The Army turns to automation for officer assignments

The Army is hoping a little automation and more "back of the resume" data will better tell an officer's story when searching for next assignment and crack down on nepotism.

Job seekers know how the right keywords can make the difference between getting their resume seen by a hiring manager or consigned to a digital graveyard. But the Army is hoping to change that by capturing "back of the resume" data to better tell an officer's story when hunting for their next assignment while also using data analytics to crack down on nepotism.

The Army has been tweaking its personnel management systems as part of its People Strategy, released in October, which outlines how the service plans to acquire, train and keep its talent. And better data is key to finding the best talent, especially when it comes to tech.

"We know who the cyber officers are because they're already in the cyber branch. What we don't know is the infantry officer who also has some sort of certification as some sort of coder -- he's got some unique data analytics skills that aren't captured in his traditional educational background," said Maj. Gen. Joseph Calloway, Army Human Resources Command's commanding general.

Calloway said the command is working to capture and harness that information and develop ways of better tailoring officers' assignments, including tapping into data pertaining to outside knowledge, skills, and other desired traits -- such as where soldiers travel or may have lived in their youth -- that wouldn't necessarily show up on their record brief, which encapsulates formal education and career highlights.

The Army recently assigned about 15,000 officers using an automated program as part of the Army Talent Alignment Program (ATAP), which seeks to better match unit needs with officers' skills, Army officials told reporters during a Feb. 6 briefing.

This was the first time the board selection, processed from October to December, was conducted by combining ATAP with an automated job application portal, the Assignment Interactive Model 2.0, that Army officers used to apply for assignments and commanders used to interact with applicants.

With AIM 2.0, officers can view all open positions and list their preferences and skills, while unit commanders can use it to have more interactive input with applicants to figure out who is best for the assignment.

Army officials said the difference with using the automated assignment system was noticeable -- with a 35-percentage point improvement in market participation and more than half of officers and units received their top choice, where the unit and officer matched, Calloway said. Eighty percent received a choice in their top 10%.

Old fashioned interviews and face-time bolstered the automated system, officials said, but being able to cull data points that aren't captured in an Army officer's official record or formal education is important for force readiness.

"The ability for an officer to self-profess his or her talents on the backside of the [Officer Record Brief (ORB)] is really important because we now are able to see all sorts of skills that we didn't know existed within the officer corps," said Maj. Gen. J.P. McGee, Army Talent Management Task Force director.

As an example, McGee said he brought on an officer, an operational research systems analyst, who is writing a book on people analytics for CEOs -- information that would've been missed otherwise.

"She's now the head of our team that is trying to develop a people analytics strategy, [a] system talent management system, we're trying to develop. So there's a lot of information that is out there that isn't encapsulated in your official record that we're trying to capture on the backside of that ORB," McGee said.

But the process did have snags.

"The automated tool ultimately runs out of information to make decisions on," Calloway said, "and would assign officers to jobs for which they did not qualify."

Those mismatches were corrected, Calloway said, but to prevent, or at least lessen, them the Army wants to increase and improve data collection.

"What we're going to do is try to make the tool more user friendly on both sides so that the filtering mechanisms in the tool will help," he said. And in cases where the tool runs out of data, Calloway said the Army plans to "insert additional logic into that tool to prevent that from happening."

The Army also hopes that future iterations of the system will help define and curb nepotism and commanders hiring predominantly within their comfort zone.

"The portfolio of people you know is always going to be limited by your personal experiences," McGee said. "We believe that more visibility is going to lead to different choices not along the lines of who has served with you before."

But, as is often the trick with data, the Army has to define what that nepotism means: is it three consecutive tours under the same commander or six? And how should that be employed?

"Now we finally have a data structure that can say Col. Smith understands how to do this, and he exercises this authority we've given him responsibly. And you know, Col. Jones actually doesn't, he only hires people who have worked for him in the past. And that's not the intention of this," McGee said.

This article first appeared on FCW, a partner site to Defense Systems.