Best Defense

Essay contest (20): Capitalize on native speakers of the digital languages

One divide in the United States is becoming increasingly clear — the split between those who can remember their first encounter with digital technology and those who cannot.

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By Jacqueline Parziale
Best Defense contest entrant

One divide in the United States is becoming increasingly clear — the split between those who can remember their first encounter with digital technology and those who cannot. For the latter group, often known as “digital natives,” the Information Age isn’t emerging, it just is. (And by the way, they don’t refer to it as the “Information Age.”) Digital natives have a unique perspective and inherent expertise with digital technology, and the U.S. military should harness their skills to tackle the challenges of the future.

Unlike other inventions to which recent technological advancements are often compared, such as airpower, artillery, or portable firearms, the internet is accessed by a majority of the world population on a constant basis. And the Department of Defense is no exception to this evolution.

No single technological or strategic development can address all of the challenges and opportunities new digital advancements pose. Thus the answer, as many including Secretary Carter have already suggested, is for the DoD to focus on the people who will tackle them. Digital natives deserve an increased amount of this attention because their country needs the skills that they alone possess.

Because of the omnipresence of technology in their lives, digital natives think, process information, and solve problems differently than their predecessors. They are better at information sharing, and do so more quickly. They are better at collaborating, and do so on a broader range of scales. They are better at multitasking, and do so efficiently and advantageously. Whether working on cyber- or digital-specific tasks or in other areas, digital natives uniquely contribute to the military mission.

This isn’t to say that “digital immigrants” lack technological expertise. Instead, digital natives enjoy a familiarity and innate understanding about the information environment and culture that simply cannot be taught. For better or worse, their assumptions, solutions, and interpretations of information are inherently different than those of anyone who predates them. The DoD needs to better integrate both perspectives in order to maximize the potential of each.

Despite initiatives intended to make military careers more attractive to millennials, recruitment and retention for this demographic is still below par across the military and the government, especially in cyber positions. But the Pentagon has a much bigger problem than just hiring and keeping digital natives — they need to figure out how to maximize the potential of millennial hires by harnessing their skills.

Why has the military been slow to use digital natives’ capabilities? Often, millennials are drawn to technological advancements and solutions outside of DoD that are more sophisticated and creative than those inside. For digital natives accustomed to cutting-edge technology, struggling with an outdated email system, for instance, is unpleasant at best and enraging at worst. The military is also less attractive than private companies with regard to pay and flexibility about geographic location, scheduling, and post-graduate education.

Further, the civil-military divide makes it challenging for nontraditional ideas to gain traction within the Pentagon. On the one hand, private sector innovators have trouble breaking in, but on the other hand, commercial solutions do not always incorporate military-specific concerns in a usable way. Digital natives may be comfortable with technology, but without prior experience, structural barriers to entry on military issues can be steep.

When compared to groundbreaking opportunities in Silicon Valley and beyond, where startups and other companies curate workplace cultures that appeal to and empower digital natives, the military often falls short. But simply changing recruitment and retention tactics is not enough — digital natives want a military experience that feels both unique from and valuable to future private sector pursuits on daily, practical basis.

These challenges are institutional. The structures and culture of the U.S. military were developed in a different era, and as history dictates, must evolve slowly and in concert with the existing environment. The solution cannot and should not be an overhaul of the current system. However, continued underutilization of digital natives has a massive opportunity cost and puts the United States at risk both in the immediate term and as the workforce and threat landscape mature.

As it pulls itself into the Information Age, the best assets the DoD have are native speakers of the digital language. The United States military needs to consider how it can capitalize on the unique strengths of millennials, while also empowering and providing the best possible experiences to them, in order to ensure its ability to meet whatever new challenges the future may hold.

Jacqueline Parziale is the Joseph S. Nye, Jr. research intern for the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Prior to joining CNAS, Parziale was the research editor and project coordinator at Rowan Technology Solutions, where she developed The West Point History of Warfare and The West Point Guide to the Civil Rights Movement. She graduated from Vassar College with a B.A. in mathematics and history. 

Photo credit: Juan Cristóbal Cobo/Flickr

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. Twitter: @tomricks1

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