June 1, 2013  

Editor’s note: Managing smarter

Volumes have been written, including plenty of pieces in this magazine, on the need to overhaul the way the military manages its people — to transform a system designed for the Industrial Age into one better suited for the Era of Networks.

Many of these critiques contrast the way the military promotes and assigns personnel with the way it’s done by thriving corporations. The best-run companies, for example, work with valued employees to take personal preferences into account: Perhaps an employee has found a niche that he or she loves; perhaps a proposed move would cause undue family hardship.

No one is suggesting personal preference rule the day when it comes to military assignments; that’s hardly the case with corporations, either. But a pair of new Army initiatives are making a small step in the right direction.

Until now, noncommissioned officers have generally been handed orders to their next duty station without so much as a conversation with Human Resources Command, which essentially took the lists of needed personnel and the list of available soldiers and matched them up like wooden pegs.

That’s changing, at least for master sergeants and sergeants first class. Col. Bob Bennett, who directs enlisted personnel management at HRC, says someone from the command will talk to these senior soldiers about possibilities for their next assignments. Depending on the results, Bennett says, the effort may be extended to cover staff sergeants and sergeants.

The practice of looking merely at the papers in a military professional’s record when selecting his or her next job is almost self-evidently folly. The Army has long seen the wisdom of at least having a conversation with its officers before making an assignment (though it is certainly no guarantee of satisfaction with the next job). It makes perfect sense to do so with the skilled and valuable leaders in the noncommissioned ranks.

As for the officers, a similar practice pertained for lieutenant colonels and colonels and the command of battalions and brigades. If you were eligible, you were automatically considered for a command slot unless you begged off. Henceforth, it will work the other way around: Only those officers who request consideration for the all-consuming job of commander will be placed on the list of potentials.

Neither step, of course, negates the Army’s perennial right — indeed, responsibility — to move people around as needed. Instead, both will help the service do it better.