Data is the Army’s secret weapon to winning the battle for talent

John Willison, deputy to the commanding general of the Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC), said the service is planning for its workforce needs...

John Willison, deputy to the commanding general of the Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC), said the service is planning for its workforce needs of today as well as 3 or 5 years from now.

The Army embarked several years ago on a modernized talent management program that would take the service out of what was, by its own account, an “industrial age” personnel system. Instead it would develop a 21st century approach that makes the most of the capabilities of personnel by matching them with the Army’s needs.

There are a lot of moving parts to the service’s talent management initiative, but a consistent thread is its use of data in assessing the talent the Army needs and in how soldiers and civilians should be deployed.

Considering the fast pace of technology development, the ever-changing, amorphous threat landscape as well as the competition with other sectors for the best available talent, the Army sees an innovative approach to talent management as essential to its effectiveness.

“Doing talent management well is essential to us being able to perform our mission,” said John Willison, deputy to the commanding general of the Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC), which leads the service’s technology research and development.

Like other Department of Defense components, CCDC is employing talent management techniques with its workforce, and has seen positive results.

The foundation for the approach to talent management is broken down into five basic steps:

  • Define the talent that they need;
  • Assess the talent they have versus what they need;
  • Acquire talent;
  • Develop the talent they have;
  • Deploy the talent.

The most crucial step—and one that is sometimes overlooked—is at the top of the list, Willison said. The Army needs to have a grasp of the skills it will require for new capabilities, especially when looking two, three or five years down the road. Accurately identifying those needs can take a lot of work, but it is essential to preparing for the future.

“We have to spend time to define in detail not only the talent we have, but the talent we need,” Willison said.

Data collection and analytics tools play a significant role in attracting, retaining and deploying talent. And in addition to assessing the credentials of candidates and personnel, it also considers input from them.

For example, the Army’s initial forays under the talent management initiative, which it launched in 2016, focused on soldiers, Willison said, upgrading a system that previously worked according to two criteria: Rank and Military Occupational Specialty (MOS).

“We went from two variables to 25 variables,” he said, “and one of those is preference.”

The CCDC took the same approach with its own workforce of about 14,000 personnel, of which more than 10,000 are scientists and engineers. The command, which focuses on 37 principal areas of research, has seven primary and regional research centers around the country, plus its headquarters in Maryland, along with partnerships with industry, academia and affiliated posts around the world. It conducts studies in 37 primary research areas. Location also can play a part in making the best use of talent, as well as assigning employees to projects where they’re best suited.

The command has seen benefits from a data-driven approach to talent management, not just in determining the right people and teams for the right jobs, but also in shortening the time it takes to find them.

“The Amy historically hasn’t been very good bringing in new talent,” Willison said, adding that the process could take about six months. “I think we can get that six-month timeframe down to less than two months,” under the new process.

The approach to talent management benefits from support at the top of the DoD’s command, as well as from Congress. The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act granted the Army nine new authorities to help in developing a talent-based system, among them educational opportunities and new merit-based promotions.

Meanwhile, the flexible approach to finding and deploying talent can also help adjust to new wrinkles as they come up.

“I think COVID-19 is a pretty good test case,” Willison said, referring to the adjustments made in wake of the pandemic.

It has challenged CCDC on how to work remotely while maintaining productivity, but in the process also got them questioning whether every project needs everyone on site all the time. Certainly, some work has to be done at a physical location, but the expanded use of telework has raised the possibilities of where it could be used more—which could be another tool in its efforts to attract and retain the best available researchers.

“We should be able to broaden our talent pool,” he said.

Regardless of circumstances, the CCDC is banking on its talent management approach to further its research efforts in areas that are critical to the Army’s future capabilities.

“We build teams to solve hard problems,” Willison said. And that involves a data-driven approach to finding the best available talent, putting it to the most beneficial use and in the process retaining more of that talent for the long-term.


Kevin McCaney is a freelance writer.

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