The Army’s modernization of “how we fight, what we fight with, and who we are” is rapidly propelling the Army into the future, armed with new mindsets, processes, approaches, and ideas to build toward a 21st century talent management personnel system. One of the key elements of this modernization is how the Army manages our people. Simply stated, we are moving from a data poor, industrial-aged approach to a data rich, information-aged approach. Industries that thrive in today’s Information Age all recognize one central fact: information has become the critical commodity for the future. Similarly, as the Army accelerates into the Information Age, the information about our people is foundational to determining how we acquire, develop, employ, and retain all members of the U.S. Army.
A critical component of Army talent management is the use of assessments to provide additional, relevant and objective information about our people. These assessments measure an individual’s knowledge, skills, and behaviors (KSBs). Each individual’s talent consists of unique, measurable clusters of interrelated KSBs. Properly aligning these KSBs against a specific assignment drives more effective job performance. As we move forward toward a more data-driven approach, access to granular data will guide more informed promotion, selection, and assignment decisions to maximize the development and employment of our people. Assessments are already providing Army leaders a more holistic view of the personnel in our ranks. Assessments help the Army identify those Soldiers who possess the “war winning talents” needed to win in future conflicts. While assessments help us see people as individuals and differentiate KSBs, they also help standardize how to view individuals of the same rank objectively. Finally, assessments provide us critical data to help us achieve the Army Chief of Staff’s vision of being the premier human development organization in the world.
First, it is necessary to understand the difference between an assessment and evaluation because these two terms are often used interchangeably. An evaluation is the subjective insight that a rater or senior rater provides about a Soldier. This insight is critical and will always be at the center of how we manage our people – nothing can replace the years of experience that raters provide. However, these subjective evaluations have some limitations. Frequently, raters don’t have the opportunity to evaluate critical talents due to the nature of the work that is observed. We rely on evaluations to gain insight about the individual and to evaluate his or her ability to operate within certain environments and in discrete positions. For example, an evaluation about a company commander may provide great insight on an officer’s ability to serve as a battalion commander. It is less likely that this evaluation will assist in determining whether that officer would be a good fit as an instructor at the Sustainment Center of Excellence or a speechwriter for an Army senior leader. The primacy of the evaluation is not the issue; evaluations will continue to be the centerpiece of any future system to manage our people. Where the Army’s legacy personnel system falls short, however, is that evaluations have served as the single source of input into determining the future of Army leaders. A future system that employs both evaluations and assessments allows the Army to gain a much better understanding of its Soldiers.
Within the CSA’s vision for a future system is the idea of a framework of assessments that are linked together across an officer’s or NCO’s career. For the officer corps, assessments begin at the commissioning sources (military academies, ROTC, and officer candidate school) where the information derived from a Talent Assessment Battery is used to assist cadets in determining the most optimal branch which aligns with their KSBs. Once that officer enters the Army, these assessments are initially used to assist in his or her professional development. Take, for instance, a newly commissioned second lieutenant who enters the officer basic course and is informed that his written communication skills are at a level far lower than his peers. This information is then coupled with opportunities to work on these identified weaknesses. A short time later, this officer would receive similar assessments and feedback on his progress at the Captains Career Course (CCC) – again, providing information to assist in his career and self-development. Additional information gathered about the officer might inform him of untapped strengths to leverage, perhaps a strong level of cross-cultural fluency or mental flexibility. As the officer advances in rank, knowing this data can assist in not simply the individual’s career development, but also where he feels might be the best fit within the Army – leading him to volunteer for service as an advisor in a security force assistance brigade. In this vision, when an officer reaches a certain rank, assessments will be used to steer the officer toward jobs for which he or she is best suited. The enlisted and NCO assessment structure is still conceptual but is similar to that of officers. The Army will begin providing assessments to new recruits at the military entrance processing stations and will continue through all levels of institutional PME up through the Sergeant Major Academy for senior NCOs.
When an assessment is used to assist the Soldier, it is referred to as a developmental assessment. Taken one step further, the data from most developmental assessments can be combined together to assist the Army in seeing trends pertaining to group strengths and weaknesses. For the new second lieutenant who was identified as a weak writer, this weakness might be shared by a number of his peers. This in turn, could cause the branch proponent to suggest curriculum or training changes to the classes offered at the basic officer leadership course or captain’s career course. When this information is aggregated together and used to drive decisions by leaders about the management of the group, it is referred to as a diagnostic assessment.
