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Defence workforce – harnessing the power of skills in a contested and volatile world.

Defence organisations are being challenged to upskill and reskill against a backdrop of talent scarcity and changing worker expectations. Shifting towards a skills-based workforce approach provides a compelling response by injecting flexibility and resilience into the workforce.

Defence organisations face a unique set of operational and organisational challenges, which are further compounded by broader workforce trends that collectively impact on their ability to attract, develop, deploy and retain talent.

  • Defence organisations are subject to an evolving and broadening spectrum of threats, which are increasing in sophistication across new warfighting domains. These demand an ever-increasing rate of upskilling and reskilling across Defence workers.
  • Current incentivisation tools are “too rigid and complex”ito cope with the increasing demand for skills, and Defence organisations are largely constrained to base-fed models for acquiring new skills.
  • Many Defence organisations simultaneously utilise inflexible and outdated workforce structures, which may not reflect or effectively incorporate modern capability requirements (e.g. information activities, data and AI), and which subsequently constrain Defence’s ability to redeploy and reskill its workforce.
  • These same structures can also make it difficult to build an intra- or interorganisational view of workforce supply and demand, which inhibits decision making. Data is often inconsistent or incomplete, and workforce requirements or an individual’s skills and competencies may be recorded differently depending on the specific part of Defence they reside in1.
  • In parallel, we are also observing a broader phenomenon whereby worker preferences are fundamentally changing. Individuals expect ‘portfolio’ careers and “meaningful choice and influence over the work they do”ii, which requires further flexibility and adaptability within the workforce model. Greater career flexibility has rightfully been identified as one of three strategic people priorities in the UK Defence Command Paper 2023iii.

How can a skill-based approach help?

At Deloitte, we are seeing an increasing shift towards fluid workforce models as a means of addressing talent shortages and prioritising flexibilityiv. A key enabler for this is moving towards a skills-based workforce approach that places skills at the centre rather than traditional jobs (with specific descriptions and requirements). Our 2023 Human Capital trends report discusses how the “skills-based organisation” provides “a new operating model for work and the workforce”v  by implementing a skills-hub and using skills to underpin workforce decisions across the talent lifecycle. This presents many opportunities within Defence:

  • Skills-based strategic workforce planning – Skills data (consistently applied) provides an enhanced and integrated view of capabilities both within and across Defence organisations, and can be expanded to integrate different workforce groups (military, civilian and contractor).
  • Skills-based postings and appointments – Enhanced agility to meet organisational needs and both anticipate and respond to future events, whilst simultaneously increasing performance and productivity by matching people with the right skills to the right work.
  • Skills-based careers – Increase retention, workforce engagement and well-being by providing greater transparency and flexibility of career paths. Enable portfolio career paths and opportunities based on an individual’s current skills, adjacent skills, and interests, with reskilling opportunities suggested based on one’s potential and organisational requirements.
  • Skills-based reward – Recognising and promoting service personnel based on skills development and building into performance discussions. Identifying priority areas for developing specialists and considering linking pay to skill proficiency rather than just rank or grade.
  • Skills-based recruitment – Informed recruitment including cohering requirements setting across Defence and enabling alternative recruitment paths or employment types for niche/highly specialised skill sets.

Case Study 1 – Skills-based careers, US Army. Deloitte is working alongside the US Army to pilot a career pathing tool that provides individualised career pathways. The tool captures and validates individual skills and preferences and intelligently matches these to job opportunities. Individuals can connect individual jobs to create tailored pathways and are provided with insights on skill, knowledge and behavioural fit, as well as links to training opportunities to address any identified skills gaps. Additionally, the tool aggregates user data to inform leader decisions and equips leaders to understand and address retention strategies.

How to get there

When it comes to transitioning to a skills-based organisation, think evolution, not revolution.

Transitioning to a skill-based organisation takes time and commitment but not all workforce processes need to be transformed at once; Defence organisations can prioritise depending on their individual requirements. Through our experience working with several Defence organisations in the UK, USA and Australia, we have identified the following considerations that are key to success.

