An article by Carly Chynoweth in the October issue of People Management, Endurance Tests, makes me wonder if the business world has finally come out of a coma. Glancing at the patient’s notes, I notice the first piece of evidence:

… assessments are now being broadened to cover all levels of organisations; talent-spotters are no longer assuming that future leaders or relevant talent can only be found in certain pools of employees” 

OMG, really? They’ve only just discovered this? No wonder organisations have been struggling though the recession. Continuing to scan, the evidence mounts:

Organisations are looking to identify leaders earlier in their careers so that they can equip them with the skills and exposure that they need to progress through the organisation faster… companies increasingly look inward when succession planning.”

Doctor, I’m afraid it’s worse than we first thought. We may have to operate.

…organisations now want the data presented to be aligned with the employee’s capacity to deliver in the role, or against the organisation’s strategy.”

Nurse, we’d better inform the relatives – time is of the essence …

Medical punning aside, it’s interesting that it has taken emergency conditions to generate an interest in one of the most important attributes of surgery: precision. If the relevance of that analogy is lost on you, ask yourself one straight-forward question. What’s the point of assessing and developing anyone unless there is some connection to the organisation’s strategy? I mean, would you pay for your plumber to learn flower-arranging or rock-climbing, no questions asked?

Our TVs may be glutted with soap stars learning how to prepare ‘fine dining’ or conduct classical music, but we have enough restaurateurs and orchestral conductors, thank you, and the benefit to the C-listers is debatable too. (Yes, there’s business there: the business of ‘any publicity is good publicity’, flagging profile resurrection, and the flogging of tv advertising and media production opportunities. But the horse is ailing, and the whipping’s not helping. And an economy based on light entertainment isn’t high on the list of sustainable options.) Come on, test publishers, surely you’ve not been peddling these ‘sophisticated tools’ and not asked your clients the question “what do you hope to achieve by using it?” Haven’t you? Really?

The article does include some more encouraging indications that might point to a rosier prognosis. Both Angela Baron, CIPD’s engagement and organisation development advisers, and Gabby Parry, UK managing director at Saville Consulting, have, according to the article:

… seen cost-awareness, perhaps driven by the recession, drive clients’ need for evidence that they are getting a good return on their investment in assessment. […] they now want to follow through so that they can prove internally how much value HR is adding to the business.”

It’s a point we’ve made before (see, for example, The Great Leadership and Management Development Conspiracy), but HR and detailed evidence have – for a range of reasons, avoiding difficulty being one of them – historically had a difficult and often distant relationship. Like the legendary hospital gown, it may have fitted where it touched, but the view from behind may have been less than flattering. Our concern to highlight the importance of evidence and to understand the true nature of current practice is one reason for our partnership with Training Journal in mounting the UK’s first national survey of actual practice in learning transfer and application: if you’ve not already done so, please visit and help us to develop a picture of current practice that will be informative for us all.

I’m concerned that the article suggests that it’s a good idea to “move away from attracting candidates and into assessment.”  In doing so, logically you will risk assessing the wrong people because the talent wasn’t attracted in the first place. If you assess only the pool you have, you directly contradict the idea that future leaders are out there, somewhere. Other voices of concern also deserves to be raised here too. Firstly, there is an implicit assumption that talent arrives full-fledged (or at least partially pre-baked) – that is either born or innate, rather than something that can be developed. We will all seek the best, but the wrong pre-conceptions can be the equivalent of carefully straining the contents of the saucepan into the colander, and then throwing the contents of the colander in the bin. The second voice of concern is related: our criteria for selection (and if we’re not selecting in some shape or form, why are we assessing?) can be informed only by the present and the past. This implies that we assess for future performance and sustainability on the basis of skills and attributes that suit current or historic circumstances. Given the business world’s insistence that change is not only something to be embraced at every opportunity, but also something that is accelerating at a giddying rate, there’s an important logical flaw here.

I’m pleased to see Angela Baron’s warnings, both against “using the size of the candidate pool as a reason to demand skills or experience that the post doesn’t actually need” and that:

too many people fall into the trap of thinking that there will be lots of candidates applying, so they can up the ante where they haven’t before – but that doesn’t necessarily make them better at the job”.

As we pointed out in one of our Crackers articles, entry qualification inflation is no healthier than exam grade inflation (another previous point), and a quote bears repeating here:

Personally for my company I think I want the ditch diggers – coders, hackers, outre graphic designers, deep level video player designers. Not glamorous roles but core to my success.”

Organisations should want the best-fitting ditch digger, and the one who wants to stay and develop, not the post-grad with a shovel who will chafe at the lack of intellectual stimulation. (I’m also reminded of an obscure song by Anglo-Finnish band, Wigwam, in which the crooked business protagonists dream of escaping to Easter Island where they can “teach those natives something useful/diggin’ holes with style and status”. Both viewpoints are ultimately contemptuous: not a healthy stance.)

Surely it is a test publisher’s responsibility to assist organisations to design assessment and selection methods that are robust regardless of the size of the applicant pool.  In a larger pool of top talent, more candidates will be eligible. As a result, relevant values, skills, background, fit, motivations, potential and aspirations – and not skills or experience that the post doesn’t actually need – become more important as differentiators. We may well have an over-supply of graduates, but hiring them all as receptionists is not the solution – for them or for organisations.

The article concludes with a brief review of the rise of the ‘smart phone’ (not, let’s point out, a name it acquired from its purchasers) and its compelling argument of convenience. As a practitioner, I see the value for clients in the use of mobile technology for assessment or to raise awareness, but as a psychologist and psychometrician I worry about the impact such a pop culture will have on the perceptions of, in some cases, some very powerful psychometrics. It feels as comfortable as a replacement hip – once it’s available we’ll wonder what we ever did without them, but it will always feel not-quite-right.

The concern isn’t just that people might “download Myers-Briggs Type Indicators test for fun” – a desire to undertake psychometric tests for fun should, ideally, generate an SMS directing the phone user to their nearest qualified psychologist (not least for seeing the process as mere ‘fun’). I can appreciate that the cost-savings are powerful, although I wonder if self-awareness is an aspect of your life where bargain-hunting is to be encouraged. I can appreciate that the technology is simple, but then so are pens and paper. Why hail the simplicity of the means when it’s the end that matter?

The concern is the self-diagnostic tendency that winds up being encouraged as a results of these cost and simplicity benefits. As the experience of GPs might tell us – increasingly overwhelmed by patients who’ve been self-diagnosing (and worse, self-medicating) as never before armed with that renowned medical tool, Google – the ability to assess our own well-being isn’t necessarily a good thing. As a representative of a profession often accused of ‘messing with other people’s heads’, I’m not persuaded that I fully endorse a move towards encouraging people to mess with their own. As a profession, occupational assessment may well evolve new sub-divisions in response to social change: I don’t want triage to be one of them.

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