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Keeping the Knowledge Workers – Reporting on Experience and Talent

Retaining Captains and Majors by changing the reporting balance in experience and talent

A British Army Officer recently posed the question of ‘how to find the balance between promoting talent and having enough credible experience’ on Linkedin. This question referred to the Sky News article ‘The Army must stop ignoring talent’which highlighted the fact that the Army is experiencing problems retaining Senior Captains and Junior Majors. These Officer, part of Generation Y have different motivations and expectations around management, reward and promotion from their longer serving peers for which the current system seems better set up. The Army has evolved from manual work to become part of the knowledge industry where people ‘generate more with their minds than with their muscle’. Assessment hasn’t taken account of the changes in the type of work the Army does or the expectations of the people who now occupy its ranks. It still relies heavily on subjective measures, the ability to command and with less consideration given to staff.

The move towards the knowledge industry, reflective of wider developed world economies can be tracked from the manualboots on the ground campaigns (Bosnia, early days of Operation TELIC) to the use of Operational Mentoring and Liaison teams (OMLT) in Afghanistan starting in 2006. The latest manifestation is the formation of Specialised Infantry Battalions (Spec Inf) who will ‘conduct defence engagement and capacity building, providing training, assistance, advice and mentoring to our partners’ all knowledge transfer tasks are part of the battlefield knowledge industry. According to the Commandant of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, the Army had previously recruited a roughly even mix of graduates and non-graduates. It is now around 80% graduates. Had they not joined the Army they would probably be knowledge worker Accountants, Consultants or working in Technology. Yet the Army doesn’t use their academic achievement as a marker for future performance, almost unheard of in business. Because knowledge work is much closer to staff and beyond a certain point is where Officers will spend most of their time, this seems unwise.

The seniority-based promotion system, which values experience over talent is one of the main causes for these Officers, including me leaving. Each additional year served is arbitrarily judged to be of value with the promotion (but not quality) line being lowered. For an organisation that claims to be meritocratic, having promotion standards drop continually thanks to tenure and with no cut off point seems in direct contrast to this claim. The signal that this sends to others is that if you wait your turn eventually money, rank and a bigger pension will arrive. Captains and Majors don’t accept that they should have to wait just because the system that worked for their longer in the tooth peers hasn’t been updated. The open ended nature of this system makes it even more difficult for them to promote. Those above them can tread career water until 55 (or their children finish boarding school), occupying spaces otherwise available for younger, more enthused Officers whose views are less coloured by an already long career. This sleepy, subjectively measured existence isn’t something these young Officers, keen to genuinely affect measurable change aspire to be a part of.

Officers are (or should be) divided into thirds with their future roles decided in part on this grading. The Army of today is more likely to work in novel, complex situations that don’t have a comparison peer set so thirding is perceived as unfair. The global head of Talent for Deloitte believes forced ranking no longer suits today’s increasingly knowledge-driven workforce’ and as such the use of thirding is questionable. But if the Army insists on ranking its members by thirds, then there must be a box on an OJAR that clearly states where an Officer sits. People ‘consistently compare themselves favourably against their peers… 70% will rate themselves in the top 10%’Anecdotally, many an Officer has been told they are the in top of the middle third, possibly to cushion the blow that they are not where they think they should be. Placing them in this reporting grey area creates unrealistic expectations which, when not met by reality are demotivating enough for them consider their future in an organisation that isn’t honest with them.

Each Reporting Officer has their own subjective view of what success looks like in general and more specifically what ‘Professional Effectiveness’ amongst the other reporting criteria means. They don’t set metrics or KPIs for their staff, check results and link them to reports as either business or other non-profits do – just think of the number of metrics NHS trusts must publish. Hours worked, an input metric is used as a broad proxy how talented someone is. Another widely accepted marker for talent is (being selected for and) undertaking a specific role with performance judged largely on the how difficult that role is perceived to be. Yet comparing two roles is very hard. Think about comparing Adjutants of Regular and Reserve Battalions. Both roles require different skills and ways of interacting with different sorts of soldiers. However, the former will always be judged as requiring more talent than the latter, but with no objective way to measuring this. So a young Captain can go from best in their Battalion to mediocre in their Regiment or Corps because of a half point difference in an assignments board, possibly because one Commanding Officer is better at report writing than another.

