“The completed fitness report is the most important information component in manpower management. It is the primary means of evaluating a Marine’s performance and is the Commandant’s primary tool for the selection of personnel…”
Those are the very first sentences at the top of the first page of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Fitness Report (FITREP)—what the Marines call performance review sheets. I’m sure we have all heard similar statements regarding the importance of similar means of performance evaluation in our respective organizations.
However, subjectivity is an ever-present concern in these processes. Relying on submissions from individual leaders, these reviews are not always calibrated and verified, despite the weight they hold in personnel decisions.
A 2017 Naval Postgraduate School thesis by Philipp E. D. Rigaut, analyzing more than 70,000 Marine Corps FITREPs from 2007-2016, shows what in my view could be two opportunities for people analytics tools to fill this subjectivity gap.
1. Maintain grade distributions
Many of us are familiar with various forms of forced-curve rankings. Coming from consulting, I had a high degree of confidence with the integrity of these rankings, because a board called Career Development Council convened to re-evaluate submissions from individual Project Leaders to ensure grades follow proper distributions.
However, this is a process that takes a healthy amount of time for debate, and was possible given the relatively small number of people being evaluated. For a roughly 200,000-strong organization like the Marine Corps, such processes may not be practical.
As a 2012 analysis by Clemens et al. (discussed in Maj. Rigaut’s thesis) showed, this resulted in deviations from intended distribution.
The Corps uses an 8-point grade system intended to follow a ‘Christmas Tree’ distribution pattern, but the reality was different. Second Lieutenants’ grades were closer to be normally distributed, while distributions for Lieutenant Colonels were left-skewed.
This is where people analytics can step in. Imagine for a moment that the right-hand side picture above is not a one-time, static analysis, but continuously-tracked. As leaders fill their subordinates’ FITREPs, they can see their grade distributions real-time and receive nudges when they deviate.
Will this completely solve grade inflation and distribution issues? I’d say it’s unlikely, but perhaps it would reduce the number of problem cases to a manageable level—maybe to a point where the board deliberation model discussed above would work for even organizations as large as the Marine Corps.
2. Increase consistency of text commentary
Performance review grades are often accompanied by text to justify them, but it’s rarely regarded as the most objective section in the document.
It’s no secret that certain well-sounding phrases could be codes for red flags, adding opaqueness to the process. Army Col. (Ret.) Steve Leonard, known as the Doctrine Man in social media circles, offers a few excellent, if colorful, examples:
Maj. Rigaut’s findings again show what looks like an opportunity for people analytics to me. Using NLP and an ensemble of predictive modeling techniques, he was able to correctly classify officers’ performance tiers—at a rate of 67%!—using the text comment sections of the FITREPs analyzed.
Some ‘power words’ were consistently associated with distinct tiers, suggesting a shared understanding perhaps through the strong culture enjoyed by the Corps, such as the example below for Captains:
However, it is far from perfect. The analysis also showed, among other examples, that comments like “#1 Officer” or “Best Capt” were shared by 61% of officers in the same grade.
Again, this is where I believe people analytics can help. A tool embedded in FITREP platforms can give nudges and prompts when leaders use certain words inconsistent with their gradings and ratings (something like “The word ‘meritorious’ is only used to describe the performance of officers receiving grades 7 or above in 80% of cases.”).
I believe live, analytics-enabled feedback like these would go a long way in promoting consistency and usefulness in evaluations, even more than traditional training programs or doctrine materials could.
Rigaut, P., 2017. A Text Analysis of the Marine Corps Fitness Report. [ebook] Monterey, California: Naval Postgraduate School. Available at: <https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/1046515.pdf> [Accessed 12 April 2021].