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BRITISH ARMY RECRUITING (AND RETENTION) - THE CHALLENGE OF OUTSOURCING
INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND
In 2012, the British Army moved away from its established direct recruitment methods (local careers offices staffed by experienced soldiers) towards a commercial operating model designed to capture best practice, reduce costs and address emerging staffing shortfalls (Harding, 2011). Whilst the military retained ownership of recruitment policy, entry/selection criteria and assessment standards, Capita was engaged on a 10-year contract (the Recruiting Partnership Project – RPP) to manage and deliver the entire attraction and recruitment process (Capita, 2012). This £440M contract was expected to deliver up to £300M in efficiency savings and provide a new information technology platform to improve candidate management and engagement processes (MacDonald, 2010; Capita, 2012).
The timing of this transition sought to minimise operational risks, as the Army was reducing from 102,000 to 82,000 personnel over this period (BBC, 2010). Therefore, any initial drops in recruitment as Capita’s understanding of army requirements developed would be managed through retention policies (Armstrong & Taylor, 2017). However, by 2013 the number of potential recruits being called forward for interview and selection had fallen by 35% creating a shortfall of 3,660 soldiers – a gap Capita have still not been able to address five year later (Farmer, 2013; Express, 2017). Failing candidate management systems have had to be replaced by manual approaches and continued Army retention problems have not been able to close these gaps (Corfield, 2017; Corfield, 2018; Express, 2017).
Given the current drive to outsource perceived non-core activities such as recruiting, what can be learned from the apparent failures of the RPP?
The first key observation is the importance of taking forward any revisions to recruitment processes as a part of a change management programme reflecting corporate strategy (Hayes, 2014). Whilst Capita were given clear objectives in terms of the recruitment pipeline it was expected to manage, the company had no real visibility or understanding of what the end customer required (Johnson, Whittington, Scholes, Angwin & Regnér, 2014). Whilst the demands of central army policy makers were clear, these did not necessarily reflect the aims and aspirations of the training establishments receiving the recruits Capita had processed (CIPD, 2007). Consequently, change resistance quickly emerged, encapsulated in complaints about poor quality candidates unprepared for the rigours of Army training (Taylor, 2014). Whilst some of these views were valid, they were often a reflection of the quality available in the recruitment pool rather than the performance of Capita (the Army had already changed phase one and phase two training processes to reflect the lower fitness standards of recruits) (Swain, 2016; Kiernan, Repper & Arthur, 2015).
Despite evidence around a less-supportive recruitment environment (the Army was no longer considered an employer of first choice), a lack of trust in the recruitment capabilities and understanding of civilian Capita personnel emerged within the military training community who were the initial ‘customers’ for Capita’s ‘outputs (Leftly, 2014). This adversely shaped military views around the capabilities of recruits now entering the organisation with Capita focussing on stated contract requirements rather than more effective customer engagement (Corfield, 2017). More critically, these tensions meant that both Capita and the military missed the opportunity to create a cohesive support environment for candidates and recruits embarking on a long selection and training process (Daniels, 2010). This ultimately led to increased wastage rates (people dropping out during both the application phase and the initial selection processes) and reduced the numbers entering the recruitment pipeline as people shared their experiences of failure and a lack of support with their peers (Torrington, Hall, Taylor & Atkinson, 2014).
Unlike many businesses that need to maintain a high-volume recruitment pipelines, the changing nature of the British Army, the absence of any major uniformed presence in population centres and its reducing size have all combined to reduce public awareness and engagement (Armstrong & Taylor, 2017). The roles, challenges and opportunities open to potential recruits are not comprehensively or accurately understood and the risks involved mean that key gatekeepers (such as parents) often seek to influence applicants away from exploring these careers (Leatherbarrow & Fletcher, 2015).
Unintentionally, the RPP increased this distance between the Army and its recruitment pool, further exacerbating these challenges (Henley Business School, 2014). Whilst modern, best-practice recruitment methods and engagement processes were introduced by Capita (such as television adverts highlighting equality, diversity and team dynamics), subsequent applications and enquiries were managed by civilian recruitment agents unable to effectively address early/initial gatekeeper concerns (Murphy, 2008). In simple terms, a potential recruit wanting an answer to a key, basic question – “what is life in the Army REALLY like?” – found themselves talking to a civilian recruitment specialist in their early 20’s rather than an infantry sergeant in their 30’s with recent combat experience (Harding, 2011). The physical engagement process was as effective with the evolution of RPP (if not more so) and Capita’s improved used of social media and other tools worked well to maintain awareness of the Army brand in a difficult recruitment environment (Qualman, 2011; Broughton, Foley, Ledermaier & Cox, 2013). However, vital emotional engagement had been lost, increasing risk perceptions around army careers - applicants had all the essential facts, but less of an insight into the more human factors that shaped and built a soldier (Mullins & Christy, 2016).
