Modern military's challenge: Attracting fresh technology talent

Modern military's challenge: Attracting fresh technology talent

The Australian Department of Defence faces a challenge to find a CIO and other staff from outside its establishment.

When the Department of Defence saw its chief information officer, Air Vice-Marshal John Monaghan, pull the ripcord on an otherwise successful public sector career in March, it became clear to many that Defence Minister Brendan Nelson was intent on shaking things up. As the third head of departmental information technology in the CIO role in four years, Monaghan (a two-star Air Force communications and technology specialist renowned for his ability to keep projects on an even keel) was given little choice but to head for the door.

Monaghan's exit came ahead of recommendations in senior public servant Elizabeth Proust's Defence Management Review that the Defence CIO position be given to a person from outside the Russell Hill establishment.

This has been has backed by a decision that the role be elevated to the rank of a deputy secretary (three-star equivalent) in order to give it more clout.

Despite the imperative for change, the details of Proust's reporting restructure have led Defence insiders and suppliers to question if the 70,000-strong military machine can attract the sort of candidate it feels it needs.

One sticking point is that whoever fills the post is supposed to implement a radical and unproven new technology system known as a single ERP (enterprise resource planning) to run the department's disparate financial, human resources and payroll and logistics systems that have so far cost more than $800 million.

The decision to standardise Defence's corporate IT systems on a single platform has sent large United States technology suppliers (particularly SAP, Microsoft and Oracle) into a lobbying frenzy as they jostle for what could be a $1 billion prize.

This has seen outsourcing companies create new Defence-specific divisions to promote their cause. In the case of the $US14 billion Texan EDS, the launch of a new Defence business line came with such fanfare it required the Great Hall of Parliament House to make its point.

Such conspicuous jostling does not sit comfortably with Defence's probity and ethics watchdog.

Relationships between Defence procurement staff and technology suppliers came sharply into focus last month. An investigation was launched by the Inspector-General's division into the conduct of a civilian staff member in relation to US company Hewlett Packard.

Another significant hurdle facing the new CIO is the need to maintain a good relationship with the powerful Defence Materiel Organisation, headed by Stephen Gumley.

DMO has so far rejected advances to replace its Standard Defence Supply System (SDSS) from Australian company Mincom.

"Opinion is still divided whether a single system is the right way to go," a former senior Defence insider said. "There's 30 or 40 years of development on those systems. [Gumley] has a heavy stick."

Others around the Defence establishment note the search for an external candidate is similar to the decision to try to sort out DMO by paying substantially more than public sector rates for private sector expertise.

So far, neither the Department of Defence, nor Nelson, have publicly committed to paying rates that regularly see the technology heads of blue-chip companies secure base salaries of between $750,000 and $3 million, exclusive of options.

However, the executive recruiter charged with the task of finding the new CIO, Marianne Broadbent of Edward W Kelley and Partners, said she was basing the search on a salary at military level three-star, which is only one band below departmental secretary.

Broadbent said that the average length of a CIO search would be three months and would involve meetings with Defence officials to ensure the correct match is made.

The comparatively low pay rates in the public sector have also resulted in a struggle to find staff for a substantial expansion of the Australian Defence Force, funded in this year's $22 billion Defence budget.

The Canberra location of Defence's corporate technology systems within the CIO Group has added to problems.

Staff with sought-after skills and vital security clearances regularly leave for more lucrative and rewarding contracting positions.

At the same time, younger civilian technical staff, eager for more stimulating technology careers, prefer to work at the sharp end of the ADF.

Network Centric Warfare has seen battle and operational systems become dependent on the same base technology that powers the internet.

One result of this is that it competes for the same skills needed in corporate positions.

Two other executive recruiters contacted by The Australian Financial Review said although the Defence CIO's job was regarded as one of the most prestigious in Australia, current market conditions combined with onerous security clearance provisions would make finding a candidate a difficult proposition.

"There is a lack of succession planning," said the head of one Sydney firm that considered pitching for the Defence CIO selection contract but ultimately decided against it.

"It's a very hard job, for not much money, and it's right before the election." Australian Financial Review

© Fairfax Business Media

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Tags skills shortagecareerrecruitment and retention

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