My torschlusspanik (gate-shut-panic) started with a very simple question: a well-respected journalist asked me to list the digital and technological skills that the UK Armed Forces needed to meet current and future manning trends. I had been bumping my gums on workforce planning. This was a fair question. I was shocked that I did not know the answer. I could not list the specific digital profiles the military now requires. I took refuge in generalities - Cyber, Cloud, Data, Software - avoiding specifics. However, given the goal of workforce planning (aligned with organisational planning and analysis) is to have a workforce of the right size, shape, cost and agility - and we know that digital talent is a key component in the overall solution - I should have had a better response. For example, we will need digital natives to operate combat platforms like Ajax, and so you would assume that entry requirements into Combat now recognise this requirement from the get-go.
I went hunting to find the answers from those in the know. What did I hear? Yes, the UK’s military forces are urgently in need of more digital skills and the MOD ‘base-fed’ model has not allowed it to close capability gaps (a weakness highlighted by the National Audit Office in 2018). Yes, it is accepted that technologists will be vital as we work to build and sustain a competitive edge over our competitors. Yes, there are good low-level examples in the UK – for example Project CADUCEUS – where the aim is to close the ‘knowledge and skills gap’ in the Royal Signals. However, the overall message was clear: we are not there yet in approach or output when it comes to digitally futureproofing our Armed Forces or setting relevant digital entry requirements. Nor in finding or in upskilling talent. Should we be doing more given the requirement (widely accepted) to identify workforce gaps against future needs? Yes, but for now the focus at the strategic level is on ‘aggregate’ (raw) numbers in the Armed Forces and the allocation of these numbers across domain – sea, land, air, space and cyber. Surprised? No, because it is a reality that our decision-makers are fixed by organisational design, quantity and total numbers across the whole force. It has ever been this way. Quality is currently a secondary factor. Saddened? Yes, because organisational design and workforce planning must go hand-in-hand if we are truly going to optimise our Armed Forces and so we need a data-driven process to identify the critical skills needed for the world of multi-domain operations. Effective workforce planning also drives productivity.
Torschlusspanik is in part the fear that time is running out. And when it comes to bridging the digital skills gap in the military to get a workforce of the right size, shape, cost and agility it is. I have said before that our collective failure to recruit and retain the right talent - to bridge the digital skills gap - is a Black Elephant given outdated recruiting, training and employment models. We need senior leaders in the UK MOD to recognise the urgency of the challenge and adapt their approach. Yes, maintain the focus on organisational design, quantity and total numbers because a tiger cannot change its stripes, but add to our knowledge by conducting a digital workforce assessment: what specific digital skills do we need, and where do we find them and having found this talent how do we keep them in.
When I left the Army our failure to fix this problem was one bugbear I carried with me. I looked for solutions. I quickly found that there are already people with an understanding of the military who were tackling the digital skills crisis with ferocity, innovation and creativity. Indeed, you are spoilt for choice. Given their track record on recruiting veterans, digital training, skill-mapping and commitment to tackling the digital skills shortage I have embraced an Australian social-impact company called WithYouWithMe. They have already helped the Australian Army and understand the need to define the digital skills that are needed in detail, balanced by identifying compensating reductions that will be delivered through automation. AUKUS (announced 15 September 2021) was not just about submarines and here is the expertise that can help the MOD get the answers they need. What do we have to lose?