Understand and efficiently interact with the human environment in operations is a critical ability that defense personnel must acquire and maintain.

Even if the legitimate use of kinetic force remains the most specific task assigned to western armed forces, the achievement of operational and strategic objectives also demands that the military conduct a wide  array of other tasks bringing them closer to the people. This is due to both the complexity of the environment and to the nature of operations. Local actors and populations’ support and collaboration are indeed critical in missions such as counterinsurgency, stabilization, reconstruction or security forces assistance. In addition, today’s communication technology and its resulting social dynamics bring each military in direct contact with the whole connected world while their actions immediately impact the global public opinion. In return, the soldiers’ opinions and behavior are also impacted, as anyone is, by the fierce information warfare waged over the internet as a prominent component of any today’s world level crisis.

In response to this need, many capabilities and assets have been developed and continue to be developed in order to keep up with the  evolving requirements stemming from a highly dynamic environment.

The development of the Human Environment Capability is tackled by the Future Solutions Branch at NATO Allied Command Transformation.

Tools to understand and efficiently interact with the Human Environment

In June 2012 more than one hundred experts gathered in a NATO workshop and addressed the questions of “What aspects of the Human Environment need to be understood and influenced?” and “What are the tools we need to develop in order to achieve the expected outcomes?”

A series of recommendations were produced. They include the development of a flat organized communication and collaboration platform, network type, to support communication, relationship building and collaboration between NATO, its operational partners and the human environment.

The necessary components of this platform are web communication tools combined to a face to face engagement expert capability.

Since then, Allied Command Transformation has been designing and implementing assets that meet the requirements. While several are still in development, three of them are readily available to anyone in military and defense organizations: 

- The Innovation Hub Online Collaboration Platform

- The Extended Hand Cross-Cultural Skills Development Tool

- The NATO Social Media User Open Online Course

Innovation Hub: Online Collaboration Platform

Efficient online communication and collaboration between military or defense personnel and anyone else beyond time and space constraints is what the Innovation Hub offers. People who are willing to collaborate with NATO are entitled to join the Innovation Hub community and get an account on its online collaborative platform. Any topic relevant to NATO can be addressed at the Innovation Hub from the discussion of shared interests and the development of  collaborative initiatives to the design and implementation of new solutions. New projects stem either  from the community members or from the NATO priorities. While many Innovation Hub projects are directly linked to human aspects such as the Gender Focus Project or the NATO Social Media Project, all the projects contribute to improve NATO’s interaction with people online and leveraging social networks. The various functions of the platform include brainstorming, community building, collaborative solution design, improved videoconferencing and social learning. Its tools and functions are available to all members and to any project supporting NATO’s priorities. As such, individuals can join the community to collaborate on projects while institutions can partner with the Innovation Hub to launch new projects. More information at InnovationHub-act.org

Extended Hand: Cross-Cultural Skills Development Tool

 Acquiring the needed cross-cultural communication skills which lead to building trusted relationships with people from other cultures requires coordinated and sustained efforts. Even if nations have, for example, flown Afghan people to Europe in order to support troops' pre-deployment training, it is not the most cost effective solution to be offered to all personnel. Today, only basic skills are acquired before deployment. Skills acquisition and relationship building are thus delayed, and mostly happen through onsite interactions with local actors during a deployment. Unfortunately, these onsite interactions are still significantly constrained by time, distance and security considerations.

ACT Delivers a Solution

This is why Allied Command Transformation (ACT) has developed a solution that allows military personnel to acquire cross-cultural communication skills, and build relationships with people from areas of interest through online video communication. Compared to onsite interaction, online conversations offer several advantages. First, they allow improved pre-deployment training. Second, they can reach out to people not otherwise accessible. Third, they are cheaper (in money and time) than to have to gather people in a physical location, and impose no risk to military personnel. Of course, if not properly structured, a conversation over the internet may not be as efficient as an onsite engagement. This is why ACT offers a solution where highly
trained facilitators guide the conversations and ensure that the audiences receive maximum benefit in the form of improved skills development and relationship building. This solution is called Extended Hand.

