Veteran soldier pioneers knowledge-based and network-centric NCO corps
By Patrick A. Swan

WASHINGTON (Army News Service) -- About once a month on a Sunday afternoon around the world, NCOs -- the Army’s backbone – stiffen up and listen up to the guidance of its senior enlisted soldiers.

While they can’t all get together physically, they can assemble virtually, courtesy of the online “chat” room at www.squad-leader.com.

“At any one time – not just during the once-monthly chats -- we have many topics of interest going on in the leadership forum,” said Commander Sergeant Maj. Dan Elder, a brigade sergeant major at Fort Riley, Kan., and the brainchild behind squad-leader.com, dubbed “the first NCO community of interest on the world wide web.”

“NCOs continue to take advantage of this new and exciting medium and the products we offer,” Elder said.

In the past quarter, for instance, NCOs assembled online to receive and discuss Command Sergeant Maj. Cliff West’s insights on the US Army Sergeants Major Academy. Before that, Command Sergeant Maj. Cynthia Pritchett, CSM for the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., entertained questions about NCO promotion-board procedures, the NCOs role in transformation and the importance of a professional military and civilian education. And a first sergeant, Rudy Romero, from a company in the 101st Airborne Division, gave an interview on lessons learned from recent operations in Afghanistan.

Established in 1997, squad-leader.com hosts a message board, an online chat room, a Squad Leaders Tool Kit, instant messaging, and links of interest for all NCOs. It also hosts the Virtual Battalion Headquarters, a collection of web destinations catalogues by functional staff section similar to a battalion’s staff.

The site has online mentoring opportunities staffed by peer-mentors and provides almost real-time feedback to soldiers seeking information and advice. A companion site is FirstSergeant.com, targeted to the “Top” soldier.

The current suite of websites are an outgrowth of the popular portal, The NCO Website. It began on the free server Geocities in April of 1997and has been transformed to the mega-site seen today. Elder currently owns three URLs, Squad-leader.com, eArmyHQ.com and vBnHQ.com and has control and management over FirstSergeant.com.

“Some of our current discussions are on the ‘Objective Force soldier,” Elder said. “We are discussing a scenerio with SGM Danny Hubbard of Training and Doctrine Command that is based on the future soldier of 2012. It makes for a good read on what may come in the future.”

“What Dan Elder launched on his own has intersected with the Army’s transformational vision to leverage the immense potential of the World Wide Web in stewarding and applying knowledge,” said Dr. Rick Morris, Office of Strategic Partnering, Chief Information Office/G-6, at the Pentagon. “What CSM Elder has created is now being woven into the Army system of systems with his continued involvement. His work shows how innovations from the field by a fiercely dedicated and self-sacrificing soldier can trigger transformation that meets critical requirements for the entire Army, for today and tomorrow.”

Soldiers visiting the site also voiced their approval.

“What a brilliant idea and concept,” said Spc. Michelle E. Burtt, C 426 FSB at Fort Campbell, Ky. “As a specialist with a future promotion to E-5 I wanted to join and learn from NCO's about the things they deal with on a daily basis.

“For many years soldiers were dependent upon their NCO's and monthly counselings to learn about the Army; that was your only connection. Now in the 21st Century that connection just became world wide,” Burtt said. “I have had to post several questions and I received accurate and speedy replies to my questions.”

Added Sgt. Jason A. Menocal, administrative aide to the Director of Management on the Army Staff at the Pentagon: “These websites are a great source of information for all NCOs and soldiers.”

“I first stumbled across the NCO website a couple of years ago, and it
has become part of my online ritual,” said Staff Sgt. Duane K.L. France, via an email message. “Not only is it a virtual meeting place and open forum for the free exchange of military related ideas, it is an actual connection in reality. Due to this website, I maintain a contact with two NCOs...one stationed in Virginia, one stationed in Korea...who I will probably never see. This website brings soldiers
together, literally as well as figuratively. I check it multiple times throughout the day, asking questions, answering questions, keeping up discussion and thinking about the philosophy of leadership.

“What we are doing is not that much different than in the old days, when senior NCOs would gather the troops around for a ‘bull’ session,” Elder said. “What is different is that now we can do this on a much global scale and include soldiers from all over the Army, not just one particular unit. And, because it is online, we can keep a record of what we discuss so new visitors to the site can learn from what we discussed.”

Elder’s sites pre-date Army Knowledge Online, www.us.army.mil, which is less than a year old in its present incarnation. He said he’s glad to see in AKO many of the same type of helpful features, such as collaboration centers, chat rooms and the like which his sites have pioneered for soldiers. And he said he intends to link his sites to AKO to enhance the cross-sharing of knowledge among NCOs.

“Just linking Dan's sites to AKO is useful and necessary,” Morris said. “But it is just a transitional step of a sea change in self-development and knowledge-support for NCOs that Dan launched. Our job is to bring it home in the system of systems without messing it up.

According to Morris, Elder’s work is a forerunner and inspiration of an umbrella community of practice, called NCO.mil, for the Army NCO corps.

“This summer, the sergeant major of the Army approved the concept plan, which Dan helped develop, for this community this summer,” Morris said. “Work has begun through the Warrior Knowledge Network to design and implement an online Warrior Development Center within Army Knowledge Online. This will include, besides NCO.mil, the highly successful company commander and platoon leader communities already established under AKO and now migrating from the commercial to the military domain, as well as a community of practice for battalion commanders under development at Fort Leavenworth.

“The NCO.mil concept that Dan inspired and helped to shape is to establish nested communities for sergeants in various leadership positions to provide an online capability to create, expand, and exchange knowledge relevant to Army NCOs and to provide a lifelong learning capability,” Morris continued. “With the SMA's mentorship, efforts are now underway to stand up the capability in AKO in conjunction with the Army Staff, West Point, the Combined Arms Center, and the Sergeant Majors Academy.

“Dan Elder's story is the story of transformational leadership -- the quiet heroism of going way above and beyond to get the Army ready for war, with results that change history for the better,” Morris concluded.

(Patrick Swan, Patrick.Swan@us.army.mil, writes for the CIO/G-6.)