OPM Should Take a Lesson From the Army

Making skills and competencies integral to talent management is an effective strategy in every field.

The Army has often been accused of being slow to change, but that notion is being challenged by “The Army People Strategy” released by service leaders last October. When implemented, the strategy should be a model for other federal agencies. The strategy would benefit government organizations at every level.  

The Army People Strategy describes “a shift to more deliberately managing the talents that our soldiers and civilians possess. This means building a 21st century talent management-based personnel system by creating the policies, programs, and processes that recognize and capitalize the unique knowledge, skills, and behaviors possessed by every member of the Army team and then employing each member to the maximum effect.” That commitment contrasts with the reality of civil service.

It's clear the Army understands what’s been happening in the country’s labor markets.  “To compete in this high-demand, high-skill labor market, American employers have reinvented their people practices. Today's highly successful businesses abandoned industrial-era labor management practices long ago. They moved to talent management, which, rather than treating people as interchangeable parts, leverages the unique productive capacities of each person. The Army is doing the same to remain competitive in the domestic labor market.” Again, the lesson for government is obvious.

Army leaders also seem to understand the very real benefits of reform: “Talent management is transformational, increasing organizational agility, focusing on productivity, and manifests as readiness and lethality. It also integrates all people practices, generating a positive effect on organizational outcomes and leveraging each individual's knowledge, skills, behaviors, and preferences (KSB-Ps) for the mutual benefit of the Army and the individual.” An omission in the statement is the silence on the benefits and strategies for recruiting top talent. But that does not affect the importance of the statement for government.

Although not addressed in the strategy statement, the military’s rank-in-person approach to career management would provide considerably more flexibility—or agility—to respond to unexpected developments. Rank-in-person is also the basis for managing workers in public safety agencies (e.g., police), the foreign service, the Senior Executive Service, and in academic departments (e.g., Associate Professor, Full Professor). On a less formal basis it's also used to manage employees in legal, scientific and engineering careers.  

A key thread affecting these job families is that job descriptions do not have to specify what an employee is expected to do (or not do) by job level. Originally, job descriptions were intended to hold employees accountable but today a list of job duties can also constrain individuals who see a reason to tackle new problems. The standard job description needs to change.

A second thread is that career progress depends on individual skills and competence. The most capable employees and their careers progress faster, move to higher salaries, and can expect to handle the most difficult cases. That enhances recruiting and retention and contributes to better organization performance.  

I first saw that two decades ago with what were parole and probation officers, now community supervision officers (CSOs), when the Court Services and Community Supervision Agency was created. The managers and employees who participated in focus groups were solidly supportive of defining the competency profile important to good performance. The new focus on competencies supported an important change in the way the job is now defined.

Research and experience have shown that making skills and competencies integral to talent management is an effective strategy in every field. In recruiting it helps to attract better qualified candidates. It also provides a logical framework for training and development. It facilitates feedback and coaching. And it's widely accepted when experts and better skilled workers are recognized and rewarded. That’s true in healthcare, academia and the business world.

Significantly, the Army strategy states its intent to “explore new authorities to create appropriate tailored compensation packages that ensure soldiers and civilians are valued based on their responsibility, authority, and skills.”  

A key is preparing managers to support their people in developing new and better skills. Training is of course essential, but the new strategy has to be incorporated into the selection of new supervisors and the way their careers and compensation are managed. Inviting employees to assess the skills of their boss helps to ensure their fairness. It would be advantageous to have teams of managers and employees review performance ratings.

Experience has also shown the skill and competency statements need to be written to gain acceptance by managers and employees. They need to be seen as intuitively relevant and incorporate the words and phrases commonly used in each field. That facilitates manager/subordinate discussions. Naturally, to be fair the competency profile used in selection and at each career stage needs to reflect what’s relevant and reasonable to expect. Lower level competencies are dropped and replaced at higher levels. Defining competencies at three levels, with the highest “role model,” supports performance evaluation.

It's only a first step but President Trump recently signed an Executive Order to focus federal hiring on applicant skills for jobs where a college degree is not essential. Actually, there are only a handful of fields where degrees are necessary. Government and many other employers have used the degree requirement as a simple but unfounded criterion to exclude applicants. (‘Diploma mills’ or unaccredited colleges have enabled an unknown number of employees to obtain a job or promotion.)

The Army statement concludes with: 

The Army People Strategy represents a commitment to innovation and thoughtful leadership in the realm of people management. It articulates what we must do to win—Winning Matters! Army readiness, modernization, and reform efforts must be supported by a 21st century talent management system and essential quality of life enhancements, fundamentally improving the way we manage our center of gravity—people.

The focus on people is an important message for every agency.