Embracing the Extended Hand

Extended Hand started developing in 2012 when it was realized that the Penn State University World in Conversation model could be applied to a military setting and, by doing so, would meet some operational requirements.

An Improved and Unlimited Platform

Thanks to a fruitful collaboration between ACT Future Solutions Branch, the World in Conversation staff, and the US Army ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) leadership at Penn State University, a first pilot module was run in November 2012. It consisted of conversations between US Army cadets and people from Iran and Palestine. After five years of intercultural online dialogues, World in Conversation was able to provide high-level expert facilitators to guide the conversations. This pilot demonstrated both the feasibility and the benefit of such an innovative solution. Based on this initial success, Extended Hand was refined into a no-risk, cheap and easy-to-use platform that meets the demand of military education and pre-deployment training. The tool is now offered to all nations.

Upon request, Extended Hand staff will discuss with candidate national institutions and tailor the platform to their specific needs. This is already happening with ten NATO nations. Thanks to the network built by World in Conversation, it is already possible to engage with countries such as Iran, Palestine, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti and China. The final objective is to connect military education and training institutions with any place in the world. There is almost no limit to the Extended Hand outreach.

Watch video and find more information at InnovationHub-act.org/ExtendedHand

NATO Social Media User Open Online Course

No technology has ever impacted more the social interactions than social media. When considering the 21st century Human Environment there is no option but to dedicate much attention to the social media phenomenon since it is intertwined with the life of half of the world population. It has also become the space and the weapon of the information battles that now come with any major conflict. Should we fail to properly use the social media to our advantage, this space would be left open to use by our adversaries and negative messaging and ideas would proliferate and undermine the public support in operational theatres, within our nations, and within the global public opinion.

In addition, failing to be present in the social media environment would cut the military off the populations they are meant to protect. Therefore, it is important that as many people as possible are willing and able to efficiently and safely use the social media in support of NATO and its nations’ defense, peace and stability goals. The NATO Social Media User Course increases NATO and nations’ personnel’s proficiency in the  use of Social Media, and gathers the NATO social media users in a community that multiplies their impact and where they can find support.

Who should you take the course?

Those who have never used the social media will be guided through their first steps. They will receive all the information and skills to ensure that they safely and efficiently start using the social media privately or to support NATO’s goals through the social media.

Those who don't want to use Social Media but still want to understand them are able to follow the lessons. After passing the theory test they also get the “Social Media Awareness Certificate”.

Those who have already been using the social media for a while will learn how to always stay safe and how to best use the social media in support of NATO and their nation’s goals.

What is taught?

The course explains all the principles needed to achieve the learning objectives and illustrates them with real life example and case studies.

The priority is set on the skills acquisition through a large amount of assignments and practical guided exercises conducted in a simulated environment, then in the very cyber information world.

A part of the course focuses on real case studies such as Ukraine and ISIS, how to understand and how to react as an efficient defense social media user.

How is it organized?

The course is composed of digital material available on the website, live sessions and recorded lessons given by expert instructors, monitored exercises.

The course is provided free online and can be taken anytime, anywhere, at any pace.

Watch promotion video and find more information at: InnovationHub-act.org/SMcourse

What is next?

NATO Cross Cultural Awareness Massive Open Online Course

Various institutions are providing cultural awareness training, but many defense personnel are still unable to access it or get the most out of it. It is NATO’s role to help bridge this gap. This is why a massive open online course will be developed and offered free to all.

Its aims are to provide easy to access efficient training, but also to provide the experts with the outreach they deserve, including all defense personnel within NATO, nations and their partners.

Starting this fall, experts in the field will gather in an online campaign and design the course content so that it meets the operational requirements and national expectations.

To make sure that the course is highly efficient even if conducted online, it will leverage the social learning techniques that proved excellent in generating rich interpersonal interaction between participants and instructors during the Massive Open Online NATO Social Media Course.

The course will provide knowledge but will also focus on practice through online intercultural video dialogues facilitated by experts in intercultural communication.