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Why the Department of Defense is Taking a Skills-based Approach to Talent Discovery

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Today’s episode offers quite an inspirational and educational show for listeners! Guest Craig Robbins discusses fascinating practices from a new perspective—from someone directly involved with the US Military and Department of Defense. After a brief introduction to Craig’s past that brings him to his current two full-time jobs, Craig jumps into the conversation. 

Jason asks Craig to set straight how the Department of Defense and Military are structured and what digital transformation looks like in an organization like this, as it is the largest employer in the world. Learn how an organization that can be slow to make change due to the vast number of people, policy, legislation, and budget slows down agility and innovation, but that they can be more focused on modernization and innovation today than ever! Why? He says it’s necessary to compete in today’s market; the relationships between employees and employers have shifted and require greater agility to compete. Listen to how the digital transformation fits into the transformation of talent management.

Shifting the conversation, our hosts ask Craig to give more information about the dynamics of the military and how the different components work together—active duty, reserve, and national guard. After walking through the various parts, Craig shares his journey of getting to where he is today. While he didn’t plan for this industry, he decided to step up and answer the call to serve. After a freak accident pivoting his momentum to a different route, Craig’s resilience led him to be able to be deployed eventually. Next, learn about the organization he helped set up a program for those transitioning from military to the civilian workforce and how it launched him into HR tech and services. Finally, Craig touches on the importance of hiring based on what a person can bring—potential—in moving an organization forward; his focus is on modernization, talent acquisition, and management. 

Moving on to talk about a critical program called Gig Eagle, Craig discusses how this is transforming HR tech to accommodate people who don’t fit nicely into the traditional pre-made buckets. The issue of talent discovery is a big problem in the army due to the data not being captured. Learn about this talent management system and how tech and civilian skill sets that were virtually unseeable before are starting to cut across department lines. Capturing someone’s free agent skills is difficult, but Craig has taken this to an exponential degree. In trying to figure out all the things that go along with it, Craig shares how this can get political and challenging. Still, progress can be made with an underlying goal to enable flexibility and agility! Analytics are helping to solve the crucial data issue of quality and quantity.

Stepping back, Craig looks at the bigger picture of rethinking the way people look at work and the team members on their team—transforming the culture at large will break down barriers and create the economy they want. To drive digital transformation, technology, policies, and incentives are necessary. Learn what leveraging free agent skills is all about and how the Department of Defense seeks to enable critical mission success.

As the episode wraps up, our hosts ask if these concepts apply to the private sector. Listen to Craig’s answer and fill in the “why” behind these models. Improving the employee experience can be painful, but we need people to have better experiences. Everyone is starting to do things that do not fit the older, traditional molds handed down to us. So this conversation has growing importance!

Links:

Connect with Craig Robbins.

Learn more about Gig Eagle.

Skills-Based Approaches to Talent Discovery

Jason:

Hello out there to all our listeners, uh, before we get started, we just wanna let you know that the views expressed in this podcast don’t necessarily reflect the views of the 75th innovation command United States, army reserve, or department of defense. But we have a great conversation coming up with Craig S

Ligia:

Welcome

Ligia:

To the new talent code, a podcast with practical insights, dedicated to empowering change agents in HR to push the envelope in their talent functions. We’re your hosts. I’m Lee Zora

Jason:

And I’m Jason Serato. We’re bringing you the best thought leaders in the talent space to share stories about how they are designing the workforce of the future. Transforming processes, rethinking old constructs and leveraging cutting edge technology to solve. Today’s pressing talent issues. It’s what we call the new talent code.

Ligia:

So if you’re looking for practical, actionable advice to get your workforce future ready, you’ve come to the right place. Hello. Hello everyone. And welcome again to another episode of the new talent code. I am Leia, and I’m here with my cohost, Jason. Hey Jason, how are you?

Jason:

I’m doing great. Excited for this one today. This is gonna be a good one.

