How the U.S. Army embraced data and revolutionized its talent management

The U.S. Army’s Talent Alignment Process should be familiar to anyone who has led a people-first talent management initiative in a large company.

How the U.S. Army embraced data and revolutionized its talent management

Very few people think about the military through the lens of human resources.

But with more than 2 million active and reserve personnel in the six branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, talent management is very much a top priority for military leadership.

In 2019, the U.S. Army, the largest of the armed forces, began a massive overhaul of the way it recruits, develops, and retains soldiers. The rollout of its new Army Talent Alignment Process — designed to collect better intelligence on the skills of individual soldiers and match them to more optimal career tracks — looks a lot like the internal changes many civilian organizations have made in an effort to become people-first companies.

So, let’s examine the U.S. Army through our HR lens. Talent-management professionals will quickly recognize the Army’s challenges and solutions as something familiar to most organizations today.

The problem with the Army’s promotion processes

The Army’s systems for promoting and retaining soldiers had long been criticized, especially internally among officers who felt their skills, preferences, and circumstances were being overlooked in their assignments.

Put simply, people were being promoted to roles that weren’t great fits, and this was having an effect on what civilian HR leaders would call engagement.

“A Soldier’s life experiences, personal, and familial relationships, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, personality, education, and learning style contribute to form the Soldier’s raw talent,” Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Trent writes for the Army University Press.

However, Army protocol tasked noncommissioned officers to evaluate the skills of soldiers according to a narrower rubric than this, and those evaluations informed the U.S. Army Human Resources Command’s placements of soldiers. When those evaluations didn’t match the reality of a soldier’s raw talent, assignments could feel out of step with the soldier’s potential.

“Now the talent pool is effectively tainted because leaders at the lowest level failed to accurately record the performance of their Soldiers,” Trent writes. “Simultaneously, great leaders are being denied opportunities because their evaluations were written poorly or did not accurately reflect their performance.”

This misalignment had real consequences for Army leadership. As Lt. Col. Rob McNellis writes at War Room, “Top performers are not incentivized to succeed, and substandard performers have little motivation to change; after all, everyone will get a chance to lead regardless of performance.”

Again, civilian business leaders understand all too well how the promotion of underperforming talent can impact morale and company culture. The same thing was happening in the Army.

At the same time, soldiers sometimes found themselves hitting a wall in their careers. The old system was creating rigid career trajectories, and in some cases talented soldiers were being discharged from service rather than given the opportunity to pursue their own ambitions, Capt. Brennan Randel writes at West Point’s Modern War Institute.

Happy soldier with family in park; army talent management concept

The solution: Get a better understanding of each soldier

A major flaw in this old system of promotion and retention is how little visibility it gave decision makers into what Trent describes as a soldier’s raw talent.

Over the past decade, many businesses recognized this very same flaw in their own talent-management practices, and so they sought out tools that would give them granular insights into their employees. Analysts inside the Army pushed for the same thing.

In 2015, Maj. Brian S. Cook published his master’s thesis around what it would take to revamp talent management in the Army. A key component of that proposed revamping was software that could create individual talent profiles that highlight a soldier’s “specialized skills, experiences, capabilities, goals, and aspirations.”

Such data, when made legible to key stakeholders, can help any organization get a much better understanding of its own talent resources, and it can help leaders make better staffing decisions. We see this with our clients, and Cook recognized this in his research into the Army’s talent management.

Of course, that intelligence is only as good as the data collected. Fortunately, most militaries have massive data-collection resources, BCG researchers Peter Geluk, Matthew Schlueter, Troy Thomas, and Silvio Erkens write.

“Advanced data analytics will help military leaders to understand the current labor environment and demographic changes and to identify emerging personnel gaps and skills gaps,” they write. “Analytics tools can also predict the impact of specific initiatives, gauge those against real-world results, and improve their accuracy over time.”

Plenty of people in the Army’s leadership understood that data-driven solutions were needed to revamp talent management. The next piece of the puzzle, then, was to secure support for change from the very top.

Creating and implementing a new approach to talent management

“People don’t want to be treated like interchangeable parts in an industrial-age process,” says Gen. James McConville, who became the Army Chief of Staff in 2019. “They want to be recognized for their unique talents.”

That’s the kind of top-level support needed to drive changes in talent management.