The final type of assessments are those used to determine how the Army will manage a particular officer and will have a direct impact on the management of the officer. This is known as a predictive assessment. The most relevant example of the Army’s implementation of assessments is in the commander assessment program (CAP) in which specific assessments are used to determine who should be a commander. The non-cognitive assessments used at CAP measure foundational elements of what the Army needs in its officers’ who are selected and trusted with command. CAP assessments are used to measure the candidate’s physical fitness through the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT), writing ability through the Written Communication Competency and an essay test, verbal communications, and finally cognitive and non-cognitive abilities. These assessments do not replace the insight and wisdom brought forth by a leader’s raters and senior raters, but rather complement evaluations by ensuring that a more holistic view of the officer is considered. By combining the insight of raters with assessments, the Army is able to determine the officers with the right mix of performance and potential. It helps identify those officers who can excel in command and also learn throughout their experience and be able to contribute at the next level.
To better illustrate how the information gleaned from individual assessments feeds into a more holistic view of a Soldier, one can use the analogy of land navigation. Army Soldiers are trained that in order to pinpoint the exact location of an object on a map, one must consider the location from multiple vectors. A single vector is not accurate; while two vectors can refine the area more narrowly, it isn’t until you can triangulate an object using three vectors – like a compass, topographical map, and geographic landmarks – that you can positively confirm you have the right location. All three data inputs collectively feed into determining the object location. In the Information Age, many more vectors are available with precision accuracy. If you are trying to find your missing cell phone, multiple data points feed into determining the exact location. This might include cell tower triangulation which leverages three nearby cell towers to track roaming signals from your phone, or four orbital satellites using trilateration to Global Positioning Systems (GPS) receivers. All of which work together to provide you a single output: the location of your missing cell phone. As with assessments, granular data from assessments provided at career institutional milestones present a more comprehensive look at an individual.
One critical aspect we need to keep in mind is that assessments drive behaviors. Take for example the APFT. Every Soldier knows that twice a year they are required to take a three-event APFT that includes two minutes of push-ups, two minutes of sit-ups, and a two-mile run. Soldiers know that this test would be administered and graded in a consistent and fair manner. Due to this, Soldiers have conditioned their bodies to excel in these three events. When you compare a 30-year-old Soldier to the average 30-year-old American, it is guaranteed there are at least three areas the Soldier is significantly different – his or her ability to do push-ups for two minutes, sit ups for two minutes and run two miles. We are all experiencing the change in our training as we move to the Army Combat Fitness Test – which requires us to develop different physical attributes.
We are applying this same mindset in the use of assessments to the realm of non-physical talents. Officers now know that to command at the battalion and brigade level their ability to communicate in the written and verbal form will be measured and used to determine which officers to place in command. This will cause them to develop their skills in communication, which will create a collective rise in the quality of all communication within the Army. This critical aspect, the use of assessments to drive behaviors offers powerful opportunities for us to improve the level of talent within our Army.
By adding assessments to the realm of non-physical talents, the Army is sending a clear message to its workforce: you are expected to self-develop your KSBs as you continue to progress through your career in the Army. Being a Soldier is not just a job – it’s a profession that requires continuous self-development – assessments help incentivize officers to invest in their self-development.
The information gathered from these career-long assessments is imperative in a 21st century talent management system. The Army is moving rapidly to implement and institutionalize assessments into its policies and processes. We are rapidly moving away from a one-size-fits-all Army to one that maximizes the potential and contributions of every individual. Assessments help us do this. They are giving the institution, organizations, and individuals more flexibility – for assignment matching, for differentiating strengths of team members for unit missions, and for informing different career options. Increased self-awareness of key attributes from various vectors of information like non-cognitive and cognitive assessments may help a junior officer better see herself and determine where she can best contribute to the Army.
As we move into the future, the U.S. Army must once again adapt – as it always has – to uphold the lasting comparative advantage to win future wars. We are doing this by maximizing the potential of every Soldier across the Total Force – officer, non-commissioned officer, enlisted, and our civilian employees. If we are going to remain the best military fighting force in the world, we must safely and smartly manage the war-winning talents of the men and women in our ranks. Talent Wins!
Maj. Gen. J.P. McGee currently serves as the director of the Army Talent Management Task Force. McGee is a graduate of the Infantry Officer Basic and Advanced Courses, Ranger School, Pathfinder School, and the Command and General Staff College. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Engineering from West Point, a Master's Degree in Administration from Central Michigan University, and is an alumnus of the Army's Senior Fellows program having served as a National Security Affairs Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
Michael Arnold currently serves as the deputy director of the Army Talent Management Task Force. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from La Salle University and a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy, International Relations, and National Security Studies from Tufts University, and he served as a National Security Affairs Fellow at Stanford University.
This article was published in the January-March 2021 issue of Army Sustainment.