Balancing theory and practice in security training is essential. Specifically for field skills, instruction based solely on theory is rarely effective. In a domain where hands-on experience is just as important as heads-on information, one cannot effectively learn decision making from instructors who have not actually had to make some hard decisions on the ground themselves.
“In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.”
Not all experienced security people are good instructors. But all good security instructors are experienced people.
When it comes to teaching security tactics and strategies, absolutely nothing replaces the instructor’s experience of many hours, days and weeks working on the ground within the particular security vertical being taught.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for “book learning”, too. A degree in security or risk management from a good university is a definite plus to any instructor’s knowledge base and CV. Courses from a military college or a good civilian training program certainly may be helpful as well. But in my opinion, unless an instructor has worked the shifts and made real decisions in real settings, he simply cannot be an effective trainer in field skills.
Case in point: Surveillance detection and protective surveillance training
The theory-practice gap is even more pronounced when teaching skills that require knowledge beyond what needs to be done, and also involves insight into why certain practices are important or even mission-critical.
Teaching a list of things-to-do is one thing. Providing learning experiences that enable trainees to understand why certain tactics make best practice – and which adaptations work and don’t work – is something else all together.
When learning specialist skills such as Surveillance Detection (SD) or Protective Surveillance (PS), this difference between theoretical and practical learning is exacerbated ten-fold. To illustrate this, let’s briefly examine some key points related to surveillance detection training.
A fundamental starting point for any SD operation is identifying the possible and probable surveillance points that a hostile may select. Of course, anyone (and any instructor) can surmise that one such surveillance point would be right across the street from the protectee’s home. But who would you rather have on your SD team, someone who has trained with an instructor who knows the list of probable surveillance points, or with an instructor who has conducted actual surveillance and surveillance detection operations, facing a real adversary and thus would be able to impart knowledge that would help defend against much higher level adversary than what an amateur surveillant might attempt?
Another example is knowing when and where to conduct an operation. An EP agent may be required to provide 24/7 protection for a client, while a covert PS or SD agent may be more effective only at selected times and locations. Having the covert team in the field at unnecessary times could result in over exposure and place the entire protective effort in jeopardy by indicating to the adversary that there are indeed security personnel to be dealt with. This could result in the security team losing its tactical advantage, relegate them to a reactionary role, and greatly dilute their proactive capability. The “right” times may be the result of combining “text book” times with a gut feel derived from years of experience.
The examples are endless, as instructors who have both their theoretical and practical foundations in order already know. It is these instructors who can answer participants’ questions from first-hand experience. It is also these instructors who are confident enough to learn from the participants as well, and thus continue to develop their training skills.
Unless the instructor has practical experience himself, he simply cannot impart knowledge to the students about thought processes and feelings in a given scenario, or how to build on lessons learned. One cannot pass on knowledge about lessons learned if one has not learned them first-hand.
The takeaway: Make it a practice to check up on praxis
The point of this post is simple: Before committing to an instructor, consultant or manager for a security function, check and double check that he not only knows how to talk the talk, but that he also has walked the walk.
The lull of routine activities might help hide this lack of operational experience on most days, but have no doubt: When crunch time comes to protection, training based on too much theory and too little practice quickly becomes apparent. We don’t have the luxury of being too easily satisfied by theory-based protection training, but we do have the liability.