Defence People Management in the Digital Age

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A part of Defence iQ's Editorial Theme for 2020, Innovation and Enterprise Transformation in Defence, we'll be publishing articles from senior contributors on a range of topics, such as procurement, R&D, leadership, culture and disruptive technology integration.

When contemporary commanders focus on operations, they are clearly and rightly focused on the mix of hard and soft power, on information, economic and diplomatic levers as well as their own, aiming for success over a time base set in years, and potentially generations, in order to create the conditions necessary to realise strategic objectives.

This is good, joined up thinking. However, we need that same long-term vision when we look at how our people are attracted to the armed forces in the digital age, how we should exploit their strengths to train and how we can attract them to stay, including an analysis of what might make family and friends venerate an armed forces career in today’s society. 

The Military People Model

In the search for solutions, much has been made in recent years of the need for the slow-changing military to adopt private sector agility and best practice. Perhaps surprisingly, the military people model has proven a tougher nut to crack for external consultants and civilian HR professionals than areas such as procurement.

The complexity of the military human capability suite is challenging, and may range from nuclear engineers to fast jet pilots, high-end assault troops and intelligence analysts, amongst many others.  Importantly, the armed forces encompass a plethora of small, niche capabilities which would, in the civilian world, be managed as separate companies.

In contrast, the contemporary military model venerates the ‘all of one company’ approach and matching the employment offer to capability without damaging the cohesiveness of the armed force is a particular challenge.  On even the simplest HR quotient - the number on the payroll - militaries don’t follow the business HR model as numbers are generally a political rather than capability derived figure.

If the military people model is indeed this bespoke, and yet the human component is so crucial for success on operations, military leaders have a particular strategic management challenge.  Against this one might expect to see a chief personnel officer on every military board across the world, but analysis suggests a very different story.

People as Capability

Leaving aside this potential lacuna of top-level expertise, an effective transformational change in people will need a proper integration of the people component into military programmes from the conceptual stage to the delivery of capability. As an example, such integration might see a new cyber capability designed from the outset to be operated remotely, without the necessity for operators to satisfy the usual fitness requirements for an armed service. This might require new categories of Service personnel to be created, but the benefit is being able to harness those whose brilliant minds are not blessed with military level physical attributes.

Crucially, if the thinking is done at the start of a new programme, the people planners can develop the concept in parallel with the equipment development, allowing coherent evolution rather than missed opportunity. For military leaders and defence officials there is a clear challenge: start treating the people component as a capability rather than a cost driving number.

People Transformation and Big Data

In terms of tools for transformation there is one ‘golden bullet’ in the people arena: data. Starting with recruiting, the digital world holds significant information about potential applicants, but collection and analysis needs to be structured better, just as on the battlefield when targeting is poor the effect is limited. 

After joining and in the training continuum, an enormous amount of data points are available, and here correct interpretation can identify important trends and allow us to better target retention measures.  The critical concept is that we need to actively re-recruit our people throughout their career with a refreshing offer which is as bespoke as a large organization can manage. Service careers need flexibility: it is better to offer a career gap or a time in part-time work, perhaps as part of the Reserve with less immediate deployment liability, than to lose the expensively trained individual.

The opportunity to take civilian employment in the digital space allows innovative civilian skills to be cycled back into the military so we should encourage it.  After the normal run of a military career has ended forces need to think about retaining skills – perhaps with a very easy transition to a civilian status supporting the front line. 

To mine and analyse big data about personnel, specialist companies are already coming on board.  AI offers yet further opportunity as we create a learning and reactive through-career development system, matching training to emerging technology with a permeable border to civilian employment.  Armed forces around the world already have the right people, the challenge is to form a system which has the flexibility to allow them to innovate and exploit rapid change.

At the heart of this is the ability to treat people as individuals, not numbers, to move away from immovable process to more agile guidance and yes, taking risk on alternative approaches as armed forces evolve.