Ligia:

Yeah, everyone. We’ve got Craig Robbins as a special guest today. Hey Craig. Welcome.

Craig:

Thank you so much for having me. I’m really looking forward to the conversation.

Ligia:

Yeah, it’s gonna be a fascinating conversation. It’s a great opportunity for us to learn a little bit more other best practices from a completely different perspective. The perspective today is from someone who’s been involved with the us military, actually the largest employer in the world, the department of defense, but first Craig, let me give a little background about you today. Craig is the senior VP of talent at an HR tech company named positions. And somehow he has found the time to be a major in the us army reserve, a role that he has held over 14 years in counting. Honestly, I don’t know how you do it. That’s over two full time jobs. In addition to that, Craig is also currently serving as the chief talent officer within the newly established innovation command and is working on really impactful projects with, of course, the department of defense and consulting with the defense innovation unit for short, the DIU. And I guess you’re just a talent advisor to the army at large. So welcome. Thank

Craig:

You. No appreciate the introduction.

Jason:

Well, Craig, can we kinda level set for our listeners kind of how the department of defense and the military structured? I think people think the military’s very kind of top down command and control kind of an organization. So can you kind of give us a feel for how do you do digital transformation in, in an organization like the military?

Craig:

Yeah, absolutely. But just a couple of quick facts. I mean the department of defense is the largest employer in the world. We have roughly 3 million people working for the department across the services. There are a lot of civilians that work for the department of defense as well. That’s

Ligia:

Like a zip

Craig:

Code. Yeah, yeah. Abso yeah, absolutely. So I mean, think about an organization that has 3 million employees and has a budget of 753 billion operates more than 4,800 sites in over 160 countries worldwide.

Ligia:

That’s overwhelming.

Craig:

So it is an organization that can be a little bit slow to turn the boat and make change because you’re dealing with not only so many people, but you’re dealing with a lot of policy legislation, budget, you know, just a lot of things that really slowed down our ability to be agile and, and move quickly and innovate. But I would say right now the department of defense is more focused on innovation and modernization now than at any point in its history.

Ligia:

Why

 

The Digital Transformation of Talent Management 

Craig:

It’s a great question, you know, and it really comes down to competing in the modern world. And so as the pace of technology changes more rapidly and as the world becomes much more complex, paradigm shifts occur in the relationships between citizens and their governments between employees and the employers. We’re just experiencing so much change in complexity that the ability to compete is dependent on the ability to innovate and move in a very agile and flexible way. And so that the department of defense understands this as a concept, how we execute on it is where we run into some trouble. I think what we wanna talk about is HR transformation and how the digital transformation fits into transformation of talent management.

Jason:

We used to race each other to the fax machine, right? So things have come, things have come a long way. I know I asked you a little bit about the structure of the organization, but can you gimme a little bit about the dynamics of the military active duty reserves and kind of how it all works together?

Craig:

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. So the army very similar to the other branches has three components. So the active duty component is what most people think of when they think about career soldiers, the active duty army employs about 480,000 service members. And so those are the folks that are out there every day, you know, doing this full time, then you have the army reserve and the reserve currently has roughly 190,000 people serving in the reserve. These are people that have the same training where the same uniform, same rank structure, all that, except we do it one week in a month and for a couple of weeks on active duty per year. And that just keeps all of our skills and competencies at a certain level. Then you have the national guard, which has roughly 450,000 members across the army guard and the air guard very similar to the reserve in the way they work.

Craig:

The only difference is they all report up to the state adju general, who serves as the principal military advisor to the governor of each state. And so the national guard does what the rest of the army does, but confined within the state. So the Illinois army national guard alone has over 10,000 people. So it’s really just the differences. How often are we doing the work and who are we doing? The work for our national garden reserve has been deploying constantly over the past 20 years. And so we’re really interchangeable with units and organizations and the active components. So we bring a tremendous capability to the active duty force. Mm-hmm

Ligia:

<affirmative>, you know, every single episode we ask our guests to tell us a little bit about how they got here. You know, we have a belief that careers are not necessarily linear. They’re a little bit more like a jungle gym. So I wanna know besides the fact that you have multiple careers going in tandem, was this your intent all along to be an SVP of, of talent, uh, talent consultant how’d you get started and how’d you pivot?

