ARLINGTON, Va. (NNS) -- Sporting a newly-approved surface warfare officer (SWO) leather jacket, Vice Adm. John B. Nowell, the Navy’s top uniformed personnel officer, gave an HR perspective to the Surface Navy Association’s 32nd annual symposium in Arlington, Va., this past week.
A career SWO, Nowell is no stranger to the association, or the annual gathering, which brings in Navy and industry experts to tackle the toughest topics facing the Navy’s surface warriors in the fleet.
Nowell facilitated a candid review of where the Navy HR is going and where it has been, acknowledging an overhaul of an antiquated system to a more nimble and digitally savvy version.
His opening comments centered on a talent management, a term often used in top corporations to describe a process of getting the most capable output possible out of every employee. Nowell has championed talent management across the Fleet in how the Navy puts the right people in the right jobs.
“When you look at the talent we have coming in, it is truly amazing,” Nowell said kicking off the discussion. “It’s a strategic imperative that we manage their talent differently.”
For those who don’t know, Nowell sits atop the Navy’s massive organization charged with bringing in and training Sailors. In short, his mission is getting Sailors to the ships, squadrons and units around the Navy on the tip of the spear.
That’s not all – he also must also make sure those Sailors are properly trained and have the ability to manage their careers. This includes providing the fleet with the ability to evaluate individual’s performance as well as determining who will advances through the ranks.
Right now, it’s all in play.
His organization, Nowell said, is “halfway through” a 10-year effort known as Sailor 2025, which kicked off in 2015.
This “transformation,” as he calls it, is a series of over 45 initiatives focused on transforming what the Navy used to call “personnel support” into a true human resources model on par with civilian industry. But the goal is to deliver it with the ease of doing online banking.
Some of these efforts are already up and running and many more are in the works.
What is emerging is unlike anything seen before in the military.
For instance, for years Sailors went to their local personnel office and stood in line to get career management help. Their “data” was all on paper, stored in filing cabinets. Managing their Navy lives and careers moved at a snail’s pace – or at least at the pace of paper.
Now, it’s all online – what isn’t today, soon will be. Meanwhile, parallel efforts are working overtime to make it all available to Sailors through personal computers or even better – on their smart phones or tablets.
“It’s what Sailors want,” Nowell said. “It is what they expect from us.”
The hardest hurdle, Nowell told the packed audience, is necking down nearly 55 antiquated information technology systems -- some dating from the 1960’s -- into four modern systems that will become the backbone of the Navy’s transformation.
“Most of these systems don’t talk to each other,” Nowell said. “The result is we have no authoritative data environment and my predictive analytics are looking in the mirror.”
This next generation IT system and data consolidation is on the way. Still, Nowell isn’t waiting for the IT solution to take action.
Already, he’s greenlighted a number of test programs that are being tested on a small scale that could be expanded once the technology is in place to drive it.
On hand for the discussion was a senior officer known as the head detailer, Rear Adm. Rick Cheeseman, who has overseen a revamp of the Navy’s detailing the process with marketplace concepts and an dramatic increase in Sailor functionality in picking jobs. He’s been in charge of the innovative Advancement-to-Position initiative which provides promotion opportunities for hard-fill fleet billets for Sailors willing—and qualified—to take those jobs.
“We didn’t want to wait for technology, that will come over time,” said Cheeseman. “We wanted to attack this through different policy changes so we could increase the distributable inventory available to the fleet, while at the same time giving Sailors the flexibility, transparency and choice they want in their career path.”
And it’s those policy decisions that will drive the technology – not the other way around.
Starting in 2017, when the Navy realized it was slated to grow by more than 20,000 over the next few years, the Navy drove growth through policy by eliminating early out programs and increased the amount of time Sailors can serve on active duty.
Meanwhile, reforms are in motion to align Sailors end of service dates with the end of their initial tours, enabling them to “make a one-time stay or go decision” said Cheeseman, which ultimately helped Navy’s manning numbers.
For many years, the greatest incentive the Navy had to encourage re-enlistment was monetary bonuses. Nowell said that given budgetary constraints and the need to ensure our deployable platforms are manned appropriately, he is looking to expand incentives beyond just money.
“We need to get beyond the economic rent of paying everybody SRB’s [selective reenlistment bonuses],” Nowell told the audience. “What we want to do is link the incentives to the billets and that return is very finite”
That’s why he’s hot on finding other incentives to entice Sailors to not only stay in and also take the most critical jobs where the Navy needs them most.
In a sign of where all this is going, Nowell noted that they’ve already tweaked policy and currently available technology to allow Sailors to arrange and execute permanent change of station moves with their smart devices as he held his smartphone up to the audience.
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