Talent Management in the Army: Rethinking the Block Check

Begging Clausewitz’ forgiveness for the misuse of the term, there is a war for talent raging between organizations — and whether it wants to be or not, the Army is involved in this war. Human capital is subject to the same immutable laws of supply and demand to which oil, gold, housing, and other resources are subject. The scarcest and therefore most valuable, human capital resource to any organization is the top performer. And as with any other resource, competition for access to scarce human capital is fierce. Battacharya, Sen, and Korschun write:

Increasingly, success comes from being able to attract, motivate, and retain a talented pool of workers…With a finite number of extraordinary employees to go around, the competition for them is fierce.

Talent management within the Army has been discussed at length over the last few years. WardynskiLyleand Colarusso addressed this in a U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute monograph series in 2010. A longitudinal theme of the series was that the Army must participate in an external talent market that impacts how the Army attracts and retains talent and should develop an internal talent market to better develop and employ the talent it has. They maintain establishment of a robust internal market will also favorably impact retention of talent in the Army.

Some see the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act, or DOPMA, as forcing the Army into a system that recognizes seniority over ability, stifles innovation, constrains its flexibility to recognize and fast track the highest performers to positions of greater responsibility, ultimately chasing the most talented and productive officers out of the service. Dr. Tim Kane is an outspoken critic of DOPMA. In his book Bleeding Talent: How the US Military Mismanages Great Leaders and Why It’s Time for a Revolutionhe advocates scrapping DOPMA completely and transitioning the military to a management system more in line with the largest corporations in the United States.

For reasons that could comprise several more blog entries, this author believes the revolutionary act of scrapping DOPMA is both politically and operationally infeasible. Revolutions tend to be messy and rarely end in the end state the revolutionaries intended. Evolutionary change, on the other hand, is possible and needed. One such needed change is a reexamination of the use of the block check in officer evaluations. Doing so would mitigate one of the biggest problems facing the Army in the area of talent management: Currently there is no mechanism by which the Army can readily identify the highest performing individuals.

Currently there is no mechanism by which the Army can readily identify the highest performing individuals.

The Army does an excellent job at attracting and a good job at motivating talented employees. Where it is failing is in retaining the highest performers. Losing top talent can have disastrous consequences to an organization. Between 2008 and 2010 Facebook poached more than 200 Google employees. Although that represented less than 1 percent of Google’s workforce, those 200 employees represented many of the most productive and talented workers at Google. Included in those 200 are four new vice-presidents, chief operating officer, and chief technology officer. While the direct impact to Google is hard to measure externally, consider that between 2008 and 2011 Google rolled out two social networks, Google Wave and Google Buzz. Both were very public flops, with Google Buzz a strategic failure that caused many to mock its corporate motto “Don’t Be Evil” due to concerns about privacy violations. Facebook, on the other hand, experienced growth in users in the same time frame from 80 to 500 million users…a growth rate of about 250% per annum.

Fairly and accurately evaluating employees is a challenge that all organizations must face. Dr. John Sullivan, Professor of Management at San Francisco State University identified the most serious problem with appraisal processes as failing to actually assess performance. The Army, through its formal appraisal system, the Officer Evaluation Reporting System (OERS), attempts to deal with the challenge of evaluating the performance and potential for development of officers. However, the OERS suffers from the problem Dr. Sullivan noted by making a fundamentally flawed assumption about the distribution of human performance and potential. This flawed assumption directly informs the most important part of the Officer Evaluation Report (OER)…the block check. Correcting this assumption about the true distribution of human performance will provide the Army the tool it needs to identify the true top performers without negatively impacting the careers of the remaining officers.

Maj. Gen. Richard Mustion, commander, Army Human Resources Command, discusses major issues and upcoming changes involving the Officer Evaluation Reporting system during a briefing at the Main Post Chapel, Jan. 23. Mustion met with captains through colonels to talk about the new OER system and how it will help the Army maintain the best and most-qualified officers for future leaders. Photo by Sgt. Matthew Ryan 25th Infantry Division Public Affairs.

In April 2014 the Army will begin using a redesigned OER form. In deciding to make this change it had an opportunity to improve the way it evaluated officers; however, that is not what happened. Rather, the changes the Army made remain based on the underlying faulty assumption about human performance. The current OER form, which forces senior raters to classify officers as either above or below average, is based on the assumption that the distribution of officers of a given performance level follows the familiar bell curve (the Gaussian distribution) and that half of the officers in a year group are performing above average and that half are performing below average. The arrow in the first chart shows this. Average performance corresponds to the midpoint in the count of officers as well as the midpoint of the performance scale.