1. Start with the skills framework. Develop the job architecture and skills framework to suit your circumstances, including the number of levels to the architecture and a clear definition of a “skill” (including proficiency levels and skills dimensions). Organise posts into groupings based on common skills and capture and define skills across the architecture. Build consensus across interested parties to ensure skills are reflective of whole force requirements.

Case Study 2 – UK MOD Civil Service. Deloitte supported the MOD Engineering Profession to segment its civil service positions into common skill areas spanning multiple Defence organisations. Roles and skills were subsequently identified within each segment and defined against a common skills framework, enabling the organisation to clearly and consistently articulate skill requirements across its entire population.

2. Accept that this will take time and be prepared to iterate skills. Agile development and iteration are key. Develop quickly, learn, and refine rather than try to get everything 100% right first time. Factor in time for not just writing a skill but also agreeing to a skill.

3. Capture and maintain the data. Skills data should be housed in an accessible and auditable tech-enabled skills bank, which is best treated as a living and evolving thing with appropriate controls in place to maintain data integrity.

4. Embed skills-based practices. Skills are the means rather than the end. Once you have a skills framework and digital tool you can do amazing things to unlock the benefits described above. However, to be successful, this requires a broader transformation of the extant talent management system, including policy, processes, people, and governance, to incorporate and embed skills.

5. Take a staged approach. Resist trying to change everything at once. Creating a series of independently viable steps to iteratively evolve the organisation presents the greatest chance of success. Benefits will be delivered incrementally but overall risk of disruption to mission-critical Defence outputs is greatly reduced.

Case Study 3 – The Australian Defence Force (ADF). The ADF is implementing a unified people system that is configured to plan and design the joint future force with the agility to apply responses for the force-in-being. Given this will impact well-established and functional workforce systems at a Service and Group level, the ADF are taking a staged approach to transformation, starting with enterprise job architecture and uniformed workforce skills.

Case Study 4 – Programme CASTLE, British Army. The British Army is delivering its future Army Talent Management System in incremental steps. Its interim operating capability adds skills and professions to its understanding of roles and introduces skills into career management processes. Full operating capability, to be delivered at a later date, explores how the British Army can use skills to reimagine things such as force development, workforce planning and career experience.

6. Success hinges on cultural change. Adopting skills-based practices will be a paradigm shift for many Defence organisations and it’s crucial to take people on the journey with you, particularly as Defence organisations are steeped in history and traditions. We recommend adopting a “skills talent philosophy” with skills integrated into everyday culture and behaviours.

Realising agility

In a bid to enable agility and maintain competitiveness, skills-based practices offer a tangible opportunity for Defence organisations to harness the full potential of their workforce. This involves shifting from defining work solely in terms of fixed jobs with static requirements, to reimaging it in terms of a dynamic landscape of skills that can be agilely deployed as requirements evolve. Key to success is jointly defining and embedding skills across the whole Defence workforce, with skills data maintained and exploited across talent management practices. Perfect should also be avoided as the enemy of good – a good skills framework and skills-based job architecture can, and should, evolve over time.

References

1This is particularly apparent when comparing military personnel with civil servants and other Defence aligned public sector employees (for example, those working for arm’s length bodies)

iRick Haythornthwaite, “Agency and Agility, Incentivising people in a new era, a review of UK Armed Forces incentivisation”, June 2023
iiSue Cantrell, Karen Weisz, Michael Griffiths, Kraig Eaton, “Harnessing worker agency: Organizations drive value and strengthen their relationship with workers by embracing rising worker influence,” Deloitte Insights online, 2023 Global human capital trends | Deloitte Insights, 09 January 2023.
iiiUK Ministry of Defence, Defence Command Paper 2023, Defence’s response to a more contested and volatile world (publishing.service.gov.uk)
ivPJ Rivera, Stephen Harrington, Jacqueline Winters, Amrita Data, “Fluid government workforce models”, Deloitte Insights online, Flexible work models in government | Deloitte Insights, 23 March 23.
vSue Cantrell, Robin Jones, Michael Griffiths, Julia Hiipakka, “the skills-based organization: A new operating model for work and the workforce”, Deloitte Insights online, Skills-based organizations | Deloitte Insights, 08 September 2022.

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