Improving the internal health of the Army was a key challenge identified for himself by the present chief when he assumed office two years back. How far has he been able to address the problem remains to be seen in the absence of any indications, either in open media, or through the grapevine. While it would be illuminating to learn the steps (if any) taken by the organisation towards meeting this challenge, here are some thoughts and unsolicited suggestions from an armchair theorist.
The fountainhead of most major ailments that afflict the internal health of the organisation is the pyramidical structure, resulting in a high wastage rate in selection of officers for higher ranks. This, in turn, unleashes an intense competition, almost a clawing struggle to climb to the top. The route to the top lies through nine-pointer ACRs, and that depends on the judgment of one’s immediate superiors in the chain of command – the IO, RO and SRO. The system therefore mandates that this trimutive needs to be kept propitiated for securing the passport to higher ranks.
On the other hand, the Initiating Officers are also faced with a dilemma. Since they have to continue working with the officer even after the writing of the report, they are extremely hesitant to be even mildly critical in their appraisals. The result is that in the absence of any tangible deliverables except in operations, you have an odd nine pointer, and everyone else gets an eight. In fact an eight point ACR is like a dining out speech – everyone gets one, and it doesn’t mean a thing. If someone gets even a seven, which is supposed to mean above / high average, it spells the end of any hopes of career advancement. It also means end of any niceties between the officer and the boss. Diplomatic Initiating Officers have therefore been known to give an eight point ACR to someone, and then requested the Reviewing Officer to ‘sort him out’.
The zero error syndrome, the ruthless driving of subordinates, the relentless efforts to keep the boss happy at any costs – these are the spinoffs of this skewed system.
Thus, the key to restoring the internal health of the organization lies in improving the appraisal system. This realization has not escaped the policy makers, and over the years there have been attempts at change. But these have been restricted to minor tweaks, without any substantial changes in the basic system. There was the dark period, when ACRs were not shown to the ratee. That measure was found to be counterproductive, and was reversed after a while. Then there was the scrapping of ACRs for junior officers, but the Unit Assessment Cards that formed the replacement did not really serve to bring about any substantial difference.
What we need is the clichéd but never attained paradigm shift in the way appraisal is carried out. One thought is a 360 degree appraisal system. Increasingly being favoured by HR pundits across the corporate world, it involves an appraisal by peers and subordinates in addition to the traditional assessments by superiors.
The objections that immediately spring to mind are manifold, and are the ones that would be put forth by the lethargic proponents of status quo. Such a system is not suitable for a hierarchical organisation like the army. It would lead to popularity contests by senior officers to curry favours with juniors. It is too cumbersome to be implemented.
Obviously, the system needs to be studied and adapted for implementation in the army – but that does not mean that it cannot be done. Ironically, the organisation that would be required to carry out this exercise – the MS Branch – would be the most reluctant. It would imply a huge increase in their own workload, and besides it is too bold and imaginative a step to find favour with them. However, if the internal health of the army has to be resuscitated, old medicine in new bottles will not do. It’s time for alternate therapy.
360 degree appraisals is one such alternative – not necessarily the only, and not necessarily without side effects. But since, for reasons already stated, the MS Branch is not likely to look for drastic alternatives, it is imperative that these be thought about and debated in other available forums. I would like to throw this debate open, and invite comments and suggestions.