Do you remember the children’s game where you had to put the right shape into the right hole? Squares and triangles never matched. Now think about whether the British Army employs the right people in the right job at the right time? In a lot of circumstances, the shape will go straight in, but more often than it should, it requires manipulation and even then, it doesn’t really fit that well. Wouldn’t it be nice to think the Army had people with the right skill set undertaking jobs that were right for them and the organisation? How much more efficient and effective would it be?
It’s a hard nut to crack though when the size and shape of the hole is constantly shifting and this is true for the operational and organisational demand. Gone is industrial age conflict reliant on large numbers of generalist troops to forge ahead in battle. The new era is defined by rapidly evolving technology requiring different and deeper specialisms; where access to information and influence equates to power. Yet despite this shift, little has changed in the way the British Army recruits, trains and employs its personnel.
Britain’s workforce is also changing. The next generation of soldiers and officers will have different skills, career aspirations and expectations to the current cohort making retention and recruiting an even greater challenge. Research from those such as Deloitte and CIPD suggest they will be less motivated by a fixed career paths and will leave an employer if they feel their skills are not being developed fast enough. With a more risk adverse youth, institutional cynicism and the advent of the employer review all having an influence over people’s career choices, the British Army must adapt its approach to remain an attractive employment option at all levels.
This is not to say traditional methods are null and void. The Army of the future will likely remain a predominantly base fed organisation, able to nurture its workforce from an early age, provide them career opportunity and create deployable mass when needed. However, to maintain a competitive edge, the Army must also be agile and adaptable, able to easily and quickly access skills that are not within its structure or fill those areas that are critically gapped. One disruptive idea is the introduction of lateral entry; joining the Army at a point that does not require the complete basic and trade training package?
The British Army already dabbles in the concept; Professionally Qualified Officers, Specialist Reservists, Sponsored Reserve, those transferring from other Services, Reservists wishing to transfer into the Regulars and Reserve or Regular Re-joins to name but a few, many of whom are given a rank higher than Pte or 2Lt. Can and should the Army go further? Is this just an option for the specialist cohort or can those without previous military experience really undertake a more generalist role and if so, how could the Army define and identify the skills needed?
The master question perhaps centres around what it means to be a professional officer and soldier. Why can’t a civilian do the job and what makes someone uniquely military? Enabling lateral entry would require a comprehensive review of posts, an understanding of the competencies needed for the roles and a policy safety net to ensure operational effectiveness is not lost. But it is more than this? Would large scale lateral entry mean the organisation loses its culture and identity which seems so important in creating a cohesive fighting force?
A way of building an effective capability could be to create a system in which individuals could easily flow in and out of the organisation … and be encouraged to do so … gaining suitable recognition and reward for their knowledge and skills acquired within the civilian sector, whilst building a repertoire of experience on the inside. This would play nicely into the academic judgement about the Army’s future workforce but would require a different approach to how it currently employ’s and views its personnel.
Returning to the first point about right people in the right job, however. The British Army may already have the skills it needs, but they are fixed by a system that will only allow them to be realised once an individual reaches a certain rank or role. As noted, the increasing risk with this is that individuals will potentially leave because of a lack of challenge and reward. Concurrent to a system of lateral entry, therefore, should the Army not be providing the current cohort with the same opportunities as those new or returning applicants, if they have the same or similar skill sets? Let people be promoted further and faster than ever before and really exploit this dormant talent. Yet whilst the upward trajectory may be considered the best, there will also be those who wish to consolidate and take a step sideways or downwards. They should not be looked at with distaste if it ultimately means the Army retains that individual and allows their future growth. The so what; rank will become transient…. but so what?