A Gaussian distribution with OER blocks.

Unfortunately, human performance is not distributed in this way. It is actually much more like the familiar Pareto principle; also known as “80/20 Rule”. It states that 20 percent of the workforce accounts for 80 percent of the productivity. In statistical parlance the distribution of human performance follows a power law distribution. If the familiar Gaussian distribution graph can be described as a “bell curve” the graph of a power law distribution might best be described as a giant slide. This second chart reflects this. The axes are reversed to keep the graph consistent with the generally accepted shape of a power law, but otherwise it is the same information.

A power law distribution with OER blocks.

The arrow on the power law graph points to the same point on the performance axis as it appears in the Gaussian graph. The area to the left of the dotted arrow represents about 10 percent of officers, but that 10 percent line is the point at which the performance is roughly 50 percent. The remaining 90 percent of officers can be said to be performing below average in the truest sense of the word.

Ernest O’Boyle and Herman Aguinis documented this in five separate studies involving more than 630,000 professional entertainers, athletes, researchers, and politicians. The results, published in Personnel Psychology in 2012 indicated that in 94 percent of the samples they studied, exceptional performers accounted for an overwhelming amount of achievement in the field. This is expected if they are correct in their hypothesis that human performance follows a power law distribution rather than the traditionally assumed Gaussian distribution.

The implication for the Army of getting this fundamental assumption about human performance wrong is significant. By allowing senior raters to continue to ‘top block’ up to 49 percent of officers, the Army is failing to recognize the true level of impact to the organization by the roughly 10 percent of officers who are actually performing at a level ‘above average’. This is not earth-shattering news to the Army. Historically, selection rates to centralized selection list (CSL) jobs have been around 10-20 percent (less than 10 percent for finance and adjutant general officers, close to 20 percent for armor and infantry officers, other branches are between 10-20 percent).

The problem with the current system which recognizes up to 49 percent of officers as ‘above average’ is that it obscures the truly exceptional work done by a few individuals.

The current and future system of ‘top blocking’ up to 49 percent of officers is more in line with attempting to identify the group of officers who will be promoted, rather than identifying the select few top performers. Though unstated, this purpose is served fairly well by the top-block system. Forty-nine percent is significantly less than the historical Army promotion rates to captain and major, slightly less than the promotion rate to lieutenant colonel, and closely approximates the promotion rates to colonel. The block check, then, clearly serves as an easy metric for the Army to comply with DOPMA.

The problem with the current system which recognizes up to 49 percent of officers as ‘above average’ is that it obscures the truly exceptional work done by a few individuals. The Army model fails top performers by focusing not on the work that is done, but rather on counting the officers doing the work. In a 49 percent top-block system, above average performance is defined as a function of those who are deemed above average — an officer’s ‘block’ is not a reflection of their individual performance or productivity. The top-performers are not recognized for their true accomplishments and impact. O’ Boyle and Aguinis recognize this problem when they wrote:

Leadership theories grounded in Gaussian thinking focus on the productivity of the majority of workers rather than the workers responsible for the majority of productivity.

Carl Friedrich Gauss

There is a fix to this problem. The Army should eliminate the block check on the annual OER and instead implement a supplementary system in which all officers of a given grade and branch or functional area are ‘blocked’ at the highest echelon of command feasible. The top-block provided here should be no more than 10-20% of the officers considered. This would be similar to the Air Force’s system in which the Senior Rater is a designated position in the command structure, and not the rater’s rater (the current Army design). In the Air Force system, the Senior Rater is normally the Wing Commander or equivalent commander in the rated officer’s chain of command. This pooling of officers uses a function of the law of large numbers to ensure that the Army can be more confident that the assigned pool of top-blocks accurately reflects the true population of top-performing officers. As long as DOPMA remains in effect, this small group of elite performers is not sufficient to meet Army promotion needs. In fact, it would represent only a small portion of promoted officers in year group. This means that the promotion opportunity for most officers remains high, even though they may not receive a top-block check.

Implementing this suggested change is just the start if the Army is to be serious about identifying and retaining top talent. Beyond the axiom that the Army can’t retain top performers if it can’t readily identify them, it has to implement policies that reward this performance. That might be in assignment opportunities, academic development at the top schools in the country, or though adjusted command opportunities.

Paul Dalen is a Master of Math and an Army ORSA. He blogs about college football analytics at FootballStudyHall.com and CornNation.com. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Simpson, Patton, Spaatz, Eisenhower, Bradley, Hodges, Gerow, and other generals, 1945. United States National Archives.