This article is another in the series titled, The #Human Project: Professional Views on the Army’s Human Dimension White Paper.
The Human Dimension (HD) White Paper, recently published by the Combined Arms Center, provides a framework for optimizing human performance that broadly outlines three lines of effort (ways) and six means for improving the Army’s Human Capital. Successfully implementing this framework, like any organizational change effort, will require getting one or two “big things” right. For the Human Dimension, the “big things” are evaluations and assignments. These issues affect behavior both consciously and unconsciously, and together provide the greatest influence on talent development and management.
The HD framework discusses talent management and development in three categories: Education, Professional and Leader Development, and Talent Acquisition and Management (p16). I link these categories due to their interconnectedness — changes to one dramatically affect the others. While interconnectedness applies for other traits, the relationship here is stronger — a full explanation exceeds this post’s scope. The rest of this post discusses current problems with — and potential solutions for -talent development and management, focusing on the evaluation and assignment systems, which are the two policies with the greatest impact on what people do.
...the [evaluation] system has difficulty simultaneously supporting precision talent management due the system’s lack of detail and the imprecise use of language by raters.
The current evaluation system does some things well, which likely includes identifying the very best and very worst officers for promotion boards. However, the system has difficulty simultaneously supporting precision talent management due the system’s lack of detail and the imprecise use of language by raters. One can reasonably argue the current system allows the Army to identify the very best and worst performers, arguably the top and bottom 5–10%. However, there is little differentiation amongst officers making up the middle 80% despite a substantial difference in ability, skills, and motivation (those who work for a paycheck vs. truly believing in the mission).
The very best officers will excel and earn “most qualified” ratings everywhere. However, the competition in elite and low density units differs from other units. For example, the distribution for Ranger Regiment and selective Joint units, who can deny or expel officers, remain the same as every other unit. Many, if not most, officers receiving “highly qualified” checks in selective units would earn “most qualified” checks in regular, non-selective units. Despite this problem, forced distribution remains an essential check on the consistent inflation by raters and senior raters because the very best officers will earn a “most qualified” rating in any unit. Unfortunately this solution fails to address the consistent gross exaggeration of officer accomplishments or provide reliable information about an officer’s actual skills, shortfalls, and potential.
Exaggeration undermines the ability of branch managers to identify officers with the correct skills for unique jobs. The exaggeration of evaluations and experience of receiving unsuitable officers from handcuffed branch managers likely drives the demand for by-name requests from senior leaders. These leaders often believe personal recommendations are the only way to identify officers with the talent they need. Though the system has flaws, the problem primarily stems from the culture surrounding Army evaluations and the lack of a database to track a variety of important skills, which should not be part of the evaluation. While imperfect, forced distribution represents an appropriate response to current Army culture and will hopefully accustom raters to making hard choices — everyone cannot above average.
Shifting Army culture faster will require extraordinary command emphasis by general officers and commanders everywhere with near simultaneity. Uneven implementation will ruin the effort because those still “graded on the curve” will excel despite mediocrity and everyone will, and should, quickly readjust to the worst common denominator to prevent excellent officers with honest reviews from failing. Evaluations need to communicate clearly, which requires all evaluations to use the same language. Today, promotion boards remain the primary audience and “Top 10%” means different things to different audiences.
Unfortunately, a promotion board would translate truthful statements such as “fantastic staff officer who should never command troops” and “phenomenal troop leader with limited staff skills” into “bad officer do not promote” instead of the intended message to the board, “promote,” and assignment officer, “officer needs development in X” or “assign to Y jobs.” Without a way to effectively communicate the differences between leaders, it is nearly impossible to match a leader to jobs utilizing individual talents or developing new ones. Valiant efforts by unappreciated branch managers allow talent matching or development to occur on occasion, but branch managers lack the time and intimate knowledge of hundreds of officers and assignments necessary to effectively “manage talent.”
Solutions to this problem are difficult, but the Army education system has the potential to improve the Army’s ability to understand and evaluate its talent. Army schools present an environment where instructors evaluate students against the same standards in the same environment. Drastically different from job performance evaluations used to compare leaders with vastly different experiences: Ranger Regiment vs. Army staff vs. Combatant Command staff.
Honestly evaluating officers at school (Career Course, Command and General Staff School, Joint Professional Military Education, etc.) and data basing key information — such as research paper topics — could help illuminate officer talents for both the Army and the individual officer while improving education.
