The Army’s new director of operations at the Rapid Capabilities Office arrived at his post from the Army’s Talent Management Task Force. He discusses how the Army views, gets and keeps the talent it needs.
by Ms. Nancy Jones-Bonbrest
After spearheading the Army’s Talent Management Task Force since May 2016, Maj. Gen. Wilson “Al” Shoffner Jr. joined the Army Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) as director of operations in April. At first glance, there may not seem to be an obvious link between his former assignment and his new one. After all, one is focused on maximizing individual capability to meet Army personnel needs, while the other is focused on expediting critical technologies to the field to counter urgent and emerging threats. Yet a closer look suggests comparisons. Both entities were launched to provide a “bridge” between what is existing and what is needed so that the Army can meet the nation’s current and future security demands.
For the Army’s Talent Management Task Force, this work centers on integrating and synchronizing efforts to create a more deliberate talent management system. The task force knows that the Army must evolve rapidly from an industrial-age personnel system to keep pace with today’s best practices.
In much the same way, the RCO rejects a one-size-fits-all approach to modernization. Recognizing that today’s threats are evolving faster than the traditional acquisition process can often support, the RCO is tailoring solutions and delivering prototypes to the field. By using prototypes, the Army can focus capabilities as small-scale, threat-driven projects that it can deliver to Soldiers for rapid deterrence and feedback. Maybe the capability helps evolve a program of record for the full Army, or maybe the Army moves on to a newer, better technology. Either way, it knows quickly in which direction to move, and it can move faster.
With only a few days in as RCO director of operations, we asked Maj. Gen. Shoffner if he would be willing to share his insight into talent management as well as his expectations for the RCO. Without hesitation, he took the opportunity to bridge the two communities and introduce himself to the world of acquisition.
Nancy Jones-Bonbrest: You came to the Army Rapid Capabilities Office after serving as director of the Army’s Talent Management Task Force, and as part of a long operational career. How has your previous experience shaped your view of Army acquisition?
Shoffner: I’ll answer that question in two parts. For the first, I’ll reflect back on some of my operational experiences in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I think it is becoming increasingly obvious that over the past 15 years, we as an Army have been focused on winning the current fight, and during that period of time our [traditional] adversaries [e.g., Russia, China] have taken advantage of our focus being elsewhere. They have started to develop capabilities that really get at our core strengths.
Also, over the past couple of decades, the rate of change for technology has increased. It’s not just Moore’s Law, where every 18 months the processing power doubles—it’s even faster than that. And so if you think about those two factors taken together, that’s what has resulted in us being in the situation we are in now, where there are some gaps between what we need to be able to do and what our adversaries are able to do. So the Rapid Capabilities Office has been established to help mitigate those gaps. We also have to do more than that; just closing those gaps is not enough. We’ve got to make sure we don’t find ourselves in this position five, 10, 20 years from now.
Fundamentally, on talent management, what we are trying to do is move from an industrial-age system where we looked at people as interchangeable parts to a modern, 21st-century system where we are managing individual talent. One of our strengths as a nation for so long has been our ability to innovate and innovate faster. So as it relates to the acquisition community, we are looking to people who have that innovative spirit and who can help us figure out how to close those gaps in short order without having to wait seven to 10 years to field a new system. That’s why, with the Rapid Capabilities Office, what we are looking to do is to prototype systems to get them out there very quickly, to get them out to exercises and learn from those experiences so we can make adjustments and field the systems as quickly as possible.
Jones-Bonbrest: What did you learn at the Army’s Talent Management Task Force that can be applied to the Army Acquisition Workforce?
Shoffner: I’ll start with how we define talent in the Army. We don’t see talent as one single thing that you can put your finger on. It’s the combination of a lot of things—it fundamentally is the combination of an individual’s knowledge, skills and behaviors. Key to this, though, is that these are shaped over a lifetime. It does include experiences people have in the military, but also includes all the experiences they have outside the military: where they went to school, where they grew up. It’s what their hobbies are, what they are passionate about, how they think. The thinking part is really, really important. Obviously we can measure cognitive ability. We have tests, assessments that get after noncognitive ability, but what we are really looking for are people who are critical thinkers, people who are innovators and people who have nonlinear problem-solving skills.
As you think about the acquisition workforce, we know those skills and talents are out there. In some cases, it may not be someone who is a DA civilian, it may not be somebody wearing a uniform—it may be talent in industry that we are trying to seek and trying to leverage. Part of the challenge with that is, with all our databases and all of our systems, we don’t directly see the talent that is in industry, but that’s why industry partnerships are so critical. And not just with the big defense companies, either—smaller companies also have a role. And sometimes the smaller companies could offer a capability faster than some of the larger ones can.
There is a caution there as well. We don’t want to blindly mimic practices in civilian organizations or in private practice that may not fit the Army’s unique cultural requirements. That is again one of the things the Rapid Capabilities Office is going to help to do, be that bridge with industry and the operational part of the Army.
Jones-Bonbrest: How is Army talent management changing? What were some of the new approaches the task force tried?
