The Australian Army must systemically de-link high-stakes career management decisions from professional development if it genuinely wants to change the organisation's learning culture.[i] The Army Training Environment is built on career courses to prepare our personnel for their next appointment by giving them the skills, knowledge, attitudes, and behaviours necessary for that next job. These courses include isolated tests designed to confirm a student’s understanding of the content. However, the Army’s personnel management system re-interprets that same course result to decide on people’s future potential and aptitude as part of their Career Management Boards (CMBs).

The impact is two-tiered. Firstly, students mentally approach courses as career-defining that come with significant ‘career risk’ if they underperform rather than the career development opportunities they are designed to be. Secondly, high-stakes career management decisions are being informed by an invalid interpretation of test data where there is no correlation between current achievement and future aptitude.

Both side-effects undermine the learning culture of the Army and generate a fear of failure in the safety of the Army Training Environment. Assessments in training can typically test against one of two key criteria: current achievement or future aptitude.[ii] Achievement demonstrates the individual's understanding of the content in a given topic to measure mastery of those skills, knowledge, attitudes, or behaviours. Aptitude makes inferences regarding a person’s cognitive ability or capacity to learn as a demonstration of future potential.

Any interpretation of assessment results or testing data requires validation; you cannot develop a test for one purpose and expect to be able to accurately use the same data for a different purpose without validating the correlations between the original purpose and the new interpretation.[iii]

For example, the Combat Officers Advanced Course (COAC) prepares officers for sub-unit command and its assessments are designed to test student’s achievement in company tactics and battle group planning. COAC assessments are deliberately narrowed to the application of tactics. They are not designed to account for other core characteristics like leadership, values, or intelligence.

Attaching too much weight to a single piece of quantitative data is counter-productive and can foster unconscious bias in selection processes.[iv] However, COAC results are habitually interpreted as a holistic indicator of future potential and key discriminator at CMBs, which is an entirely invalid interpretation of those results.

This idea is not new; it is not innovative, but it could be transformative.

Army has the opportunity to make a genuine change in its learning culture by de-linking those high-stakes career management decisions from professional development by introducing large-scale standardised testing explicitly designed to assess aptitude and future potential.[v] This would remove the ‘career risk’ currently associated with career courses and better inform decision-makers at CMBs.

While not all skills, knowledge, attitudes, or behaviours can be usefully assessed in a large-scale standardised test, do they need to be? Could not more effective measures of a person’s leadership ability be taken from the longer-term observations captured in the Performance Appraisal Report?

For career management purposes, these assessments would become a mandatory component of CMB portfolio preparation to be attempted by every candidate in a window immediately prior to presentation at a CMB, no exam – no CMB. For this concept to be successful, these assessments must be institutionally standardised in their administration, delivery, and scoring – implying online participation under supervision.

All-corps and trade-specific components would provide greater fidelity in determining a candidate’s potential against the entire cohort and within their specific muster. Recognising that these assessments would only form one part of the CMB portfolio, not its entirety, is important.[vi] This concept would enhance the transparency of the CMB process and give greater ownership to those candidates being presented.

In this construct, the Army Training Environment would only assess to confirm an understanding of those skills, knowledge, attitudes, and behaviours included in that specific course to provide a degree of assurance of their competency at the given rank, i.e. Pass/Fail with no grade attached. For the training establishments, this would reduce the marking liability on the instructional staff and allow them to re-focus on mentoring, coaching, and developing their students.[vii]

It reduces the risk of a narrowed curriculum or instructors ‘teaching to the test’ in time-constrained programs. For students, it would remove the ‘fear of failure’ from courses and allow them to engage, explore, and test their new knowledge – making it a genuine professional development opportunity. 

Human nature is a risk. Without the fear and a career-defining reason to complete a course, there is a risk that people will seek to avoid or bypass those career courses. Forcing someone to attend the training does not guarantee their engagement with the course and certainly will not improve the organisation's learning culture. So don’t.

Enable those individuals to demonstrate their competence at the current level through useful recognition or ‘assessments-only’ pathways and receive accreditation for that course. Adults need to understand the reason for learning and then have the opportunity to put theory into practice in real-world-oriented problems immediately.[viii]

In the current system, the reason for learning is the extrinsic motivation of potential promotion. By de-linking that transactional reward from the learning, the reason for learning becomes the intrinsic motivation of self-development towards professional mastery.

The concept to systemically de-link high-stakes career management decisions from professional development within the Australian Army holds significant potential for transforming the organisation's learning culture and career management dynamics. The current practice of using course results, designed primarily to assess knowledge mastery to determine future potential and aptitude to support CMBs, has inadvertently created a ‘fear of failure’ among personnel undertaking career courses.

This undermines the genuine professional development opportunities that career courses should provide and leads to an invalid interpretation of test data, wherein there is no proven correlation between current achievement and future aptitude. The introduction of institutionally standardised testing procedures, including all-corps and trade-specific components, would provide a more accurate evaluation of candidates’ potential, fostering greater transparency and impartiality within the CMB.

Further, it would positively shift the emphasis of the Army Training Environment from assessment to confirmation of competency, freeing instructional staff to concentrate on mentoring and fostering a deeper understanding of skills, knowledge, attitudes, and behaviours.

While the concept of de-linking career management decisions from professional development is not new or innovative, its implementation has the potential to be positively transformative for the learning culture of the Australian Army. The Army can create a more equitable, transparent, and learner-centric environment by introducing large-scale standardised testing designed to assess aptitude and future potential.

This shift has the power to not only enhance career management but also promote a culture of continuous learning and development, ultimately benefiting both individual personnel and the organisation as a whole.