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Assembly Line to Custom Design: Reforming the Officer Development System

October 15, 2010

Most strategic documents recognize the changing nature of future national security environment. The world is rapidly transforming into a complex web of conventional and irregular threats posed by state and nonstate actors in an era of persistent conflict. In view of these challenges, many experts have recommended a whole-of-government approach to address future security threats. This approach calls for government agencies to leverage civilian expertise to provide integrated soft-power solutions to complement proven hard-power options. According to the Obama administration, combining the two into an effective strategy or smart-power will become the centerpiece of future U.S. foreign policy.

Unfortunately, the U.S. government currently lacks the capacity in our military and civilian agencies to carry out this strategy. While organizational reforms have been proposed, the author contends that they inherently miss the main point: to have a whole-ofgovernment approach, leaders and operators must have a broad whole-of-government perspective along with the necessary training and education. This allows them to think broadly and creatively. However, the current education system for national security professionals, including the U.S. Army, does not routinely develop personnel with broad-based experience and skills. As a result, the institutional cultures do not reflect or reward these skills and attributes. While structural reforms are still necessary, they will be of limited value without giving appropriate attention to institutional culture, education and multi-faceted career management.

While continuing education for senior leaders and development of enlisted personnel are also important, this paper focuses on the development of junior officers to highlight this critical period when officers initially develop and come to terms with their professional identity. According to the author, investing in the development of junior officers is the most effective way to shape organizational culture; this bottom-up approach requires a long-term perspective, but it will create the most durable cultural change in an organization.