A different way of doing business

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

CERDEC’s talent management initiative incorporates a new, enterprisewide approach to help employees reach their goals while strengthening the organization.

by Mr. John S. Willison

Two years ago, the U.S. Army’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) faced an unpleasant reality: More than 30 percent of our almost 2,000 government employees were eligible to retire or would be soon. Taking steps to address that challenge proactively, we launched a succession management initiative. But a growing realization that talent management was the key to strengthening the workforce prompted us to expand our focus.

It is easy—and common—for an organization to declare that “people are our most important asset.” It is significantly more challenging and more meaningful for an organization to develop, implement and maintain an enterprise talent management strategy that embodies that claim. The future of the organization, and the foundation of our ability to deliver capabilities never before imagined by Soldiers, are rooted firmly in our ability to attract, develop and retain talent. Over the past two years, CERDEC dedicated significant executive attention and resources to putting in place such a strategy, which we continue to refine.

The intent of the talent management initiative is to treat the recruitment and development of our employees as a top priority for CERDEC. Further, we intend to invest in the workforce and maximize the number of qualified employees to fill all positions. We believe the key to this is to have clear, standard qualifications published for all positions and to have career development plans for all employees. These and other tenets of the initiative will guide every aspect of talent management at CERDEC and will serve as the foundation upon which we build a qualified and engaged workforce.

Two of the key components of our talent management initiative are talent management plans (TMPs) and domains. TMPs detail the requirements of positions, including the duties they entail and the qualifications expected to be successful. These include mandatory technical qualifications; areas of emphasis, such as business acumen, leadership and soft skills; and other requirements, such as acquisition certification, security clearance and financial disclosure. We define the second component, domains, as technical, business or other disciplines that require a certain knowledge, skill set or educational proficiency. These are similar to the Army career programs and acquisition career fields in that they provide CERDEC employees with recommended training, education and experience for each career level (junior, midcareer and senior) within each domain.

We categorized the work performed by CERDEC employees into seven technical domains and 10 business domains. (See Figure 1.)


figure 1

CERDEC categorized the work performed by its employees into domains focused on a technical skill or business function, which require proficiency in specific subjects. Clearer requirements help managers guide employees to the right experience and education, and make it easier to zero in on the right applicant for a new position. (Graphic courtesy of U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center and CERDEC)

The technical domains include cyber, networking, radio frequency and power, with subcategories that further define the work, called technical specialties and capability specialties. Technical specialties are those that are largely common across related organizations or functional areas and are taught in academia; capability specialties are those that are unique to DOD and the Army, and typically specific to an organization or functional area. The business domains include financial and resource management, contracts and acquisition, security and human resources. The business domains have subdomains that further define the work. For example, the two subdomains for financial and resource management are budget operations and financial operations and controls.

The domain descriptions, associated career development and staffing plans provide managers and employees access to position requirements and recommended training, education and experience; inform training and development decisions; allow management and human resource divisions to better plan for the investment of time and funds; enhance the skills of our workforce; and better communicate expectations to potential external applicants for positions within CERDEC. In addition to the technical and business domains, we created career development recommendations for those who are or aspire to become supervisors or team leaders. This was done to encourage development of the unique skills necessary for success in such positions early in an employee’s career.

It is our intent to ground all human resource efforts in our talent management initiative, including recruiting, career development and performance management.

After two years of hard work, we are beginning to realize the fruits of the talent management initiative. For example, we are using the TMPs and domain definitions to complete a comprehensive review of the job descriptions of all 2,000 employees, with the goal of ensuring that the duties therein accurately reflect the work assigned and, most importantly, include the proper domain designation.

The domain designation is critical to the next step, which involves revising Individual Development Plans to include the domain-specific training and development opportunities recommended by the teams of subject matter experts and outlined in the domain career development plans. The next step is a review and validation of employee performance plans to ensure that CERDEC is measuring employees against defined expectations that represent the duties appropriate to the position’s assigned domain.

