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Public Affairs : USMA Branching Process

Branching program undergoes changes 

Story and photos by Mike Strasser
Assistant Editor
WEST POINT, N.Y. (Nov. 22, 2013) — On Nov. 21, the Class of 2014 cadets will learn what branch they will serve as second lieutenants and, like thousands who’ve come before them, it will be a night of pride, joy, relief and, sometimes, disappointment.

It will also be a night of change—for the branching program at the U.S. Military Academy has evolved in recent years to better serve the needs of the U.S. Army.

Historically, the branching process was based on the Order of Merit List, cadet preferences and Army requirements. Col. Glenn Goldman, Department of Military Instruction director, said the OML-based system works well, but they were determined to do better.

“I think we’ve been able to make some good changes, but the basic premise remains that when you enter the academy you have to do well and strive for excellence,” Goldman said. “What we’re trying to do is get the cadets to understand their talents and skills, but also match that up with what the Army needs. Ultimately, we’ve begun to change the culture—it’s not so much what the cadets want but what the Army needs them to do and how they can best contribute to the team.”

Building a better branching program meant DMI had to redefine its objectives, set measurable outcomes and develop a system that progresses with cadets throughout their 47 months at the academy.

It still incorporates the traditional methods but also places value on things that were never included in the cadet files before, giving the Army more than just the numbers required but the skills, knowledge and behaviors desired by specific branches.

That’s where talent management factors into the program. This provides cadets with an understanding of their talents and the branches best-suited for them, which allow cadets to make a more-informed decision.

“You want to be needed and if what you can offer to an organization is highly-valued then that’s probably something you will want to do,” Air Force Lt. Col. Ron Whittle, Department of Military Instruction’s accessions division chief, said. “Plus, generally you like doing things you do well in and the theory is if you’re working in an organization that needs your talents, you’re going to do well and will enjoy it and want to stay there.”

Examples of talents include: interdisciplinary, cross-culturally fluent, logical/analytical, inspirational leader, technologically adept and prudent risk taker.

The set of 20 talents, along with the skills, knowledge and behaviors associated with each branch, are prioritized and approved by branch commandants and certified by the Combined Arms Command commander.

This forms the basis for cadet self-assessments, talent evaluations by staff and faculty, education and mentorship, among other things.

“The branches specify their unique talent priorities. Throughout the cadets’ experience at the academy, they are able to explore, develop and validate their own talent strengths,” Whittle said. “The intent is for them to learn about the branching process, these talent priorities and then use that to shape their experience here.”

Lt. Col. Ken Heckle was assigned by the Department of the Army G1 to assist with the talent management program.

“They sent an expert here to help us, and he’s really the foundation regarding theory in talent management,” Whittle said. “He puts together a team of experts to look at every cadet file for assessment, then provides each cadet with specific recommendations on branches they’re a good fit for.”

Whittle compares this to a civilian industry that hires a person based on a desired list of credentials to include education, job experiences and relatable skills.

“That’s what the branch commandants are doing—articulating what they want in a potential junior officer,” Whittle said. “The challenge with this is we’re hiring 1,000 people at once, and we have exact numbers to achieve with each branch. The benefit is we have four years to interview them and four years to develop them for the job.”

The Class of 2014 will be the first class to complete the talent management and branch assignment components, to include the COMPASS testing—a series of cognitive and non-cognitive tests taken second semester of cow year.

“It’s a battery of tests they take which measures individual talents by experiences, attributes, personality traits, behavior and interests,” Whittle said. “These are proven tests that are done in the civilian industry and in the military to assess talents. Working with the Army Research Laboratory, our DA-G1 folks developed this tailored COMPASS assessment for our cadets to be able to assess a lot of their talent strengths.”

Branching used to be a process limited mostly during the firstie year.

“Now, we start collecting their preferences during plebe year to get them thinking about what they want to be, and it allows them to shape their cadet experience,” Goldman said. “If we ask them these questions as a plebe they’re going to want to learn about it, maybe talk to their squad leader and that becomes a leader development opportunity there. Then that plebe has a better understanding of what it takes to be an Engineer or Aviation officer and then can choose an academic major to support that or participate in a club that can help develop those required skills.”

