 200 degrees below zero.
But Knode isn't nervous. And neither are his passengers — even though they're navigating the surface of Mars. Everyone is confident because Knode is in the driver's seat. Or make that DRiViR's seat, for Decision Room Incorporating Virtual Reality, a high-tech simulation facility at the National Defense University.
The NDU campus is unremarkable — a collection of drab military buildings set in Washington, DC. But its curriculum and teaching methods are downright revolutionary. Knode and his colleagues are thinking about war in a world where the battlefield has shifted from land, sea, and air to the realms of cyberspace. The lesson plans they're writing are designed to shape the future of combat — and competition.
"You fight the way you organize for business," says NDU Professor Robert Neilson. In the Industrial Age, armies fought with machine guns and tanks. In the Information Age, Neilson says, "information will be both a weapon and a target."
Indeed, the heart of NDU is its Information Resources Management College. And the heart of the IRM College is its Advanced Management Program, a three-and-a-half month learning bootcamp. Students are picked by the military services, the Department of Defense, private companies, and foreign governments. They travel to Washington for an intense overview of how digital technologies are changing war, business, and society itself.
Fifty students attend each session of the AMP, and the college holds two sessions a year. Everything about the program integrates the new realities of 21st-century combat with the new logic of business. The students come from both worlds. Oracle, Corning, IBM, and Eastman Kodak have all sent executives through AMP. Courses include Virtual Reality for Managers and Innovative Thinking for the Information Age.
"We take students out of their usual environments and build a new culture in their minds," says Robert Childs, dean of faculty at the IRM College.
What really sets NDU apart is not what students learn but how they learn it. Students spend time in the classroom wrestling with big ideas about the future of work and strategy. But they also venture into the real world to see those ideas in action. The best way to learn, says Childs, "is to get your boots dirty." And the best place to get your boots dirty is on the front lines of competition.
Last winter, for example, AMP students traveled to Cisco Systems to experience how the booming Silicon Valley company does strategic planning. Their key finding: It doesn't, at least not in the conventional sense. The competitive environment is changing so quickly that Cisco focuses more on adapting to change than planning for it.
NDU's learning model also emphasizes teamwork and group problem solving. Every student who enters AMP receives a laptop stuffed with groupware and hooked up to a wireless communications network. All course materials are stored on a Lotus Notes database complete with customized software that can connect to libraries around the world. Students use this turbo-charged learning platform to collaborate on projects and brainstorm solutions to case studies.
"One of the best things you can do to help students learn is leave them alone," says Neilson. "Just get out of the way."
That's what's happening now. Students are sitting behind a horseshoe table, laptops pulsing. Nameplates reveal officials from the Environmental Protection Agency, Boeing, the FBI, even the Philippine Navy. A large screen connected to the LAN dominates the classroom's front wall, and students use their laptops to "go to the blackboard," offering answers, suggesting new options, challenging each other.
Next, a group stages a simulation. A company's nationwide computer network is on the fritz. Professor Knode, the virtual-reality guru, flashes the network's connections on a wall-sized map of the United States. The group determines that the source of the problem is a node in New York, and in a flash they're there. A few mouse clicks later, they've entered the building that houses the problem server — and then the server itself. Working entirely with virtual reality the students see problems in a new light and take a collective crack at solving them.
"Sometimes it makes more sense to 'fly into' the data than to just look at a printout," says Knode, a former Air Force lieutenant colonel.
"The program made me rethink much of what we do here," says Jack North from his office at GTE, the telecommunications giant. North was one of the first nongovernmental students to graduate from the IRM College. Inspired by what he learned, he returned to his company and quickly installed groupware applications and desktop videoconferencing to promote collaboration in the health systems division he runs.
That's NDU's definition of victory. AMP graduates bring their digital course materials back to their organizations so they can transfer what they've learned to the people they work with. If they encounter an issue they studied at NDU, they can launch Lotus Notes or PowerPoint and deliver the very presentation that one of their professors made in class. The program "produces a whole group of managers who are ready to go back and become change agents," says GTE's North. "There's a lot of down-and-dirty practical reality."
Daniel H. Pink (email@example.com) is chief speechwriter to Vice President Al Gore. You can visit NDU on the Web, http://www.ndu.edu.
A version of this article appeared in the June/July 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.