I mentioned assessment centers as an example of a very high-fidelity tool for identifying “the right stuff” for specific jobs in an earlier column (June 2006), and since then a number ofISHNreaders have asked for more information about the assessment center concept. So, here goes....

What is it?

An assessment center is a simulation of key aspects of a particular job. It can serve as a selection tool; it is commonly used to aid in the selection of candidates for critical jobs such as department head. It is also a tool for development; it yields a current-skills profile that can provide a starting point for the development of competencies that will enable high potential employees to ready themselves for higher-level jobs.

Early history

The assessment center process was initially developed in the 1930s by the German military to select officers. The methodology was “borrowed” and adapted by the British (and later Australian and Canadian) military for similar purposes. When the U.S. entered World War II, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS – the precursor to the present-day CIA) commissioned a similar process, which also combined “personality profiling” to help select operatives for Allied spy missions during the war.

In the mid-1950s AT&T developed a similar process to assess managerial potential. Today in the U.S., the basic assessment center methodology is prominent in selecting and developing officers in police and fire departments. It is common in a wide variety of nongovernment work settings as well.

Assessment center basics

The assessment center process is usually is a multiday affair, with the time frame of 2-5 consecutive days being common. Participants are put through the process in groups (typical size being 6-12 participants in a center, with about a 1:2 assessor-to-participant ratio). Assessors are commonly incumbents or highlevel managers in the company, sometimes aided by psychologists or other expert consultants.

The process must be based on two critical pillars: 1) a clear competency model (see the April 2006 column in this series), which identifies specifically the critical skills needed for success in the job in question; 2) realistic “scenarios” representing critical situations in which incumbents in the job in question must use the critical competencies.

The assessment center always involves work simulation activities. No matter what else may be done (e.g., personality profiling), participants must handle situations “in the role.” An assessment center for sales managers might have participants talk with an upset customer who was incorrectly billed, or whose newly purchased equipment has failed in the field — while at the same time alerting those very customers to an impending price increase.

One of the defining activities of the assessment center methodology is the so-called “leaderless group discussion.” Participants in groups are presented with a realistic issue to discuss (e.g., “your organization’s safety audit process has not resulted in any reduction in reportable incidents and your boss wants you and your fellow safety managers to come up with a process for improving results ASAP – lay out your plan”). No one is designated as leader (hence the name), but leadership inevitably emerges. What ensues is a rich cauldron of individual leadership and team dynamics. Who initiates the discussion? Who provides structure and direction? Who ensures that we are on task and meeting objectives? Who asks questions to get the quieter ones engaged? Who sees the broader implications of the group’s decisions?

Recruiting vs. development

When the assessment center methodology aims at selection and placement, external candidates often receive only the final hiring recommendation, and are given more detailed feedback only upon request, if at all. But if the primary purpose is development rather than selection per se, and whenever the participants are current members of the organization, participants typically receive much more detailed and specific feedback on their performance as well as their “scores” on the critical competencies being assessed.

Common denominator strengths & weaknesses

When an organization has assessed a number of internal candidates, the organization can identify common denominator strengths and developmental needs that show up across individual profiles. Suppose most internal candidates score poorly on a critical competency of “safety awareness and focus.” Such data can be used to support training and development programs, and other relevant skill-building processes in the organization. In general, assessment centers provide a level of information that is valuable to the organization, beyond the skills and developmental needs of individual candidates.

Flash assessments

Today there is growing interest in “short form” or “quick start” versions of the methodology for use in organizations that want to profile a candidate or a high-potential employee, but can’t justify the investment in a full-blown process. Use of a few well-designed elements of the assessment center methodology (e.g., a targeted leaderless group discussion or a role-play) can yield a pretty good general picture of a participant’s most salient strengths and developmental needs.