When Gen. McConville stepped into the Army’s top leadership position, he quickly set out an operational agenda that put people — soldiers and their families — first. That agenda includes putting a stop to sexual assault and sexual harrassment; giving families access to quality housing, healthcare, and childcare; addressing suicides; pushing for longer tour options for soldiers with families; and overhauling talent management.

The latter focus is what helped realize the new Army Talent Alignment Process, or ATAP. Randel at Modern War Institute provides a nice summary of what broad changes ATAP introduced:

  • It creates a talent marketplace that officers and units participate in to connect. Both can submit their preferences (i.e. officers can name what units they’d like to be assigned to, and units can source new officers from the talent marketplace), and an algorithm selects best fits.
  • Processes like brevet promotions can help fill roles that don’t get filled through the marketplace. This ensures there is thoughtful human input to guide assignments.
  • It protects officers from having assignments broken for things like dwell time or having another officer’s KD assignment leapfrog them.
  • It prevents general officers from requesting officers by name. This levels the playing field so specific candidates aren’t given preferential treatment.

These changes are intended to put the right people in the right assignments, and to ensure officers have more agency over their career paths.

So far, early results are positive. In ATAP’s pilot run, about 15,000 officers received assignments, defense reporter Lauren C. Williams writes. More than half of those officers were placed in their first choice of units, and 80 percent of the officers received a choice in their top 10 percent, Williams reports, citing Maj. Gen. Joseph Calloway, Army Human Resources Command’s commanding general.

In other words, more motivated candidates are getting assignments that match their aspirations. In talent management, that’s a big win.

row of naval officers salut their captain; army talent management concept

Other military branches are revamping talent management, too

The Army is not alone in its embrace of data-driven talent management. In fact, investment in talent management was a major point of discussion during the March 2020 AMNAC conference, which brings together representatives from each branch of the Armed Forces for a quarterly meeting, the team from the Army Talent Management Task Force reports.

The Air Force is certainly investing heavily in this kind of technology. Gwen DeFilippi, the Air Force’s assistant deputy chief of staff, manpower, personnel, and services, tells Federal News Network that her branch has created its own talent marketplace for officers, and it is currently being rolled out to enlisted members. A key challenge now is migrating that system from a massive tech stack to a handful of platforms, DeFilippi says.

The Navy is in the process of creating its own marketplace for talent, as outlined in its Sailor 2025 program. Current initiatives are focused on recognizing and promoting the Navy’s most talented sailors. More robust, data-driven systems based on individual sailors’ profiles are in the works.

For the Marine Corps, there are still some systemic biases to work out. As Maj. Leo Spaeder writes at War on the Rocks, senior command assignments typically favor infantry officers and naval aviators. “Without expanding the search for talent beyond this cohort, the service will continue to artificially limit the potential pool of general officers who are exceptionally qualified to serve in billets of increasing responsibility and authority,” Spaeder writes.

The Coast Guard has its own specific challenges regarding mid-career members, many of whom are being lured into the private sector — with retirement benefits — after eight or nine years of service, Coast Guard Commandant Karl Schultz tells Federal News Network. The Coast Guard is currently working on programs that would give new internal career paths to these people.

Businesses can learn from the Armed Forces’ examples

Organizations in the private sector face many of the same talent challenges the U.S. military faces, and what’s happening in the Army, Navy, or the Air Force can be illustrative for businesses, as well.

Both the military and private-sector businesses follow a similar path to overhauling their talent management. That path looks something like this:

  • Strategic alignment. The Army specifically has noted that it’s having to realign from a mission based on counter-insurgency to a mission based on contending with major geopolitical powers. As such, it needs to promote new skills and ideas up and down the chain of command.
  • A comprehensive model for talent management. All organizations must assess how they recruit, develop, promote, and retain their best talent. Using data remains the best way to do this. From there, organizations can identify weak points relative to what their strategies demand and conceptualize the kinds of solutions needed.
  • Securing buy-in. All organizations need a Gen. McConville, someone with the vision to recognize that talent is always going to be your biggest asset. This person can help push the internal changes needed to reflect the importance of talent.
  • Investment in the right software. The branches of the military furthest along in their overhauls of talent management all recognize the need for granular-level insights into each person in that organization. The most effective talent management happens when those organizations understand the full sets of skills, aspirations, motivations, and contexts that make individual people good fits for new roles.

Images by: Jessica Radanavong, belchonock/©, Luemen Carlson

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