Craig:

The short answer is no, I never imagined working in the HR industry. I was gonna pursue, I thought a business degree, but what I do recall vividly was watching a lot of the news about the war in Afghanistan. And so the questions started to come up in my mind. Am I going to continue sitting here on this campus, going to these classes, or am I going to step up and answer the call to serve? And so when the war in Iraq did begin, I went directly from being a college student to Marine Corps, basic training, but the 10 weeks in, I had an absolutely just freak anomaly of an injury, an accident that occurred inside the barracks. I had an odd fall and someone else fell on top of me in my kneecap is what broke my fall. So one of the most devastating moments of my life, I mean, completely disappointing demoralizing to almost get to this graduation. So a, a major, you know, moment in life I had to overcome and really where I think a lot of the resilience I have today began in that moment. So I came back home and a year later in 2006, I contracted with the university of Iowa’s, our OTC program accepted a full scholarship. And in 2009, I commissioned as a second Lieutenant into the Illinois army national guard on the same day that I graduated from the university of Iowa.

Ligia:

I think you are the definition of resilience after that story, Craig, you really don’t take no for an answer.

Jason:

I mean, it sounds like things started to come together. How did you finally end up getting deployed

Craig:

Through the Illinois national guard has something called a state partner program. And I was selected to, to go with this team. So I started over my military career, really began with the deployment to Poland and then over to Afghanistan. Then in 2011, my wife at the time was my girlfriend. She was working for a technology company up in Iowa. And while she was running a career fair to recruit for this tech company, I noticed one of the booths at the career fair had this big banner behind it that said pro veteran career program. And I walked over,

Ligia:

<laugh>

Craig:

Talked to this young lady that was working for this company positions. And she said, we have started a pro bono service helping veterans coming back to Iowa, make the transition from military to the civilian workforce. And she said, we only have one major problem, which is that no one in our company has ever served in or worked with the military. So we don’t really know a whole lot about it. We know a lot about career transition and anyway, long story short, I just came on a contract to help them set up this program. That was really my entry point to the HR industry at large, but really the HR tech market in particular. And so fast forward for the past 10 years, I’ve been working in HR tech and services, and we have a number of products and brands that span everything from eLearning to outplacement services, to HR consulting kind of beyond.

Craig:

And so in my army career, I balanced nine years in the national guard. And then I transferred from the national guard to the reserve, all doing intelligence work. I applied for an intelligence role within the 75th innovation command. And I didn’t know anything about what the army or the DOD was doing in the innovation space. And I didn’t know anything about what the army was doing in the talent management space, but there’s one particular organization, the 75th innovation command. We hire people for the totality of their skills and experience. So where’s the rest of the army hires people based on their officer branch or their military occupational specialty, their MOS, we hire based on what a person is capable of bringing to the innovation and modernization ecosystem.

Ligia:

So potential absolutely you hire based on

Craig:

Potential. Absolutely. How can you help move our organization forward and how can you help move the army forward? And so they responded to my application and said, we might have a role for you as an intelligence officer, but we’re looking for a talent management, chief and your background in HR and talent acquisition and learning and development really fits I think, with what we’re trying to do. And so taking that position my last three years, going back to December of 2019, I’ve been able to focus my entire effort in the military reserve and in the private sector, all on HR transformation, HR tech, and really how do we modernize the field of human resources?

Jason:

My history in talent acquisition was I used to head up talent acquisition for an aerospace and defense contractor. Okay. So I always, I, I always look to the military as kind of a innovator and early adopter in a lot of talent acquisition practices and technology. It sounds like they’re doing it now for talent management. So we know a little bit about a program called gigle. Can you talk about that and what that means for talent management practices?

