INNOvation vs modernization

Deconflating key terms for army professionals

innovation vs modernization

Deconflating key terms for army professionals

By Katy Person | Fall 2022

[These are the opinions of the author and not representative of MIT nor the US Army.]


MIT’s Professor Fiona Murray and Dr. Phil Budden offer a concise definition of ‘innovation’ in their paper entitled, “An MIT Approach to Innovation: eco/systems, capacities and stakeholders” – 

Innovation is the process of taking an idea from inception to impact.

The authors go on to state that innovation is exclusively a process that marries a problem with a solution to create impact. Similarly, Major General H.R. McMaster offered this definition of innovation – with army context – in a speech he delivered at the 2015 AUSA Global Force Symposium – 

We define innovation in the Army Operating Concept as really our ability to turn ideas into valued outcomes and then also to be able to do that in a way that we stay ahead of determined, and increasingly capable enemies.

Both definitions share commonalities – (1) innovation begins with an idea and (2) innovation results in impact (as in Budden and Murray’s definition) or valued outcomes (as in McMaster’s definition).

However McMaster couches his definition within an unrelated army context and defines innovation as an ability, which assumes innovation is some kind of personal characteristic or trait. This is consistent with the Army’s definition of innovation as outlined in ADP 6-22, a publication about leadership, where the document describes innovation as a component of intellect.

 Innovation describes the ability to introduce or implement something new.

ADP 6-22. Table 4-1 lists Innovation as:

  • Ability to introduce new ideas based on opportunities or challenging circumstances.
  • Creativity in producing ideas and objects that are both novel and appropriate.

I disagree with innovation being some kind of permanent characteristic or personal trait. While sometimes we may feel ‘innovative’ from time to time, that is a temporary state and only reaps benefits after an innovative team works through a process to achieve a valued outcome or impact. Much of the literature within the science of innovation similarly defines innovation as a process. Regardless, I think it’s worth noting that (1) MG H.R. McMaster’s definition is quite similar to Budden and Murray’s, and (2) there is precedence within army definitions to couch the term as a personal characteristic.



Modernization is “the process of adapting something to modern needs or habits“. Within the context of military equipment, ‘modernization’ is the continuous process of upgrading the existing force in an effort to overmatch adversaries. (Within the context of the Department of Defense, this process likely encompasses some portions of the three key Force Modernization decision-making processes – the Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System (JCIDS), the Defense Acquisitions System (DAS), and Planning Programming, Budgeting and Execution (PPBE)).

Within the arena of materiel (military equipment), ‘modernization’ is the continuous process of upgrading Major Defense Acquisitions Programs (MDAPs) by incorporating new technologies into technical areas that have reached obsolescence. This is my own definition. As an Army Acquisitions Officer by training, I associate the term ‘modernization’ with technology; however I acknowledge that this lens is not holistic when compared to a Force Management lens.

The Army offers descriptions in a few documents, including (1) Army Regulation 71-9 Warfighting Capabilities Determination and (2) the 2019 Army Modernization Strategy.

For example, Army Regulation 71-9 states:

The Army modernization process enables delivery of quality solutions to Soldiers to ensure future mission success.

Similarly, the 2019 Army Modernization Strategy refers to modernization as a “continuous process requiring collaboration across the entire Army.

Within the army, the term ‘modernization’ has become an abridged term referencing a very complex and specific organizational strategy and framework, i.e. the Army Modernization Strategy (AMS), which is distinct from a definition of ‘modernization’. As stated in the 2019 AMS:

The Army Modernization Strategy (AMS) describes how the Total Army – Regular Army, National Guns, Army Reserve, and Army Civilians – will transform into a multi-domain force by 2035, meet its enduring responsibility as part of the Joint Force to provide for the defense of the United States, and retain its position as the globally dominant land power.