From the AAE: Building the Army Acquisition Team

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Building the army acquisition team

Materiel isn’t the only thing in need of modernizing. The acquisition enterprise is taking a new approach, too.

During this critical time of sweeping change in the Army, as modernizing Army materiel gains traction and speed, the acquisition enterprise must also take the opportunity to modernize itself. This historic moment requires us to effect the changes that will ensure not only that we build the best acquisition team to meet the needs of future warfighters, but also meet the challenges of the marketplace.

In the same way that the decisions we make today with our military will shape the fighting force of tomorrow, so, too, will the decisions we make with respect to the acquisition workforce shape the materiel that the future force will have at its disposal.

One thing is clear: With either civilian or military Army Acquisition Workforce members, we cannot build the Army acquisition team the way that industry does. That does not mean we cannot emulate industry methods in the best way we can.

Think about it: Today, when a contractor comes to the table to negotiate the contract they’ve just won a bid on, they bring their A-Team. Let’s say it’s a major contract, and they’ve already spent as much as or more than $1 million on their capture effort. There is nothing wrong with that—it’s a matter of them surviving and prospering. But right now, when the Army is negotiating that contract, we most likely would have a Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act (DAWIA) Level III certified contracting officer with about six months of formal training and at least four years of contracting experience, potentially sitting across the table from a team of Wharton-educated MBAs and Harvard-educated lawyers. That’s not a level playing field.

We are not going to level that playing field overnight. The new talent management strategy that the Army is developing, along with our own corresponding acquisition talent management plan—the Human Capital Strategic Plan—is the beginning of a long march to building the right team. We will accomplish this by wisely using all of the people, data and technology available to us to help us speed acquisition, improve the quality of our products, help make our efforts vastly more cost-effective and meet our solemn commitment to our Soldiers.

That commitment is represented in the Army’s six modernization priorities: We will execute requirements as rapidly as feasibly possible, as efficiently as possible and at the best price possible to bring the Army’s future equipment and weapon systems from design to delivery. Our challenge is that we have an industrial-age acquisition system with an industrial-age culture and mindset. We cannot fully achieve our modernization goals and regain our historic overmatch capabilities without dragging this system, along with how we organize talent, into the digital age.


Last year, Secretary of the Army Dr. Mark T. Esper launched the Army Talent Management Task Force. That task force is at the vanguard of a new, Army view on talent and provides the basis for a new, Armywide talent management strategy that, in the near term, is focused primarily on the military side of the workforce.

To be sure, Army talent management writ large is different from acquisition workforce talent management. The new Army Talent Management Strategy is designed to acquire, develop, employ and retain the best officers—including future acquisition officers—and will act as the blueprint for the total Army.

As the secretary has said, talent management should be a deliberate, data-driven approach to the processes and systems that enable the Army to better manage its officer corps. Before we acquire talent, however, we must understand what we want these new acquisition officers to do. When we understand that, we can better understand the mix of knowledge, skills, behaviors and preferences that we want to look for in accessions to acquisition.

This is critical to the Army because there is considerable competition for the top talent in America today. This is not, as Dr. E. Casey Wardynski, the assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs, said recently, a “come as you are” Army. We need people who not only are technologically adept, resilient and problem-solving, but also who reflect and share the values of our nation.

In Army acquisition, our job is to get those talented people to join our ranks. Unlike industry, which can pull in talent wherever it needs the talent and from wherever it can find it, the Army has no “lateral entry,” as Wardynski noted. Officer or enlisted, people in the current system generally start at the bottom and work their way up. That means it’s considerably harder for us because we have to start developing our military acquisition talent at the bottom, too, and make acquisition attractive to the people with the skills, knowledge, behaviors and preferences that the Army acquisition enterprise needs.

In many areas on the civilian side of the acquisition workforce, that is also often true. In some fields, such as contracting, the way the Army does business is so different from the way industry does—starting as an intern is often the way people find their way into acquisition. Even civilians who come “laterally” into acquisition—after retiring from military service or from industry—still have to learn how the Army does business.


The Army Talent Management Strategy will provide the tools to create a bridge between the current and future systems. With the rollout of the Integrated Personnel and Pay System – Army (IPPS-A) to the regular Army, we will at last have a tool that will help us gather the detailed data we need to identify and recruit the talent we need for the future.

This will help us develop the talent marketplace that Esper has spoken of in recent months—transparent, data-rich, and governed by business rules that will help match officers’ talents to assignments and engender trust among commanders, officers and the Army. When IPPS-A rolls out to the civilian workforce, we can further develop our knowledge of who our people are and what we need them to do.