Craig:

Yeah, absolutely. So a few years back, the army stood up, what’s called the army talent management task force. And this has a lot of budget, a lot of attention, a lot of movers that are trying to make transformation occur. I mean, we are going through the most transformative period in over 70 years. And so part of that is transforming our HR tech, bringing over 280 separate personnel and pay systems down into one integrated platform called the integrated personnel and pay system or IPS. A part of that is trying to experiment with models like talent marketplace, flexible career paths. How do we ensure that people have a path if they don’t fit into one of our traditional career paths? Cuz now we’re doing things with cyber and software and space. And so we have to accommodate people that don’t fit nicely into our buckets. And so part of that is discovering the talent that you have.

Craig:

And so I really would say that the department of defense and the army in particular has a significant problem when it comes to what I call talent discovery, how do we even see the skills and the experiences and the certifications of all those people on our team? Like the army cannot quickly find me major Robbins in the pile of army officers at large, if they’re looking for someone who knows Poland, who’s served in Eastern Europe and who has all these different skill sets, they can’t see that it’s completely invisible. We don’t capture the data. And if you don’t capture the data, you can’t search for the data. And so getting to gig Eagle because the 75th innovation command is unique in the sense that we employ people’s civilian skillsets, we had to create a system that would allow us to capture and discover those skills.

Craig:

So we started building a talent management system. It, it functions like an automated applicant tracking system with all the features and functions you would want that no additional cost to the army, getting creative in how we use talent. And so when the defense innovation unit approached the army about the gig Eagle project, the active duty talent management task force, and the folks that work for the office of the commander of the army reserve all pointed back to the 75th innovation command and said, go talk to this guy major Robbins because he’s working on a lot of similar initiatives. And so that’s when I first connected with DIU. And so gig Eagle is a concept that was imagined by Colonel Mike McGinley. Who’s a Colonel in the air force full time. He works for a Google cloud. And so, I mean, we just have fascinating talent, but we can’t see any of this talent that works in the private sector.

Craig:

And so the space force, which is new, the us space force is new. And so they have an immediate need to staff, right, and, and ramp up this new branch of the military. And they immediately recognize this problem that we don’t know who we’re gonna bring in from these other branches because we can’t actually see any of their tech skills or their civilian skill sets that you know, that we wanna bring into the organization. So they just took a more structured, a more funded approach to doing some of the things we were doing in the 75th innovation command. So they actually went and had $3 million appropriated from Congress to solve this problem. And then so DIU the defense innovation unit, which really has its own story in the innovation space, but they’re new. So DIU solicited the private sector to get the best technology they could find to solve the space forces problem of not being able to identify a talent and pretty quickly DIU put together what they call a commercial solutions group.

Craig:

And so think about roughly 20 people. I lead the effort for the army. So I’m the army representation on that team. And then we have representatives from the Navy, from the air force, from the space force, from the Marine Corps, all sitting with people that work in HR tech like myself, PhDs in AI and machine learning project managers. So we’re all sitting here as a group thinking through how can we build a talent marketplace that cuts across the entire department of defense. So like we needed technology that was very sophisticated. We needed something that could scale. And we had to find a partner that could do this with millions of people across our workforce. So that’s kind of how it started.

Jason:

So Craig, when I’ve been talking to talent leaders, we’ve tried to talk about this concept of capturing someone’s free agent skills, these skills that they have beyond the role that you know they do for you today. And when you’re talking about this with the reserves and the department of defense, you’ve taken that to like the exponential degree,

Craig:

The exponential degree. So I have done software implementation. This is a, an implementation story in the making for the ages. Not only are we trying to figure out all the things that go along with it, how do we communicate? How do we run strategic messaging? What’s our change management plan and strategy. But then beyond that, we also deal with a lot of the turf battles. There are other platforms that have a lot of investment already put in. There are people that run other projects. And so it gets to be a little bit political, a little bit challenging to get the buy-in, but at the end of the day, so we talked a little bit about what gig Eagle is designed to do, which is really marry up talent, supply and demand so that we enable the flexibility and agility that we were talking about earlier.

