As we seek to grow Army to become more potent and future proof than we have been in our recent history, it is important to step back and analyse whether we are adequately managing our people. The questions we need to ask ourselves are the following:
- Do the people management systems we have in place generate capability;
- Are we retaining talent and nurturing potential;
- Are we managing our people appropriately? If not, are we adequately trained to do so; or are we undermining our own capability?
This article will argue that our greatest capability, our people, need to be managed through the capability life cycle as a ‘cradle to grave’ system akin to how we manage other capability acquisitions. To support this position the article will firstly argue that the training received by Army leaders is inadequate to promote good Human Resource Management (HRM). Secondly, it will argue that we have long favoured recruitment over retention when attempting to maintain or grow Army. Thirdly, the article will argue that HRM, although used prominently and liberally in the civil sector, is still in its infancy within Army. Finally, the article will identify solutions for Army to generate and retain greater capability by developing a system to manage our people through the capability life cycle.
The Origin of HRM
HRM is widely accepted to have originated in the United States in the 1950s but wasn’t widely used until the 1980s. In 1954 Peter Drucker wrote the book- The Practice of Management. This led the way for management theory and since then, scholars have continued to unravel HRM theory in an attempt to get the best from their people. The theory of HRM has given us many of our rights as workers in modern society. It has also contributed to the development of significant literature on management theory as organisations grew and management became a necessity. A manager should aim to unite a team, provide it a direction and ensure it achieves common goals. Comparatively, a leader knows how the team will get there. Our goal as leaders and managers should be to get the best from our people. A well lead and managed team will deliver effects far greater than anticipated.
People as a Capability
One of the great catch-phrases of Army: ‘Our people are our capability’. And it is true! Anyone who has worked in a Joint organisation will identify that the RAAF and RAN are platform based organisations. Their capability is built around the platform. Everyone in those organisations is a slave to a particular platform. Although we have that to a lesser extent in Corps such us RAAC, generally, our capability is built around the soldier. Despite this, our investment in our people is relatively insignificant in size. The 2020 Defence Strategic Update offers evidence of this with 20% of the ADF capability investment going to the Land Domain over the next ten years, none of which has been earmarked for people programs or systems. So if our people are so important, why don’t we invest in them as a capability?
As officers and NCOs we are trained in Command, Leadership and Management (CLM). Many would agree that we largely group Command and Leadership together to be vitally important, and it is in an operational context. But so to do we over simplify Management as merely administration in barracks. While management at its very core is the administration of soldiers, it runs much deeper than that. It is the personal aspect of leading. It is understanding your soldier’s problems; their limitations; their family situation. It’s knowing how hard you can push them and being trusted to push them all the way to that limit. Management prepares the force for the harsh realities of war. It enables Command and Leadership. It prepares our people; supports them through difficult times; and remediates them for the next battle. Management is vital! Often, rather than investing in managing our people, we treat our people like a resource to be consumed and disposed of. This is why we are failing to grow Army at a time where it may be crucial for our nation.
Recruitment over Retention
For the past ten years we have concentrated heavily on recruiting young fit applicants to fuel our Army. Effectively for every discharge, we recruit a new soldier [i]. A great business model for an Army that doesn’t need to grow, and it would work if we were full. Unfortunately, we are not [ii]. This problem is not one of recruitment, it is one of talent management and retention. We continue to haemorrhage human capital at key rank groups due to poor management and poor HRM systems. For the past twenty years, operations in the Middle East have acted as a critical recruitment and retention tool, but this is no longer the case. Although exercises and activities in the South Pacific will provide intrinsic value to members of the Army, it may not provide the sense of fulfilment and service to nation that Army craves. Extrinsic motivators are also likely to be considerably different to that of a Middle East deployment. A recent key lever for recruitment and retention in Army has been the economic situation within Australia during COVID-19. Army is currently in a fortunate position, within a very unfortunate set of circumstances. However, the current economic conditions will not remain forever. Army must plan to enhance its HRM system to avoid catastrophic collapse of the force structure in the next five to ten years as its retention levers are reduced and removed.
A key component of retention is talent management. To put it simply, focussing on the top segment of each rank to ensure they are retained to be placed in positions of leadership in the future. Although we as an Army have spoken about talent management for some time, it appears to only be used as an ad hoc contingency response to someone who has already decided to discharge. This fails to retain the right talent and builds resentment within the remainder of the organisation, which in turn leads to lower retention rates. This is not to say people placed in positions that can effect this don’t do their best to manage talent, rather that we as an Army are not resourced or structured to do so effectively.
