Best Defense

Essay contest (17): We need an Information Age personnel system

The Information Age is in full swing and there is little use in fighting the tectonic shift that it brings with it.

Best Ranger Competition 2016

 

By Capt. Kyle Staron, U.S. Army
Best Defense contest entry

“I’m going to walk before they make me run.” — The Rolling Stones

The Information Age is in full swing and there is little use in fighting the tectonic shift that it brings with it. The U.S. military can adapt early and on its own terms, or it will be forced to adapt later and much more painfully. The first step the U.S. military must take to adjust to the Information Age is upgrading its Industrial Age personnel system. It will be people who guide the organization through the transition. The personnel system is the wellspring of organizational culture and it will prove difficult to produce Information Age ideas with Industrial Age systems.

In the aftermath of World War II, the newly reformed branches of the military codified their respective personnel systems. In developing these systems, each branch borrowed from both tradition (in a reliance on seniority for promotion) and from successful corporations (in producing a stable stream of managers). The analogy between a large conventional army and a large industrial company was clear. Each organization faced problems that required pre-formed solutions. There was little in the way of variety. Thus, each side needed a cadre of managers who had similar levels of experience and similar forms of training. When a common problem arose, the pre-arranged solution was executed, regardless of which manager was on duty.

With the democratization of technology and media, a steady, defined, conventional threat has been replaced with a myriad of hybrid threats as our main political foes. Each hybrid threat springs from different grievances. Each operates differently. Each evolves at a different pace. In this age, producing a cadre of duplicate managers who will apply the pre-arranged solution is of less importance than producing a manager who can conceive of unique solutions.

The available data shows a divergence between the personnel system and current conditions in the world. Author Tim Kane has written that the personnel policies in the Army are the leading reasons why promising junior officers leave the service. The main complaints from the study are assignment instability, bureaucratic decision making, and a lack of input from the individual as to his interests. While Kane’s analysis centers on who leaves and why, other studies have tangentially shown what the personnel system promotes. One study suggested that a higher IQ decreased an officer’s chances of promotion. Taken together, these studies demonstrate that our personnel system is not suited to create adaptable and dynamic management.

The common rejoinder to criticism of the military’s personnel system is the false dichotomy of “needs of the service” vs. individual interest. The logic supposes that if we take personal interests and conditions into account for personnel moves, the military will necessarily suffer by way of greater inefficiency and less loyalty to service.

This is a false dilemma in several levels of analysis. First, employees across the spectrum of industries are more productive and motivated if they feel empowered by their organization. Any loss in efficiency by taking individual interests into account would be made up by a corresponding rise in enthusiasm and engagement.

Second, humans have divided loyalties. We are reminded at every retirement ceremony that, someday, we’ll all take off the uniform. This is a reminder to nurture a life outside the military. In 1976, dual-income households made up 25 percent of American families. In 2012, it was 60 percent. More military spouses than ever are harboring their own independent career goals. Attaining these goals require stability and predictability. It’s not difficult to see how quickly a service member would be forced to decide to ask his spouse to suspend their career goals or to leave the military. Creating conditions for domestic stability would allow the service member to avoid this decision point.

In terms of reform, the devil is always in the details. The aforementioned Tim Kane has provided proposals, as has LTG (R) David Barno. The Department of Defense recently crafted a wholesale programs of reforms. These proposals range from varied pay tables to greater station stability to technical career tracks.

Interestingly enough, the very features of the Information Age make great reform possible. Just one example, modern political campaigns can tailor a door knocker’s message to a specific voter based on Netflix preferences. By updating and improving our existing algorithms, our personnel systems can seamlessly integrate personal interests into career moves.

By allowing career progression to proceed along different paths, through varied assignments, through dissimilar advanced schooling, we can create a cadre of leaders as intellectually and experientially diverse as the threats we face.

Kyle Staron is a Captain in the U.S. Army and is currently serving as a Civil Affairs Planner in the CENTCOM AOR. This article represents his own views, which are not necessarily those of the Army or the Department of Defense.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Defense

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

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