The Branch Education and Mentorship component takes a progressive, building block-type approach where cadets are taught:

• Branch missions;
• Capabilities and equipment;
• Junior officer assignments and responsibilities;
• Branch capability integration;
• Branch talent priorities;
• Branch assignment process.

“We think that BEMP actually has the biggest influence on talent management because this is the mechanism by which cadets will learn about their talents, the branches and match them up,” Whittle said. 
Before the pinning of new insignia on Branch Night, the Class of 2014 cadets conducted a thorough branching process developed by the Department of Military Instruction.

In the classroom, it starts plebe year with the Military Science 100 course and carries through to a cadet’s final year in the MX 400 Officership course. Mentorship is also a critical component of BEMP, with tactical officers and NCOs, faculty and team officer representatives sharing their experiences and guidance. Outside the classroom, cadets further develop branch education during summer training at Camp Buckner, participating in leadership details and troop leader training or attending military schools.

Before Branch Night, the OML, cadet preferences and Army constraints are factored and those results are analyzed by the Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis and the USMA DA/G1 representative. That analysis is then presented to the branching board that includes the DMI director and representatives from the Dean of the Academic Board’s Office, U.S. Corps of Cadets and DA/G1. The commandant serves as president of this board who is present only to resolve tie votes. The system is numerically scored and can be plugged into an algorithm to easily stratify each cadet’s progress in meeting branch requirements.

The board for the Class of 2014 convened the last week of October, received the branching requirements analysis for discussion and concluded early several days later with a briefing to the commandant. Ultimately, DA/G1 endorses the results and verifies the requirements are met.

The analysis includes an assessment of how well the talent priorities of each branch are met.

Although the branch selection and class branching results are announced on Branch Night, the analysis and board recommendations are confidential.

“We’re already seeing the effect of the program based on the alignment of the talent with Army needs and on an increase in cadet satisfaction,” Goldman said. “But you really won’t see the full impact of this program until four or five years from now, once these cadets graduate and get out in the force and perform.”

The Branching Program at the U.S. Miltary Academy has long used the Order of Merit, cadet preferences  and Army requirements to determine branch selection for the graduating class. A new way has been developed to better meet the needs of the Army and improve cadet satisfaction. 
Goldman said he was initially skeptical about changing the branching program but has become a true believer in it.

“I am very confident in this program. I’ve been part of this process working with a great group of officers, civilians and analysts who’ve been supporting us for almost two and a half years,” Goldman said. “I’ve seen it develop from a concept on a piece of paper to actual implementation. I’ve had a lot of personal satisfaction from being a board member, twice now, and when it concluded, I walked away feeling we did right by the Army and we did right by the cadets. They’re more informed, more educated and making good decisions about their futures.”

The OML still serves as the foundation for the branching process, but it’s more than just adhering to tradition.

“When you’re measuring someone’s talent, you measure that person’s potential,” Whittle said. “The OML is a strong incentive for cadets to perform in the three pillars—academic, military and physical. We should reward that performance.”

That means the higher a cadet is on the list, the stronger their vote is on branch preference—no guarantees attached.

“If a cadet sets preferences that don’t match where his or her talents lie, they’re still at risk of being moved although the OML strengthens their vote,” Whittle said.

If the cadets have internalized this system and their preferences are matching their talents, it doesn’t really matter what system is used because they’ll be put in the right branches.

“Our hope is that the cadets’ preferences will match their talents strengths,” Whittle said. “It should if they truly internalize this process—what you’re good at should become what you want to do.”

Goldman will join the Class of 2014 at Branch Night with said confidence in the selection process, but he also acknowledges room for further improvements.

“Once this round of branching is done we will very critically look at it again and see where we could make some improvements and efficiencies,” Goldman said.

But until then, he anticipates seeing a lot of pleased firsties tonight.

“My expectation for this Branch Night is that it’s going to be a very memorable milestone in their path to officership,” Goldman said. “It’s going to be a very emotional night … I think cadets will be very satisfied. Not everybody is going to get their first choice—it doesn’t work that way—but what we’re doing is putting the focus on the fact there are no bad choices. There are 16 branches cadets can commission into and those Soldiers need leadership. There is no wrong choice.”