#Talent: People Aren’t Widgets

A Better Way for the Army to Manage People

As this series illustrates, the Army will have to adapt to the consequences of sequestration, demography, technology, etc. Yet while we cannot know exactly how the Army will adapt, we can know that the best solutions will come from the best people. In the past, the U.S. Army has taken the excellence of its human capital systems for granted — often for good reason. However, today, a faulty basis for its personnel policies puts the force at risk by both failing to maximize productivity and failing to retain some of the Army’s best. To adapt to the pressures it faces, the Army needs a human resource system focused upon the unique mix of knowledge, skills and behaviors — a concept known as talent — that make each individual productive.

Though unwritten, the Army’s strategic concept for its human resource system is premised upon the idea that officers are basically interchangeable parts. Just as a wheel is different from an axle but all wheels are the same, so while an Infantry major is different from an Armor major, all Infantry majors are basically the same. Though the Army does not really believe that its officers are the same, limiting distinctions allows the Army to easily manage huge quantities of people.

In the mid-Twentieth Century, other major organizations, like General Electric and General Motors, employed similar practices, collectively know as personnel management. However, as a SSI Monograph entitled “Towards a U.S. Army Officer Corps Strategy for Success: Retaining Talent” makes clear, in the mid-1990s U.S. industry began implementing human resource policies that target individuals for their talent. The Army, occupied with war, did not make the transition and now pays at least two major costs.

First, the Army allows tremendous amounts of productive capacity to lie fallow. During the Army’s Green Pages Pilot, the Army tested reforms to its assignment processes alongside an improvement to its IT infrastructure in order to gather more complete talent data from the force. As a result, the Army almost doubled the official record of the languages spoken by the piloted officers and more than doubled the list of countries that they had visited. In the same pilot, 131 officers revealed more than $28 million in technical certifications that they possessed but that the Army did not know about before then. In era of decreased budgets both of these numbers, alongside others in a forthcoming SSI Monograph on Green Pages, will rightfully raise eyebrows. However, for a force facing so many uncertainties, the bigger problem will arise when its personnel system cannot be nimble enough to get the right person to the right place at the right time to implement the changes necessary for the future.

The second impact of outmoded processes is seen as the Army competes for the best talent in the labor market. For example, consider an Engineer officer that worked as a civil engineer in private industry prior to receiving a commission, lived in the Philippines as a child and wants to continue doing both. After reviewing a list of possible jobs that includes only title, unit and geographic location it is unlikely that, without luck or connections, the lieutenant will know about the Engineer Company that is scheduled to deploy to the Philippines to do civil engineering work. Likewise, since the Army does not collect this information, the Assignment Officer will not know about this perfect match either.

In the 1970s, the Army’s competition from the private sector could offer no better. However, since companies now focus on individual-level talents, the new lieutenant can find a private company that both wants these talents and offers the jobs and further education to improve them. As the SSI Monograph “Towards a U.S. Army Officer Corps Strategy for Success: Retaining Talent” makes clear, this has had a devastating impact on the force as officer retention through eight years of commissioned service has fallen from about 60% in the late 1970s to about 40% in the mid-1980s. While this fall might not seem like a problem during an era of downsizing, it is in fact more problematic than ever since it represents the loss of the Army’s most marketable human resources at a time when they are most needed.

Fortunately, while change will be difficult, falling budgets and an era of reorganization raise the impact of talent management reforms that will increase productivity, flexibility and officer satisfaction. In fact, the Army has already begun to experiment with talent-based programs including reforms to branching policies at USMA, the Green Pages Pilot and the Career Satisfaction Program. The Army must continue its efforts and recognize that, for a force facing an uncertain future, successful adaptation must begin with changing the way that it thinks about people.

John Childress is an Army Strategist and Assistant Professor in the United States Military Academy’s Department of Social Sciences. John has taught Introduction to Western Political Philosophy at West Point and authored papers and presentations presented at major Academic conferences to include the Midwest Political Science Association. The views expressed are the author's and do not represent those of the United States Military Academy, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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