While it is too early to assess the full impact of this initiative, some key outcomes associated with these steps include the ability for all employees to assess their progress in developing themselves, compared with the comprehensive development plan for their position’s assigned domain, as well as for any positions to which they aspire; the ability for supervisors to make more informed recommendations about employee development; CERDEC’s ability to make more informed and cost-effective investments in training and development; and the ability to more effectively communicate job requirements and development opportunities to applicants and prospective employees. (See Figure 2)


figure 2

Two years into its tal­ent management initiative, CERDEC is seeing a number of benefits at all levels of the organization. For example, the TMPs and domain definitions have allowed for a comprehensive review of job descriptions. Now CERDEC is applying this newly developed framework to refine employees’ Individual Development Plans, then to review and vali­date employee performance plans. (Graphic courtesy of CERDEC)


The latter area is where we have realized the most value since the inception of this effort. Specifically, the existence of a talent management plan and a complementary career development plan for the positions we have recruited to fill has resulted in clearly written staffing plans. Those, in turn, have generated better referral lists, according to CERDEC supervisors who have filled the positions.

We have also received positive feedback from employee focus groups, specifically about the perceived value of defined career development guidance being readily available to all employees so they don’t have to rely exclusively on a supervisor or mentor. Rather, they can chart their own path toward their career goals, guided by the plans now available to them. We believe these early results are indicative of the initiative’s positive long-term impact on our ability to attract and retain talent.

In addition to making the talent management plans and career development plans available to employees, we finalized and approved a Workforce Career Development Program Handbook, which outlines the overall intent and the roles and responsibilities of all involved. The handbook, combined with the more detailed TMPs and domain documents, will help our employees take actionable steps in their career pursuits and better understand the philosophy behind this effort. The handbook will also encourage the evolution of our culture to fully embrace talent management.

We have already seen a benefit in streamlining, standardizing and communicating our recruitment actions. We anticipate similar benefits in our performance management practices, particularly with regard to greater consistency in plans, ease in measuring performance outcomes and the perception of greater parity in performance evaluations and employee recognition as grounded in measurable objectives.

Shifting to a more enterprise-based approach to planning and executing training will allow us to ensure that all training aligns with the domain career development plans, is the best and most cost-effective available to meet the targeted need, and is scheduled so as to capitalize on eco­nomies of scale, thereby maximizing the return on our investment in employees.

Concurrent with this effort, we initiated a centerwide climate survey, using the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, with the goal of applying the feedback from the survey to assess and enhance employee engagement at CERDEC. The feedback we received from employees has validated the importance of some of the very things that served as the impetus for this effort, particularly the need to place our employees at the center of our focus through a viable, enterprisewide, enduring talent management strategy. We will continue to use this survey to inform decisions about our workforce and refine our talent management strategy.


The author describes the new talent management initiative to employees. In focus groups, employees have rated the first phases of the initiative positively, noting that organizationwide guidance about the requirements of each job gives employees a way to manage their careers without having to rely entirely on a supervisor or mentor. (Photo courtesy of CERDEC)

When my career with the Army started almost 31 years ago, I would have appreciated having a clearly defined set of career paths and decision points on which to base my own plans. The input from our survey and employee focus groups demonstrates that our employees are seeking the very same thing, and we are now able to provide that information as an enterprise.

I am confident that our team’s hard work will dramatically improve the effectiveness of our organization’s recruitment and retention efforts. With that, CERDEC will be able to demonstrate consistently that our people truly are our most important asset.

For more information, contact the author at john.s.willison.civ@mail.mil. You can also follow him on Twitter at @STCDDir.

MR. JOHN S. WILLISON, a member of the Senior Executive Service since 2011, is director of CERDEC’s Space and Terrestrial Communications Directorate at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, where he leads more than 750 civilian, military and contractor scientists, engineers and support staff. Willison earned his M.S. in software engineering from Monmouth University and a B.S. in electrical engineering from Lafayette College. He also completed the Harvard Senior Executive Fellows program and recently became a certified executive coach, completing George Mason University’s Leadership Coaching for Organizational Well-Being program.

This article is published in the July-September 2017 issue of Army AL&T Magazine.

Subscribe to Army AL&T News, the premier online news source for the Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology (AL&T) Workforce.