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Defense Innovation Board Tackles DoD's Talent Management Woes

The Defense Innovation Board discussed strategies Tuesday for helping the Pentagon manage its talent pool more effectively to accelerate innovation.

The DIB is a discretionary independent advisory board operated under the Federal Advisory Committee Act.

Eight board members participated in the meeting and discussed potential recommendations to help the Defense Department build a more effective workforce of talented individuals that can overcome the challenges that can slow the innovation of future technology.

One problem that all services are wrestling with is talent management.

Earlier this month, Acting Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy approved a special task force to stand up the new command. Designed to consolidate the processes of Army modernization, that group will oversee everything from prototyping to fielding mature systems.

The concept of the reorganization embraces rapid prototyping and engages warfighters at the beginning, keeping them engaged throughout the process, Army leaders maintain.

Another less-defined part of the effort is aimed at taking a hard look at the Army's talent management, which McCarthy said is "first and foremost a leadership issue."

The Air Force is also focused on talent management, Gen. Stephen Wilson, vice chief of staff of the Air Force, told the audience at the DIB meeting.

He pointed to successful individuals such as Lt. Col. James Doolittle, who led the Doolittle Raid against Japan on April 18, 1942.

"Doolittle became the commander of the 8th Air Force, leading our bomber forces in Europe," Wilson said.

"He went from lieutenant colonel to lieutenant general in 801 days, 2.2 years," Wilson said. "Today, it takes about 20 years. So how do I think differently about this? How do I attract, recruit and retain talent on a different scale, much like how do we incentivize folks like Jimmy Doolittle?"

Wilson also mentioned Chris Lynch, who became director of the Defense Digital Service after he was recruited straight from private industry.

Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth Wright has served 28 years and is an "amazing warrior" and an "airman's airman," Wilson said.

"How do we match all three of those in the talent and be able to inspire that talent and keep that talent and move our Air Force forward?" Wilson said. "We are really thinking hard about how do we do this talent management across the Air Force."

DIB member Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America, said one of the Defense Department's problems lies in the "up or out" personnel system.

It's a "very well thought-out system in many ways," she said, but it's also "very limiting."

"What it means is people really have to rotate in different positions. It's designed specifically to make everyone interchangeable," she said.

A significant downside of the system is it gives individuals only two years to work on ideas before they have to move to another position, so people are "really apt to move on from those ideas instead of being able to pursue them and own them and carry them through to fruition."

As an alternative, the DoD should look at creating a parallel career track so talented people don't get trapped in the up-or-out system, DIB members maintain.

Marne Levine, chief operating officer of Instagram, talked about another recommendation that involves creating a new career field focused on innovation, rapid capability development and acquisition, as well as science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, skills.

DoD leaders often stress the importance of the STEM discipline, "but there is currently no sufficient formal process in place to recruit, train, develop and sustain a core workforce with these skill sets," she said.

The lack of specialized STEM career field hinders both recruitment and retention, Levine said.

"In order to recruit top talent, the department needs to demonstrate that it is a place where individuals can build careers in STEM. Without a clear and viable career path ... recruitment will continue to be an uphill battle, especially when these skills are in high demand in the private sector," she said.

"We compete in the private sector fiercely with one another for the top engineers, computer scientists, software writers, coders ... and not only do we do this with significant resources at our disposal, but we can offer individuals a clear career trajectory and promotions within their area of expertise," Levine said.

The other problem is retention, she said.

Without a clear career field, individuals who specialize in STEM fields are "systematically disadvantaged in the promotion process and are rarely given the right opportunities to develop, advance and apply their skills and knowledge," Levine said.

Existing service members with these skill sets often become frustrated due to a "lack of utilization and continued development," resulting in their talents being lost to the private sector, she said.

"Service members who have the opportunity to apply these skill sets on a limited basis are forced back to their basic branch in order to remain competitive for advancement," Levine said.

"All of this seriously undermines the department's ability to build the force that we need to the emerging technological challenges that are changing the character of warfare," she said.

The DoD could solve this problem by creating a separate branch for these skill sets, much like the newly created Cyber Branch. The move would encourage rapid and efficient adoption of new technologies "as is the norm in private industry," Levine said.

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