The challenges are manifold, and the challenge of changing the culture in the Army is central among them. The current system for officer assignments was created in 1980 with the enactment of the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act. It is a rigid, conveyor-belt system that’s highly centralized and often based too much on an officer’s time in service. With assignments managed from the top, all officers follow what is essentially a standard career path. They often have little choice in where they go and what they do.

Basing assignments on talents, knowledge, skills, behavior and preferences makes much more sense. “Talent-based branching” began at West Point in 2012 and gathered detailed insight into the unique talents each new officer has. Not only that, it also gathered the unique demands of each Army basic branch. That, along with technology, has enabled the development of the talent marketplace.

Using the talent marketplace, the Army will place officers in the assignments in which they are most likely to be engaged, productive and satisfied—and engaged, productive and satisfied is a great way to retain talent. The Army’s new Assignment Interactive Module 2.0, which facilitates the assignment marketplace, will help officers find their own sweet spot. We have to make every effort for acquisition to be that.

But, of course, it’s not just about officers picking and choosing where they want to go. It’s about where they’re needed. It’s also about officers having the training and education they need to succeed at acquisition. At my direction, the Army Director for Acquisition Career Management (DACM) Office has launched the Functional Area (FA) 51 (acquisition) Officer Advanced Education Implementation Plan.

Recent history shows that the vast majority of officers, when they access into FA 51, do not have an acquisition-relevant degree. Approximately 75 percent of officers do not have a business degree relevant to acquisition. Only 15-20 percent of officers have a graduate degree with sufficient business credits. Of those with a relevant graduate degree, 6-10 percent will require a business certificate program to go along with the DAWIA training they will receive at the Army Acquisition Center of Excellence in Huntsville, Alabama. The new authorities that the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2019 gave us will help to do some of that. Much of what we must do will require cultural change—and everyone understands that’s difficult. We must also work to make acquisition careers highly rewarding and therefore sought after by top Army talent.

Among other things, NDAA loosened some of that rigidity in the current system and gave the Army some flexibility to determine the characteristics of our future, talent-based system.

Authorities enacted in the 2019 NDAA that apply to the acquisition workforce, and that we are studying and looking to leverage, are:

  • Direct commission up to O-6 (colonel): The Army can access private sector expertise up to the rank of colonel to both the active and reserve components.
  • Opting out of a promotion board: An officer can opt out of a promotion board—or get off the conveyor belt temporarily—to avoid the career impact of seeking advanced education, broadening assignments or assignments of significant value that affect the competitiveness for promotion.

We are looking at both of these (and more) to help us acquire and develop the talent we need. Let’s take the second one first. Opting out of a promotion board would mean that an officer wouldn’t get “punished” for taking the opportunity to get, for example, a doctoral degree, and miss out on future promotions because he or she is no longer on that conveyor belt. It would also mean that we could hand-pick talent to pursue such studies to the considerable advantage of Army acquisition and then retain that talent. We don’t want to pay for someone to get a Ph.D. and then force them out of the Army.

Few other Army organizations absolutely need people with doctoral degrees in the way that the Army Acquisition Workforce does.

As to the direct-commission authority, it would mean that, should the Army decide it needs a particular expertise, it could hire an expert and bring that person into our ranks. Such assignments, however, would be temporary. There are contrary perspectives on this. Some think that bringing someone with needed expertise into the Army temporarily at the O-6 level could greatly benefit the Army. Others believe putting such individuals in uniform could endanger the legitimacy of the very important operational perspective of acquisition officers who came into the Army Acquisition Corps the old-fashioned way.


Other than potentially making civilians temporary Soldiers, what about the civilian side of acquisition? At my direction, the DACM office is pursuing a number of initiatives in that realm, such as an acquisition-focused recruiting cell, college scholarships and pay, just to name a few.

Secretary Esper has a vision that we would all do well to understand. He is fully aware that he has three distinct populations who serve the Army: officers, noncommissioned officers and civilians. The Army will pilot its Talent Management Strategy first with officers. When it has gathered sufficient data and developed an understanding of how the talent marketplace works, it will continue that pilot by including noncommissioned officers.

Only when those much smaller cohorts have helped us iron out any issues with the implementation of the strategy will we to begin to roll it out to civilians. As you are probably aware, civilian acquisition members make up approximately 96 percent of the workforce, and their jobs are governed by a much different set of regulations. It’s a harder nut to crack and vital to get it right.

There is no question that there is much work to be done and we cannot do it all at once, but in the very near future, when we meet contractors at the table to negotiate a contract, we will be on a level playing field.

This article is published in the April-June 2019 issue of Army AL&T magazine.

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