Craig:

So I’m gonna use Jason’s phrase probably a lot in the coming years, but the free agent skills and experience. Because when you think about what an organization’s captured, even in the resume, we all know resumes are a quick advertisement to just get in and share the story. But companies’ data about their people is severely lacking at best. And so the way the army is getting after that problem is we stood up a new office of people. Analytics led by a friend of mine, Colonel Chris saline. Who’s the deputy director of army people, analytics and working together with the talent management task force. I mean, we’re all thinking about how do we solve our data issue because if you don’t have the quality and quantity of data, you can’t really move forward, executing a plan and how you’re gonna use those free agent skills. So that’s kind of where it begins, but I just wanna briefly summarize the bigger picture, what we’re trying to transform.

Craig:

It’s so much more than skills matching. It’s so much more than that. We’re trying to rethink the way we look at work and rethink the way we even think about the team members on our team. And so this is really about transforming our culture at large. How can we enable people in the reserve, the national guard and the active duty army to work across those boundaries. So we’re trying to break down these barriers and we’re trying to create essentially a gig economy within the D O D that says, if Craig goes to do his weekend duty in the reserve for the 75th innovation command, let’s just say, it’s a bad example, cuz it’s a holiday weekend, but let’s just say, I go down to Houston. Gig Eagle helped us come to, to the recognition that to drive digital transformation in the HR tech space, you of course need the technology.

Craig:

So that’s one leg of the stool, but even if you have great technology, you also need the right policies in place that enable that technology to do what it’s gonna do best right now, we don’t have the policies to support that. And so the third leg of the stool is the incentive. You also need the talent supply the people with the free agent skills to want to participate in a gig like economy. And I think that’s the lower hanging fruit. I think once the tech is there and the policies support it and the processes and workflows are in place, I think people will just realize that, oh my gosh, I can now think of the department of defense as an additional income stream, but I wanna get back to, you know, Jason’s question, why are we doing this? We’re not just trying to match skill sets.

Craig:

We’re not just trying to leverage the whole person of the members of our team. We’re really trying to enable critical mission success. So when you think about a national cyber security incident or a crisis, when you think about a national healthcare crisis, like COVID, mm-hmm, <affirmative> the fact that the department of defense cannot see any of its people who have healthcare skills or cybersecurity skills outside of the military is a huge problem. I mean, it, it, quite frankly, to me is a crisis of sorts and certainly we know what units and where our nurses are in the army nursing core. But when something on the scale of COVID occurs, like we need to know where all of the reserve folks who serve in healthcare that don’t serve in the army healthcare field. We need to know where all those folks are at. I’ll actually share a story when a certain cyber incident occurred a couple years ago, I was in discussions with some of the leaders at army cyber talking about how they can better find people with skills that they needed.

Craig:

I had a friend of mine at the time who was not working in the army cyberspace in the military sense, but in the private sector, he ran global threat analysis and operations for a fortune 500 insurance company. And so his team ran, you know, cyber forensics and threat analysis, vulnerability assessment. And he was at the time looking for an active duty assignment and couldn’t find one and the AR cyber folks are talking to me about how they can’t find additional people outside the cyber field. And so that really is what gig Eagle is about. And that is what leveraging free agent skills is all about within an organization.

Ligia:

You just made that very real. And actually I’m a little scared about what we don’t know <laugh> but I have a question because a lot of our listeners come from the private space. And I think as we’re listening to you so much of this is applicable is a lot of you talk about the span of the expertise needed across cyber medicine, space, robotics, disaster response, but is a lot of the nature of the work in the department of defense project base to start with, because I would say that in the private sector, that may not necessarily be the case. And it’s a little harder once you put in a gig, a marketplace to shift to that. So is that the case? Was it a little easier for the department of defense?

