This story was originally published on April 12, 2015
Defense Secretary Ash Carter says the military should build an internal social media platform that would transform the way jobs are assigned and how troops are evaluated.
The idea is emerging from corporate America, where some large organizations are spending millions of dollars to create their own Facebook-style systems that can have far-reaching effects on the way they do business every day.
Since taking over the Pentagon's top job in February, Carter has repeatedly cited the professional networking site LinkedIn as an example of what the military needs for better internal management.
"That's an example of a kind of technology that you can use, and we can use, to improve performance evaluations; to make sure that onward assignments, next assignments, that you have the greatest visibility into ... how you find a next assignment that fits you — your skills, your family, your future and your goals in life. We need to be competitive in that way," Carter told a group of soldiers during a recent visit to Fort Drum, New York.
Carter's push for new technology in part reflects a growing anxiety about recruiting and retaining the best and brightest among today's so-called millennial generation.
Many of today's young recruits join the military to gain technological expertise. Yet after boot camp, they are often dumbfounded by the gap between the cutting-edge technology used in war-fighting operations and the antiquated, paper-based systems that the military uses for managing its own personnel.
A wholesale upgrade of military personnel systems could have many cultural implications not least because automating some aspects of manpower management may reduce the military's traditional reliance on personal connections and relationships.
"It's hard to justify making a decision of picking someone because it's an old buddy or a friend when you have a system that is clearly showing you that there are one, two or three people who are much better suited," said Luke Marson, a technology consultant who helped Norway's armed forces create a new personnel management system last year.
"There are certain areas where a system is going to help pick the pick the right candidate over a known candidate," said Marson, a human resources technology expert with Hula Partners.
No easy task
Creating a system like what Carter describes would be a massive undertaking; by some accounts, the current system is a total mess. Military personnel offices rely on dozens of aging, independently developed computer systems that cannot be easily merged or searched collectively.
For example, the details of a service member's past assignments are kept in a database that may be separate from the details about the member's training and education. Details on a member's deployment history is stovepiped somewhere else, and all of those are separate from any health issues or family situations that might affect an individual's needs or preferences for future job assignments. In addition, letters of reprimand and other disciplinary measures often are not included in permanent personnel files.
For military leaders, a technological upgrade would offer several benefits. The current retention system is based on raw numbers. But big-data analysis would create new visibility on the quality of who stays and who leaves the military, giving leaders new insight into the talents and skills of troops who are retained — or lost.
Data in an individual's file might include pre-military information such as school grade-point averages or aptitude test scores. That might be combined with performance metrics from military training programs along with data from fitness reports or evaluations.
Woven together with real-time information about re-enlistments and duty assignments, that data would provide senior leaders with a "dashboard" offering much clearer and more complete visibility on the health of the force and current retention trends.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks to an audience of U.S. Cyber Command troops March 13.
Photo Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty
Such sweeping changes are a long way off. The Pentagon's personnel directorate has created "working groups" to tackle the nuts-and-bolts issues underlying Carter's proposals.
Yet the Defense Department's track record regarding information technology is spotty.
For example, DoD is still unable to seamlessly share basic medical information with the Veterans Affairs Department. And on March 8, the DoD inspector general reported that the department has not updated its long-term information technology plan since 2006, despite the creation of U.S. Cyber Command in 2009.
Still, the basic premise is gaining some traction. The Navy recently issued a three-page "enterprise challenge statement" intended to give technology companies a general description of what kind of system the Navy is looking for, one that can:
•Consolidate information from the "more than 40 databases" now in use by the Navy personnel system.
•Have a mobile app for smartphones.
•Provide real-time analytic reports.
•Help training instructors identify trends and weaknesses.
•Improve evaluation of senior leaders by analyzing the retention and career success of the troops under their command.
•Help target stress-reduction and morale improvement efforts by analyzing "individual, operational, health, environmental and other characteristic data ... to predict when and where to apply resources."
The goal of the future system is to compile and track 4,000 to 6,000 pieces of data on each sailor, a Navy official said.
"We are doing a lot of work right now to try to upgrade our 'weapons system for people,' our information technology, to get a better site picture of our workforce," said Vice Adm. Bill Moran, chief of naval personnel.
Constructing a large-scale personnel data system will cost millions of dollars. Navy leaders hope to include significant funding in the fiscal 2017 budget request that is under development, a Navy official said.
The idea of a dedicated military social media site connecting troops around the world has inspired some unofficial efforts. The biggest, Rallypoint.com, is a social networking site that claims one in every eight active-duty troops as members. It was founded three years ago by veterans at Harvard Business School who saw an opportunity in the Defense Department's antiquated systems.
"The number one complaint of everyone I've ever known in the military is about the human resources and personnel system," Yinon Weiss, Rallypoint's CEO and a former Army Special Forces officer, said in an interview.
Rallypoint provides troops with important official information. For example, the site tracks and publishes when military jobs will become available with a far longer lead time than the military's official system.
"The military will not tag a position as open until a few months before it's vacated," Weiss said. "But the individual person knows two years before when his or her orders are up. We give that information to our members so they can see what jobs are coming available in the future."
Rallypoint also sends out alerts when new members join a new unit.
"We'll send an email notification and say, 'Hey, check out who is coming to your unit in 30 days.' And people can go see what their experience is, when they deployed, who their connections are, what skills they have," Weiss said.
"Those are all things that the military has acknowledged would be helpful and has tried. But being social and being consumer-centric is just not in the DNA of the military."
The end of evals and fitreps?
Creating a social media-style network could change the way individuals are evaluated or even lead to the end of the traditional system fitness reports and bureaucratic performance reviews.
Michael Moon, who researches social media's use for human resources for the Aberdeen Group in Boston, said some companies no longer bother with evaluations from a single manager but instead rely on "cloud-sourced feedback on an individual."
Companies are creating ways for all employees to be constantly evaluating and providing feedback on each other, potentially combining input from supervisors, peers and underlings.
"If there is a performance issue that needs to be corrected, you want that employee to know about it right away, not six months later or a year later," Moon said in an interview. "Having that feedback right away helps the employee know that they are on the right track."
Some companies' networks use searchable hashtag-style identifiers to tag individuals with particular skills and encourage workers to solve problems collaboratively by searching out colleagues with subject matter expertise.
For example, that might allow helicopter mechanics who are facing a particular problem to share information with their counterparts in other squadrons who might work with the same equipment but be assigned to a different unit on a different continent.
Leaders can also more directly engage with their organization. For example, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, periodically conducts a "Facebook town hall" where he responds to questions posed by service members.
In some companies, that kind of communication occurs routinely at every level of management, Moon said.
"It can create an air of trust in leadership. It creates a certain bond when leaders are engaging in conversations and asking questions and responding. It makes them more human and increases the sense of commitment to the organization."
A communications system can create the sensation that the organization is less hierarchical and flatter because there is more than just top-down communications.
"The organization can appear to become flatter, but it isn't necessarily flatter. It's still hierarchical, but there is more communication happening laterally and diagonally."
Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.