Retaining the Right People
To ensure the HRM system works the way it is intended, retention of the right people needs to be central to any solution proposed. The concept of toxic leadership has been analysed by a multitude of scholars and military officers over the years. One particularly good example is Great results through Bad Leaders by Kane Wright. As Kane Wright correctly identifies; the problem with toxic leadership is that from above it often looks like successful command [iii]. Toxic leaders work long hours, achieve great things with their team, know who to invest in with ‘face time’ and they will stop at nothing to succeed, even at the detriment of their peers and subordinates. Unfortunately it is often the case that the reason why these leaders perform so well is that they are great at extracting from their people, with no regard for sustainability or reinvestment. They are feared and often hated, and therefore drive production. Is it possible that we have inadvertently created a system that rewards and promotes toxic leadership and that this very system creates a spiralling chaotic environment that has toxic leaders promoting other toxic leaders? If so, is this simultaneously depleting the good leaders that exist as they get pushed aside by Army?
For years we have favoured Project Management over Human Resource Management for sponsored tertiary study. Concurrently, we have relied too heavily on the insufficient CLM training we receive at Duntroon and on career courses to manage our people. These courses focus largely on the administration of soldiers rather than the human aspect of management. Now Army has to play catch up while its human capital is rapidly depleting into the civil sector. As an Army we have been excellent at training our people to manage projects to feed the capability life cycle of: concept development, requirement setting, acquisition, in service and disposal [iv]. But we haven’t managed our people in that way. Nor have we taught our leaders how to manage their people. Project Management knowledge, although fantastic for a posting to CASG or a staff HQ as a staff officer, adds little value to Commanding, Leading and Managing soldiers and officers of the Australian Army.
Whilst I am not recommending that we manage our people like a project, we need to invest resources in managing our people like we do with projects. We should invest in managing our people from the start to the end of their careers. After all, personnel is a Fundamental Input to Capability [v]. Our recent investment in adding the Master of Strategic People Management to UNSW offerings and Long Term Schooling options comes some of the way in producing effective Human Resource Managers for the future of Army. It should be noted though that other organisations recruit their HRM practitioners from external to their organisation. Whilst we need to grow this capability internally, we may be so far behind that we need to recruit Specialist HRM practitioners to plug the gap and remediate Army in the shortest time frame possible.
Capability Life Cycle management is necessary for human capital to be retained and grown within Army. Our ‘recruitment over retention’ policy has failed to maintain Army at its required strength and to grow Army we must retain our best. The Army we have today is the one we will fight with tomorrow [vi]. In order to retain our human capital we must treat HRM skill as a critical capability. We can’t rely on the HRM stream to generate sufficient corporate knowledge across the organisation. We must generate specialists with a depth of HRM knowledge, and generalists with a breadth of HRM knowledge. Each and every one of our leaders and managers contribute to the HR system.
In order to adequately manage people as a capability we must do the following:
- Remediate training - Our training must include civilian recognised HRM training for leaders at every level to generate HR knowledge.
- Manage careers - This will require doubling or tripling the staffing within our career management agencies by supplementing them heavily with HRM specialist Defence civilians. This will be a significant fiscal investment in our people, similar to an acquisition project.
- Manage talent - Increased HRM oversight will allow for talent management to occur at a much greater level thereby increasing retention. We should structure this similarly to talent scouts found in professional sport.
- Use performance appraisal as a development tool, not a measure of success - PARs are having a detrimental impact on our capability due to focussing on measuring people rather than developing them. We need to change the focus of the PAR.
- Learn from the civil sector - Increase programs that allow for temporary employment in the civil sector with a Return of Service Obligation at the completion of the program. This allows Army to gain additional human capital from an external provider for no cost (high return on investment), provides experience to the member (retention) and will assist the member in transitioning when they are no longer suitable to continue serving (transition). We should not see this as a threat to retention. Many members will discover that the grass is not greener in the civil sector.
- Plan for transition - As part of the life cycle, we should aim to assist in the transition of members no longer suitable to serve. This should include assistance in seeking employment in the civil sector to ‘set them up for success’ outside of Defence. We should not see this as a draw on Defence resources, rather an investment in our people to contribute to society and the economy after Army.
In conclusion, this article has argued that Army needs to review how we manage people and invest in systems that support the management and retention of critical human capital. It has argued that HRM must become a critical capability that Army uses to improve retention to ease the burden placed on recruitment. The article has demonstrated why HRM is important to Army and why it will increase in importance over time. It has argued that our people need to be invested in as a capability by training and equipping our leaders with the skills and knowledge required to manage people effectively. Finally, it has identified key actions that can be taken to more effectively manage Army’s people capability by creating a Capability Life Cycle system to build capability and generate mass as an Army. We cannot continue to recruit our way out of a retention crisis.