RECRUITMENT AS PART OF AN INTER-LINKED HUMAN RESOURCES (HR) STRATEGY
The very nature of soldiering means that it is generally a young person’s vocation and this is reflected in taught fitness requirements and accepted (and legal) age limitations related to rank and role (Lockton, 2014). However, whilst this does mean that turnover is much higher than other public sector institutions, clear career paths do exist and there is a need to retain the best personnel to become future leaders that combine skills with vital mission/combat experience (British Army, 2018). The Army promotes from within, although this model is starting to evolve to reflect the modern threat environment (Farmer, 2017).
However, despite the much reduced size of the organisation the Army is struggling to balance turnover and retention (Farmer, 2015). Operational commitments have not reduced, meaning that personnel are experiencing stress, fatigue and an inability to balance personal and professional life effectively (Leatherbarrow & Fletcher, 2015). In the past, military postings into recruiting positions provided some equilibrium for the key personnel the Army wished to retain (Herzberg, Mausner & Synderman, 1959). A soldier who had been on operations would be given the opportunity to act as a recruiter for two to three years in a location close to their home and family which gave them some respite and space to ‘recharge’ (Deery & Jago, 2015).
This approach gave military veterans the opportunity to share their experiences in a way that often motivated potential recruits. Whilst these conversations often exposed some shortfalls in relation to what may have been contained in advertising/recruiting literature, the shared stories sold and maintained the concept of the Army family (Leary-Joyce, 2004). Crucially, these personnel often went on to act as trainers in phase one (turning a civilian into a soldier) and phase two (soldiers into military specialists) establishments, building an organisational awareness of the capabilities needed to link recruitment, training and the deployment of operational capabilities (Armstrong & Taylor, 2017). In not considering recruitment activities as a part of an integrate HR strategy, these linkages have been lost, retention issues have been exacerbated, key operational experiences are not being translated into attractive recruitment stories and applicants receive a less cohesive induction and training experience (Torrington et al, 2014; Anyim, Ekwoaba & Anthony, 2012).
OWNERSHIP AND COHESION
One of the key deliverables of the RPP was for Capita to develop a modern information technology system to manage the entirety of the attraction, application, selection and training preparation/loading process (Capita, 2012). However, by 2018 this system had still not been introduced effectively and whilst most media coverage placed the blame with Capita, the situation was far more complex (Corfield, 2017; Corfield, 2018). Having giving Capita the commercial responsibility to amend the system, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) then denied their new partner the operational freedom to do so effectively by initially mandating the use of an in-house, bespoke legacy system which worked very poorly with the innovations Capita had been tasked to introduce (Leftly, 2014).
This blurring of operational responsibilities between the MOD, the Army and Capita eroded performance, undermining the trust and confidence partners needed in each other to deliver a seamless induction process for recruits (Henry, 2011). The resulting inefficiencies also increased the loss rate in terms of the number of successful applicants actually reporting for the start of their military training (Keirnan et al, 2015). Each blamed the other for the failures experienced, rather than accepting the need for shared responsibility and collective action (Kotter, 2012; Slack, Brandon-Jones & Johnston, 2013).
This outline review has highlighted a number of critical issues for any business seeking to outsource its recruitment activities. Firstly, it is vital to ensure that recruitment remains a key element of a cohesive and inter-linked HR strategy and intimately linked to corporate objectives (Armstrong & Taylor, 2017). Any activities that increase the distance between the business and their recruitment pool (and which subsequently undermine the attractiveness of the organisation as an employer) should be avoided.
Organisations must understand the importance of emotional engagement in the recruitment process and the need to ensure that the employer’s ‘offer’ is effectively and accurately communicated to potential candidates (Leatherbarrow & Fletcher, 2015). Outsourcing may (superficially) be more cost effective, but if poorly implemented can contribute to higher turnover leading to increased costs and reduced operational effectiveness in the longer term (Oxford Economics, 2014). RPP is not a failure of commercial contracting, but an example of what can happen when recruiting is viewed as a distinct activity rather than an integral part of a cohesive, well-directed HR strategy (Armstrong & Taylor, 2017; Chopra & Meindl, 2007).
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