Individuals are marked out early in their careers as Commanding Officers of the future and then assigned roles that reinforce this decision and aid chances of promotion. This in part because of the halo effect whereby because a person is good at something (command) it is assumed they are good at everything (staff). Peers know each other’s job history and can roughly compare their chances of command from before their initial Majors appointments.  If they miss Regular Battalion Command, they face the prospect of becoming long serving Staff Officers with limited promotion prospects and control over the sort of work that they will do and routine geographical movement. They would rather start a second career and give themselves enough time for it to be meaningful, which means leaving at around 30, the point around which the Sky article alludes to.

Bleeding talent at the Captain/Major cohort has the danger of becoming a death spiral. To plug gaps left as Senior Captains and Junior Majors leave, younger, less experienced ones are pulled into jobs that they might not have been expected or wanted to do so soon in their careers. They gain no formal recognition in terms of reduced requirement for time to promote despite demonstrably succeeding at the next level. Other organisations would use performing at the next level as evidence of eligibility to promote without the Army’s rigid length of service requirements. These younger Captains and Majors having performed at a more senior level, compare their circumstances with their civilian knowledge workerpeers who don’t have rigid time barriers for promotion and decide to leave.

Multi-stakeholder knowledge work requires broader perspectives outside of this subjective single source prose chain of command and time served approach. Taking views from a wide range of stakeholder’s through 360-degree will provide more data points, a wider comparison set and will be viewed as much fairer than today’s subjective assessments. Asking for 360-degree reporting has become fashionable but few, including CGS, offer much in the way of intellectual underpinning for why it is required. For an organisation thatcan deliver lethal force and for whom orders must be followed, often without question, this is dangerous. I firmly believe that 360-degree reporting should be used but the Army should understand why they want it, not just ask for it because it seems everyone else has it. For me, the decentralised nature of the knowledge work the Army is doing now and in the future is this underpinning.

I informally used 360-degree reporting in 2011-12 at JOTAC, feeling that this environment was benign enough to at least experiment with its use. I did this without my boss’ knowledge or consent. The students that I taught were asked to give me an ‘MPAR’. This was compiled by one person and(I hope) represented the views of the syndicate. It was sent to me after I had given students their reports and they had leftthe course, reducing the risk of negative views expressed about me impacting the person who I had asked to press send on the email. With an eye on my future in business, I wanted these students to feel that if they had had to pay for the course that they would have got value for money and how I, as an instructor could continue to improve and hypothetically attract more custom. Two students from the six syndicates that I taught, with an average of roughly seven syndicates per course, were awarded top student. Although I don’t believe that opening myself up to feedback from below could be directly linked to this result, the trust and mutual respect this helped to create between us and within the syndicate seemed to give these students something of an edge. The Army cannot continue to have its reporting and promotion systems set up to disproportionately benefit Generation X. Its knowledge worker Captains and Majors see the contradiction between the organisational narrative of meritocracy and the time served paradigm of mediocrity so are leaving in droves. 360-degree reporting although still subjective, would be more widely and therefore better informed and accurate. The Army should use educational attainment as a marker for future success to bring itself into line with other big knowledge organisation for whom it competes in a war for talent. Other knowledge organisationsuse ‘Up or out’ where attempts at promotion are limited and not promoting at any rank results in leaving, clearing the way for quicker movement through the organisation. The Army should do the same. It would recognise that talent, not time served, increases chances of promotion. Generation Y seek rapid movement through the organisation and promotion is important for their retention so the Army must decide whether experience or talent matters more.

British Army

Chris Has 17 Years leadership experience. Commanding on operations in the Balkans, Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan. He has worked on the Staff in MOD, Army HQ and Brigade HQs

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