Shoffner: The Talent Management Task Force has existed for about 18 months now, and we were starting to pilot a few of the initiatives. One example is a pilot we are about to begin for the cyber workforce. We are actually looking to do a pilot for direct commissioning and bring folks on wearing a uniform to work in our cyber force. This may be folks who are just a few years out of college who already have some experience, and it may be folks who are toward an end of a civilian career. We want to be able to leverage the talent that’s out there throughout the range of experiences. We also want to be able to compensate them appropriately. This direct commissioning authority that was given to us in the last National Defense Authorization Act gives us that for the first time. We are really excited about it, and we’re going to push this pretty aggressively. The goal is to find those folks, to select and hire them, and get them into the training base sometime later this year.
We also tried something fairly innovative where we took a Soldier who was separating at the end of the first term of enlistment, and we brought him on as a DA civilian, a GS-13. Why? We did this because the Soldier wanted to continue to serve, he loved what he was doing and he didn’t want to re-enlist, but he did want to continue to serve and help the team. By bringing him on as a GS-13, we were able to pay him reasonably well and ideally keep him for a career, not just the next term of enlistment. So to me that’s a win in the long term—Soldiers no longer wearing a uniform but still on the Army team.
Jones-Bonbrest: Do these initiatives apply to the civilian workforce as well, especially in today’s uncertain global security environment when the Army can’t afford to lose top talent?
Shoffner: Some of the things we are learning in other career fields—for example, in cyber—we’ll look for applicability across the workforce. The Acquisition Corps has one of the largest civilian workforces across the Army, and it’s critical we get this right. Looking at talent management across the Army, we’re a little bit ahead on the military side compared to the civilian side. There are some legislative proposals that may come through that would change that somewhat, but whether or not those legislative changes occur, we still have to figure out how to better manage our civilian workforce. I know the assistant secretary of the Army for manpower & reserve affairs looks very closely at this; they started a civilian workforce transformation effort. We’re looking at some other cohorts across the Army to see what best practices we might be able to adapt.
One of the ideas we embrace is this idea of timeline flexibility. We do have the law on the military side, the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act. Obviously many laws govern our civilian workforce, but for both military and civilians, we are trying to figure out how we can allow for some more flexibility. That might be things like allowing folks greater flexibility for education, allowing them time to take a break and do something different, then come back to the workforce. Similarly, some of our former military who are now in the civilian workforce, we’ll look to bring them back—and it could be bringing them back wearing a uniform or bringing them back as a DA civilian. That ties into the whole “Soldier For Life” idea, that we want this interconnected network of current and former Soldiers who all talk to one another, they talk to industry, they are all sharing ideas and thoughts and looking for opportunities to help one another.
Jones-Bonbrest: What are the next steps for the Talent Management Task Force, now that you have moved on to a new assignment?
Shoffner: Another big milestone for us will be the implementation of the Integrated Personnel and Pay System – Army (IPPS-A), which will actually be fielded first with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard in the summer of 2018. We’ll have a full capability there by 2021. IPPS-A is really important. It does three things for us: It’s a total Army approach with active, National Guard and Reserve; it gives us that talent management capability; and it also gives us auditability. IPPS-A combines 30 different stand-alone data systems, and if you think of what just happened with [the pay controversy at] the California Army National Guard, I think that’s a great example of something we can’t afford to have fail.
Jones-Bonbrest: The Rapid Capabilities Office is still fairly new, having been stood up less than a year ago to rapidly deliver prototype capabilities to counter urgent and emerging threats. What are your goals for the office?
Shoffner: Looking forward, we’re going to leverage currently planned exercises—the Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) 17.2 at Fort Bliss, Texas, this summer will be a big one for us—to get Soldier feedback on urgently needed capabilities. We’ll also be looking at exercises in Europe as opportunities to get some of the prototypes out, especially with regard to electronic warfare. Positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) will be another one that we will put a lot of emphasis on between now and the spring of 2018. Those operational assessments and rapid fieldings are the methods we’ll use to accelerate these prototypes to parts of the world and units out there where we can close those gaps and ultimately deliver overmatch. The other parallel effort is the Emerging Technologies Office, which is within the Rapid Capabilities Office and specifically focused on emerging technologies. They look to find those potential gaps and stop them from forming, so we make sure we are not surprised in the future.
Jones-Bonbrest: Is there anything about Army talent management that surprised you the most when you first got there, or that most people don’t know?
Shoffner: Yes. I think most people think of it as military-officer effort only. It’s not. It’s military and civilian. It is officers, warrant officers and Soldiers. Some people think it’s really about taking care of your best, and that’s talent management. It does include that, but it’s truly much more than that. It’s about maximizing the ability of everyone to contribute in a meaningful fashion. So if I had a bumper sticker it would be: “Right Soldier, Right Job, Right Time.”
Jones-Bonbrest: What’s the bumper sticker for the Rapid Capabilities Office?
Shoffner: Bringing technology to bear before you know you need it.
For more information, go to http://rapidcapabilitiesoffice.army.mil or email the Rapid Capabilities Office at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on the Army Talent Management Task Force, go to https://www.ipps-a.army.mil/army-talent-management-task-force/.
NANCY JONES-BONBREST is a staff writer for Data Systems Analysts Inc., providing contract support to the Army Rapid Capabilities Office. She holds a B.S. in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park. She has covered Army modernization for several years, including multiple training and testing events.
This article is scheduled to be published in the July-September 2017 issue of Army AL&T Magazine.
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