Craig:

Yeah. We’re in the beginning stages for sure. But actually I do think it’s applicable for this reason. When you think about the why behind all of this change within the department of defense, and I will say on the HR technology side, let me just say this, cuz it’s gonna be very relevant for any organization listening. One of the biggest reasons is because we are trying to improve our employee experience, right? Like we know we have the best thing people in the world, but the employee experience is painful. We all know that we all acknowledge it. I mean, from the chief of the army general McConville he talked about that quickly after becoming the new chief of the army, that talent management in transforming the employee experience was one of his absolute top goals. And the assistant secretary of the army for manpower reserve affairs wants to be the best place to work in the federal government.

Craig:

And I think we were pretty close to the top last year, but the real reason we’re transforming HR tech is because we need people to get paid more easily. We need people to move around more easily. And quite frankly, we need people to have better experiences outside of the army with their families, with their friends, with their leisure time. And so when you look at what is occurring across the entire workforce, the dynamics between employees and employers is shifting so fast and COVID really pushed us into more of a permanent spot with a lot of this change, virtual work, flexible work schedules, the department of defense is needing to modernize because we’re so focused on innovation. The reason you end up with so many projects and taskforce teams is because we’re working on so many things that

Ligia:

At the same time, at

Craig:

The same time that don’t fit people’s traditional career paths. So if we’re trying to figure out how machines and humans can operate together on a battlefield using AI and machine learning, you don’t have those skills in the active duty force. They don’t have an AI career field. That’s where we are changing so rapidly with technology that even in private industry companies are just needing to do so many things today that don’t fit the traditional marketing team don’t fit the traditional finance team. So I would actually argue that we’re all becoming more project based because we’re all trying to do things that don’t fit the traditional historic mold of how we thought our organizations were designed. If that makes sense.

Ligia:

Yeah. It’s the future of work. It’s the

Craig:

Future of work? I think it’s very project based and you’re gonna have a lot more free agents and you see the people on there that have been verified to have income over 200, $300,000. And I don’t know if that’s over 10 years or 10 months and I’m sure for some of them it’s within a year, but I mean, that’s a free agent platform, right? Like we have that’s

Ligia:

Right.

Craig:

More fractional employees now that work for two different organizations or three different organizations than ever before. So I would just say the, the economy is becoming more of a free agent marketplace in its entirety, but I think we’re all becoming much more project based for sure.

Jason:

I just wanna thank you for your story. Thank you for your time and thank you for your service. This was a great conversation.

Craig:

Yeah, I appreciate it.

Ligia:

And on that note, I’m curious, Craig, the way we typically end our podcast is we ask people if someone had believed in your potential back in, I think you said 2001, how would your career have been different? What else would you have tried? And I know with a prosthetic knee <laugh> you might have tried five times.

Craig:

I think it comes down to a balance of how can we have an income and a quality of life that we want and balance that with a career that we love. And that’s a very difficult thing to do. So I will just say I’m a fairly adventurous person. I like jumping out of airplanes. I like scuba diving. If I could spend a life in the water diving and running the scuba shop, and that was going to provide the quality of life I have right now. Like that’s what I would go and do. But I would just say that the difficulty to me is not necessarily getting people to believe in you. I think that’s on the individual to be very persistent, resilient, never give up, always set a goal and move toward that goal.

Ligia:

You’re quite an inspiration. Thank you so much major Robbins. This has been quite educational, inspirational, not just for me, but I think for Jason and our listeners, I’ve learned a lot actually today and it’s given us a lot of thought. So thanks again and appreciate it. And thanks everyone. We’ll catch you next time on the new talent code.

Craig:

Thank you. Really appreciate you having me. It’s been fun.

Ligia:

Thanks for listening to the new talent code. This is a podcast produced by eightfold AI. If you’d like to learn more about us, please visit us at eightfold.ai and you can find us on all your favorite social media sites. We’d love to connect and continue the conversation.

 

 

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