An Obligation to Those Who Serve: Criticisms of #Talent Management


Previously, I argued that the Army could both get more from the force and improve its position in the labor market by adopting talent management, a human resource system that is premised upon the knowledge, skills and behaviors that make everyone unique. This post examines two common critiques of talent management’s value for the military. However, instead of invalidating talent management, critics’ arguments suggest two important principles for its application: first, the Army must not forget its obligation to the soldier and, second, it must proceed cautiously, carefully considering reform’s impact on the selflessness that characterizes our profession.

In the first critique, critics rightly point out that the obligation between employer and employee is fundamentally different in the civilian job market. For example, private employees need not serve in “bad” jobs and private employers need not develop their employees for better jobs. Talent management, by increasing the information available to employers and employees, could enable employers to hire talent instead of develop talent and employees to look for a different job instead of taking the “bad” job. If talent management necessarily diminished obligation, then adopting it in the military would lead to a force that is less willing to do “bad” jobs and an Army less willing to invest in its force.

In fact, with the right focus, the Army can use talent management to strengthen obligation. For example, since talent management tells members much more information about available jobs, they can see beyond a “bad” location to the benefits of the job itself. Likewise, with more information about the force, assignment officers can facilitate both better training and better assignments. When the Army assigned officers using a talent management tool called Green Pages, officers were 34% more likely to receive their top choice, not because the Army suddenly got rid of “bad” assignments but because, with more information, officers’ choices changed. Therefore, rather than suggest that talent management cannot work in the military, this critique emphasizes that, as it reforms the system, the Army must not forget its obligation to its people.

The second critique directly indicts the emphasis upon uniqueness and individuality that distinguishes talent management from current Army practice. While uniqueness and individuality might fuel success in business, it is fair to be skeptical about their application to a profession with a tradition of selfless service. How, the critic asks, can the Army build a personnel system premised upon individuality when the heroes of Army myth sacrificed without thought for themselves?

To this criticism, there are two responses. First, while myth plays an important role in inspiring the troops, it can also cloud judgment. It does not diminish the sacrifice of Eisenhower/Marshall/Patton to acknowledge that they each had unique contributions to the fight that differed from everyone else. Unless the Army desires a system without difference at all, then it must acknowledge that the goal must not be perfect selflessness, but some selflessness. Talent management simply moves the boundary closer to individuality than its current place in myth.

Still, recognizing that talent management involves adjusting an important boundary suggests a second response; careful calibration and study while applying talent management to the force. In this spirit, the Army has carefully implemented three trials: the Army Green Pages, a new branching model at West Point and the Career Satisfaction Program. All three efforts show no discernible impact on soldiers’ sense of selflessness or obligation.

While critics are right to urge caution in adopting a change of this magnitude, the response to these two concerns suggests that the Army can move towards talent management as long as it remembers its obligations to the soldier and remains conscious of the importance of selflessness to our profession. While further concerns will inevitably manifest, this reform can both unleash an array of productive capabilities and improve the Army’s competitive position against the private sector for America’s best. Most importantly, in an uncertain future, talent management will help the Army get the right person in the right place at the right time.


John Childress is a U.S. Army Strategist. The views expressed belong to the author alone and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


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