Operationally Effective Talent Management

I have read a lot of reporting about ISIL, but one BBC Radio report caught my ear. The reporter was living with Peshmerga forces in the eastern Iraqi city of Khanaqin and discussing the pitched battles with ISIL to their west in the town of Jalula. As I listened to the reporting, vivid images came to mind of both of these towns and the terrain features surrounding them. The imagery came to mind because I spent over a year of my life fighting against Sunni and Shia extremists across the province of Diyala and had spent time in both of these cities – one a Kurdish safe haven from violence and the other a former retreat for Republican Guard officers and, thus, a Sunni insurgent stronghold. The reporting further described U.S. efforts and the advisory missions taking place.

I was immediately struck with guilt for not being there and not contributing to this effort. I realized I had unique knowledge about the area, the people and the fight. Not singularly unique because I can easily rattle off hundreds of Soldiers and leaders who shared that ground with me that deployment during ‘the surge,’ but unique in that I believe there are not many left in the Army today who can describe the micro details and dynamics of the individual areas. This led me to reflect on the Army’s talent management systems and how I believe they fail our senior leaders during times of operational need, like this.

Today there are a couple thousand U.S. Soldiers on the ground in Iraq providing advisory support and security. While I do not have the data, an educated guess would say scores of them are on their first deployment and even more are in Iraq for their first time. The last of our combat formations left Iraq at the end of 2011. With the surge in Afghanistan and natural attrition, Iraq experience, while still plentiful, is not ubiquitous. Just from that tour in Diyala, I can think of one brigadier general, three colonels, some lieutenant colonels and a couple handful of majors who have intimate knowledge of the area reported in the radio spot I listened to two days ago. And yet I know none of us are there now. I am confident this is the same for each of the frontlines of the ISIL ground fight. And why is this?

The Army and the DoD include some efficient entities, and bureaucracy is not a dirty word when it keeps the over 2 million active and reserve force personnel in uniform, paid on time, well fed, equipped, etc. But we can do better in our understanding of the human capital we possess. The analytical engines available today allow us to rapidly aggregate vast quantities of data and then to query it for the information we need. Perhaps it is time we look at the data we keep in our human resource inventory to better manage our human capital. If someone had called looking for a depth of knowledge and experience on a certain region or cast of characters in various regions of Iraq, I have no doubt plenty of Soldiers and Marines could have been found and would have gladly raised their hands to assist.

Our systems and processes select a trained unit and whomever may be in it, and send them to execute the mission. In large part, that works very well. But when numbers are limited, the operational effectiveness and contributions of every person is essential. When 101st Airborne Division commander got the call to lead operations in Western Africa, I wonder how many calls he received from human resource managers in the DoD to offer up personnel in uniform they’re tracking as having been born in one of the West African nations or who speak various dialects of the region or who have done missionary work in that area of the world in their pre-military life. I am unaware of a system that queries that information or a process by which this information is offered to senior leaders when they must make decisions quickly.

At the end of the day, we are called to win our nation’s wars, whatever those wars may be – fighting pandemic, halting radical remit, or protecting the homeland. When resources get tighter and organizations get smaller, managing our human capital becomes a critical component of operational effectiveness. It is encouraging to hear Army senior leaders talk about talent management, DOPMA reform, and the human dimension because it is essential to remaining relevant in today and tomorrow’s national security environment.

Brett Sylvia is a combat engineer in the U.S. Army scheduled to take command of 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), next summer. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S, Government.

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Header Image: People walk through the market area in Erbil, Iraq. Tens of thousands of displaced Iraqis and Syrians have converged on the ancient city after fleeing fighting in their hometowns. Photo found at NorthCountryPublicRadio.org.