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DOD Looks Outside Bureaucracy for Novel Talent Management Concepts

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (May 02, 2024) -- Across the globe, the Defense Department employs over three million people -- including civilians and uniformed military personnel. A challenge for the department has been both competing with the private sector for talent, but also finding the best way to manage the talent it has and that it brings on, in terms of ensuring the best people, with the right skills, are in the most appropriate jobs. 

"From a talent management standpoint, we have a lot of things that we face as challenges," said Jeannette Haynie, director of the DOD Talent Management Innovation Challenge. "For example, hiring timelines, competing against private industry and reaching the breadth of the folks around America. We need to figure out how to, over time, [increase our] focus to be more human-centered."

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Late last year, the department embarked on a novel effort to meet the challenges of talent management by asking employees across the department for their best talent management ideas. 

The inaugural "Talent Management: From the Ground Up Innovation Challenge" kicked off in August 2023 as a way to capture the diversity of thought, experience, background and capability offered by the department's total force, and to bring forward new ideas about how the DOD can improve its talent management. 

The DOD's office of personnel and readiness received some 200 submissions as part of the challenge, and those were whittled down to 33 semifinalists. On April 24-25, teams and individuals representing the nine top-rated talent management ideas gathered at the Pentagon to present their ideas to DOD leadership in a final round. Presenters of those ideas will eventually work alongside various policy offices inside DOD to collaborate on how best to implement their ideas.

For this year's talent management innovation challenge, participants were asked to submit ideas related to recruiting and accessions as well as promotion and retention. A third "wild card" category allowed submitters to be broader with their ideas. 

The presentations, Haynie said, were impressive. She said she is optimistic about how what she and her team heard might benefit the Defense Department. 

"These leaders know the problems they're seeing. They're living them, and they have solutions," Haynie said. "The overwhelming impression is there's a lot of creativity [and] we need to figure out how to effectively tap into a lot of energy that we can use. And I'm just thrilled that we have a template for something that could work for the future." 

Based on what she saw, Haynie said it's clear that soliciting ideas from some of the innovative personnel from across the DOD is a great way to get new insights and ideas that might not have been otherwise considered. It's something she said she hopes might happen again. 

"I hope that we continue doing these challenges at DOD and talent management," she said. "This one was pretty broad -- we had some really broad categories. I'd love to focus those and target ones for the future, to look just at maybe promotion, and retention in certain categories, or military occupational specialties." 

Haynie also said that she hopes every idea she saw presented might, in some way, be useful to the DOD in the future. 

"It really just depends on what the department sees as valuable from these nine, and how we think they can fit into existing plans or further support existing plans," she said. 

Air Force Master Sgt. Chad Hardesty, an "innovation strategist" within the Air Force's talent management office, was one of the competitors in the talent management innovation challenge. Among those who presented ideas, he was also the only enlisted service member. 

The issue Hardesty identified is that existing organizations and teams are challenged to bring the best new team members on board and are also challenged to understand how new team members communicate and are motivated so that the entire team can move quickly to high performance. A solution, he said, involves making use of a talent management assessment platform. 

"It allows your organization, from top to bottom, to be able to conduct a number of assessments that can be customized and tailored to the commander or the organization's needs," he said, adding that this includes assessing personality, skills and strength, for instance. 

"It then [uses] a ... kind of AI algorithm to give you a synopsis of how individuals will be able to work together based on their skills, their strengths [and] behavioral and personality assessments," he said. 

Already, Hardesty said, his idea has been piloted within the Air Force with senior executive service personnel and general officers. 

"Currently across the Air Force, during my research and analysis, I noticed that individuals ... are not hiring people, they're hiring paper," he said. "When you submit for a job, you submit your resume. But they don't know who you are. They don't know your personality characteristics. They don't necessarily know your skills and your strengths. They know what you're qualified in and whether you have a degree [or] certifications." 

An analysis of skills, personality, strengths and weaknesses, he said, could allow teams to better know a candidate before they are hired and to be able to better integrate a new team member once they are on board. 

His interaction with DOD's personnel and readiness team, and the support they have provided during the innovation challenge, he said, has been phenomenal. 

"They've reached out to me, they've continued to, even before the finals, they were asking for more data, more feedback," Hardesty said. "They really wanted to make sure that they were getting everything they needed to make the right decisions. After the pitch yesterday talking to a couple of senior leaders, I really feel over the next couple of weeks I'll be able to have a good number of meetings and hear people's challenges and see how our idea, our solution, can be customized or even be pivoted to help them solve some of their challenges." 

The Defense Department also struggles to attract top talent in technology and STEM fields, said Navy Reserve Lt. Cmdr. Steven Jaworski, one of the innovators selected to present his ideas to leaders at the Pentagon. 

"My idea was to get left to the problem, get upstream of it. Source, recruit, engage and nurture potential candidates and DOD applicants with an advanced candidate relationship management tool," Jaworski said. "This means pooling applicants, pipelining -- very granular segmentation. 

For candidates who apply for a DOD job but aren't selected, he said, those candidates shouldn't be forgotten, but instead the department should remember them and keep them in mind, based on what skills they have, for other jobs. 

"Let's keep them in a talent pool, engage them with emails and SMS campaigns, and keep them in the pipeline to become an applicant," he said. 

The artificial intelligence-driven candidate relationship management system, Jaworski said, can identify potential employment candidates based on their social media posts, and recommend jobs within the DOD. 

Presenting his idea to DOD leadership was a good experience for him, Jaworski said. 

"[I had a] great conversation ... with [Ashish S. Vazirani] and the panel," he said. "I know behind the scenes [everybody has] done so much work to make this possible. And not only the coordination of the panel and of the presentations, but the research that the panel obviously put into reading our ideas ... they really did their due diligence." 

Matthew Correia, a military veteran and current civilian with the Air Force, has recommended using gaming software in conjunction with an existing competency assessment tool, to develop various competencies within military and civilian personnel. 

The DOD and military services, he said, have competencies involving things like accountability, leadership, communications, decision-making and teamwork, for instance, that they would like service members and civilians to have. 

"I thought, why don't we assess and develop those competencies within a commercial, off-the-shelf assessment tool, paired with a team-based activity," he said. "It could be an online game.  It could be a war game. It could be a project. And then once you've identified what their competencies are, develop them to the next proficiency level up. This way, you have a workforce that is very much adaptive to the 21st century warfighter." 

Correia said he has been surprised with how easy it has been with talent management: innovation challenge for him to develop his idea and to then bring it to DOD level for consideration. 

"A lot of folks have an idea that the Department of Defense is a rather static, sort of fixed environment, maybe not open to ideas," he said. "This just completely changed my mind about it. It really opened up a new door and a new opportunity to find out that there are people at the senior level of the Department of Defense who are looking for creative, innovative ways to develop the force, attract new people to the force, and retain the best talent within the Department of Defense."

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