Assessment Center and Management Potential

In the midst of all the controversy over validity and standards, a simple fact gets overlooked. At least part of the popularity and impetus for the development of assessment centers has been their ability to bridge time.

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Pre-World War II executives had time on their side in evaluating management potential. Promotions came slowly, and turnover was virtually a non-problem. Past behavior was an acceptable predictor of future behavior. The end of WW II heralded a new era. Executives were faced with the task of predicting the success of hundreds of people who had no directly relevant past behavior.

Working one’s way up slowly was out of the question the development potential. Those in the business of selling assessment centers usually mention the development potential, and most have a client or two who purport to use assessment-center results for developmental purposes.

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But, as Psychology Today’s Rice discovered, most of the developmental prescriptions generated by assessment-center people fall short of the standards most management development specialists would consider appropriate. “Take a public-speaking course,” “read a dress-for-success book,” and “develop some civic interests” are too typical of the naive, simplistic advice assessees are given for ameliorating glaring weaknesses.

Writing in Organizational Dynamics, Vol. 7, No. 4, Hart and Thompson describe IBM’s efforts to maximize the management development potential of the assessment-center process. The approach they de¬scribe, which has been used experimentally for four years, boasts four characteristics that distinguish it from the straight selection assessment:

1. The process was renamed and new developmental objectives were developed. The same tools that had been used previously for selection assessment were the core for the new Career Development Workshop. But the objectives of the exercises were rewritten in terms of “helping managers and potential managers discover the challenge involved” in management activities and “providing personal development opportunities.”

2. Immediate feedback was introduced. Typically, feedback from the assessors lags one to two weeks be¬hind completion of the assessment. At IBM the assessor feedback report was retained, but immediate feedback from peers was added to the system. At the end of an exercise or a given time period, peers give each other both positive and need-for-improvement feedback.

3. The final assessment reports from the manager/assessors are shared only with the individual assessed. Management has no access to the report, and employees have total control over who is privy to its con¬tents.

4. The final day of the workshop is the last critical feature of the IBM system. After three days of intensive assessment and feedback, the participants are led through a series of career-planning/life-planning activities and discussions. To facilitate follow-through on new career goals and plans, participants are given the opportunity to nominate a mentor—someone with whom to share plans and goals who is also willing to give advice and assistance.

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In a follow-up morale study, Hart and Thompson found that employees of the workshop participants perceived their managers more positively than did employees of nonparticipating managers.

Employees rated workshop graduates more positively in 1) dealing with employees; 2) considering job concerns and complaints; 3) giving recognition for work done; 4) communicating with subordinates; and 5) managing their people responsibilities. These ratings were not achieved at the expense of accomplishing technical objectives since both workshop and nonworkshop managers were perceived as being equally competent in technical management.

Hart and Thompson caution that the conversion of the assessment-center process to a management-development experience has some important prerequisites:

1. A strong director. The center director must be competent in assessment-center technology, development oriented and must be able to fit in with, and win the sup-port of, line management. For instance, when assessment is limited to selection, poor interpersonal skills on the part of the director may be forgivable, but when development is involved, they must be top-drawer.

2. Top-level support. The assessment process is expensive. And conversion of assessment to a developmental orientation will require a considerable “act of faith” from dollar-conscious senior managers.

3. Staff selection. Since feedback is a critical feature in this developmental approach, the assessors must have credibility with the participants. The most credibility comes from senior-line managers participating as assessors, but they’re also the toughest to free up for participation.

4. Participant selection. To be accepted by employees, the development process must be open. If only the “obvious” superstars are nominated, the process gets a bad reputation. So, too, with forced attendance. Employees can be nominated by their managers, but the final decision on attendance should remain with the employees.

5. Development mentality. When the assessment center is selection oriented, there’s a win/lose aura about participation. If the individual is rated high, he or she wins; if low, he or she loses. Participants in a development-oriented center are winners by virtue of the insights they gain. Staff and management must establish this positive climate and constantly reinforce it.

The assessment-center process has a distinguished history as part of the selection procedure. Despite some obvious problems, it’s generally conceded to be an objective, reliable and valid approach. But the 1980s are destined to put new pressures on the assessment center. Not only the pressure to increase its utility as a selection device, but pressure to fulfill its dormant potential as a powerful, positive developmental strategy. It’s time for the assessment center to develop its own growth possibilities.

Source : TRAINING Magazine

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