Honestly evaluating officers at school (Career Course, Command and General Staff School, Joint Professional Military Education, etc.) and data basing key information — such as research paper topics — could help illuminate officer talents for both the Army and the individual officer while improving education. Fundamentally, rigor requires high standards and evaluations represent the most effective method of ensuring standards. On average, students put less effort into non-graded assignments. Furthermore, evaluations assessing comprehension and requiring students to make inferences have the potential to increase learning based on a study by Jeffrey D. Karpicke and Janell R. Blunt in the peer-reviewed journal Science. Frequent testing improves learning by raising stress levels and encouraging greater effort throughout a course instead of only at the end. The right amount of stress improves education while too little or too much stress encourages apathy or misbehavior that can range from cheating to suicide.
To be most effective, evaluations require a rigorous curriculum that pushes officers enough to identify weaknesses so an evaluation can appropriately discuss a student’s strengths and weaknesses (areas for further development). This environment demands a culture that considers school a place to “work hard;” not a place to “take a knee.” Reflecting on past experiences and placing them into a larger context is difficult and time consuming. Raising standards should cause a few students to fail for academics, not just plagiarism. The Army would not necessarily need to eliminate students who fail but failure should constrain potential assignments. As a meritocracy, the Army should have no remorse about identifying leaders who lack a certain degree of academic and writing capability. A potential role model is the Basic Strategic Art Program at the Army War College. The program enjoys a reputation as one of the best Army education programs and serves the additional function of preventing officers from becoming Army Strategists when their skills lie elsewhere. The relationship between failure and reputation is difficult to determine; however, the fear of failure almost certainly encourages students to work harder and, in turn, learn more.
Improving evaluations in Army schools (Army University or otherwise) may not impact promotion boards; however, informative academic evaluations could provide critical information for what the White Paper describes as “precision talent management,” in support of gathering better data about officers and running a web-based market mechanism (p21). The effectiveness of such a data-driven approach will depend on the data’s quality, reliability, relevance, and accessibility. A rigorous evaluation system in Army schools offers an opportunity for a high-quality, comparative data point that should be combined with other data points such as relationships with foreign leaders, etc.
The Army is, and probably should be, a closed system requiring effective talent development and management.
Successful precision talent management requires shrewdly pairing data about officers with assignment data. The Army’s most recent experiment with a web-based market approach (Green Pages) likely failed because unit personnel managers failed to prioritize acquiring the right talent for their organization over their traditional duties. For the system to work, commanders need to evaluate personnel managers on their efforts to find and recruit the right incoming personnel — understanding some places are harder to recruit for than others. Assigning officers based on talent will likely create some “inequitable” assignments, such as multiple rotations to Korea or Europe. However, inequitable differs greatly from unfair. Fairness comes from giving officers an equal chance to excel and ensuring officers receive needed broadening assignments, which greatly depends on the match between individual talents, development opportunities, and job requirements. There is one important caveat, branch managers need the ability to guide or override the system to ensure officers develop necessary skills or to ensure critical jobs in undesirable locations have the ability to hire great officers, not just mediocre officers unable to obtain more desirable duties. Many think of broadening as working in a think tank; however, broadening also includes making sure an infantry officer understands light and mechanized units. There are drawbacks to specialization and generalization — the Army needs a mix, which requires empowered branch managers.
The Army is, and probably should be, a closed system requiring effective talent development and management. The Human Dimension White Paper outlines many things the Army can do to develop and manage its human capital. However, the White Paper does not prioritize its many suggestions. Army leaders can make the greatest positive impact by focusing on 1) developing a way to obtain meaningful evaluations (adjusting the culture of evaluations), 2) strengthening education and its connection to precision talent management, and 3) more closely linking assignments to an individual officer’s talent and development needs.
Note: This post was written by a commissioned officer primarily thinking about commissioned officers. However, non-commissioned officers and warrant officers provide crucial leadership to the Army and NCOs make up the vast majority of Army leaders. The concepts discussed in this post apply in some manner to all Army leaders. However, the Army needs people to specifically focus on Talent Management and Development for NCOs and Warrant officers as well. The White Paper includes NCOs, especially in Soldier 2020, but as it is only a framework more needs to be done.
Ben Fernandes is a U.S. Army strategist. The views expressed 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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