In 1973, David McClelland published a paper titled “Testing for competence rather than intelligence” that argued on aptitude and intelligence tests providing limited information regarding whether an individual would be able to perform in real life outcomes, such as at the workplace.
Instead, assessments of individuals should be based on evaluating competencies and how well they perform at certain defined criteria that are matched to the actual real life outcomes.
Talent assessments – what is it?
Building on this seminal paper, talent assessment emerged as the process of identifying, evaluating and measuring the knowledge, skills and capabilities of individuals.
These capabilities are measured based on different elements, such as personality characteristics and cognitive abilities all the way to behavioural competencies.
These measurements are compared with a pre-defined benchmark of success to determine the overall standing of individuals based on how they are assessed.
In the more common forms, individuals undergoing talent assessment are often potential talents applying into an organisation or existing talents currently working within the organisation.
However, a talent assessment exercise may not be limited to just companies and organisations, but can be used in schools and campuses as a way to determine the level of competency of candidates.
For example, a talent assessment process could be used by an academic foundation in a selection process for picking scholarship award winners. This approach helps identify potential talent who can be groomed for success.
The case for measuring people and their capabilities is one of attempting to understand individual abilities to predict their ability to perform in a work setting, or to drive results.
Talent assessment is simply about collecting data about people – in a way that makes sense to the business; for them to understand who they are, what they can do and what they can improve on.
Standardised testing & assessment centres
The practice of assessing employees or potential talents easily falls into two common practices – standardised testing and assessment centres.
In standardised testing, the use of psychometric assessment focuses on uncovering an understanding of individuals based on their personalities, behavioural tendencies, motivation and interests.
Administered as either an online or paper and pencil test, individuals would have to answer a series of questions or complete certain tasks.
The responses are then compared to a benchmark of average scores, known as a norm sample, to determine each individual’s results on the factors being tested.
Assessment centres are a combination of multiple assessment activities that a candidate has to complete while being observed by a trained observer.
These assessors would observe candidates on the basis of their performance, often related to specific job-related behaviours and competencies that are in focus.
Candidates are observed as they respond to situations, complete assignments, analyse, problem-solve, present or interact with others. Different assessment activities focus on providing observation opportunities for different competencies.
These observations give an insight to the observers regarding the skills and abilities of the candidate – which are used to gain a deeper understanding of the individual’s potential and competence levels.
Often times, multiple observers are involved to ensure observations are collaborated by other observers to improve on the validity of assessments of an individual.
Both standardised testing and assessment centres can be used to meet a variety of objectives in assessing talents, and can be used across different levels of organisations.
The two elements can be used to complement one another, or used individually – with solutions often being crafted to meet the specific needs of an organisation.
Roles of assessments in organisation
1. Selecting the right talents
Jim Collins, author of Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… And Others Don’t, writes that leaders of companies who go from good to great are people who focus on the “who” at the beginning of their journey.
“They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.”
Each organisation has different needs in terms of their human capital, and the challenge is in finding the best fit and those who possess the correct competencies needed.
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in the United Kingdom reported in 2014 that the estimated average cost of hiring the wrong person for an organisation is £8,200 (RM48,500).
To minimise the risk of a wrong hire, the selection process is the most important step towards ensuring that only the right people are chosen.
The most common method used in the hiring process – standard interviewing – may be insufficient to determine the capabilities and fit of a potential candidate.
In order to take proactive steps to hire the right people, many top organisations employ the use of a structured assessment approach for screening potential candidates, either from the initial application stage or as a validation tool after rounds of interviews and selections have been completed.
By complementing the hiring process with additional means beyond just interviews, organisations are able to assess talents from the perspectives of culture-fit, motivation and actual job-related competence levels.
Pre-employment assessment for organisations can comprise of a simple psychometric assessment administered online to a candidate, to a full-scale one-day assessment centre meant to provide opportunities to observe candidates in action.
These assessments focus on measuring and evaluating the knowledge, skills, behaviours, interests and motives of candidates to help draw conclusions regarding the overall culture-fit and competence of candidates.
There are no right or wrong answers, but candidates are compared to benchmarks of success amongst their peers or within the organisation. Having additional information allows hiring managers to make more well-informed choices, and hire the right people to get on the bus the first time.
2. Developing your talents right
McClelland posited that individuals are capable of changing and developing their competencies to achieve higher levels of proficiencies or to match the needs of the environment.
As such, an assessment of an individual’s competence is not a final assessment, but one of a current state that may not be representative of the individual in the future.
Instead, identification of an individual’s strength or lack thereof in an area, provides valuable insights into where their areas of development are.
Often times, organisations will send their talents for a broad range of training and development courses in order to encourage their continuous development as contributors and leaders.
In doing so, these organisations provide training to address a presumed need for training.
Without a thorough assessment of each talent to understand each individual’s competency gaps, these trainings may not be truly addressing their needs.
For pre-existing talents, a talent assessment process provides valuable insight to the organisation of their actual training needs.
In doing so, the proper developmental interventions can be introduced to truly address the specific needs rather than attempting to develop multiple skills at one go.
At an individual level, the talent assessment process acts as a feedback source aimed at improving the talent’s self-awareness.
Self-awareness is step one of the development process, as it reveals to the individual where they stand currently.
In comparing the current state with an ideal state, an individual would then be better equipped to identify where their gaps are and allow them to plan how to close those gaps.
Often times, we may be unaware of our actual capabilities or have a skewed perception of them. Individuals may not recognise certain blind spots about their capabilities without direct feedback from others.
It is this direct feedback that the talent assessment process hopes to provide to individuals being assessed.
Having this knowledge about personal strengths and areas for development allow individuals to make more informed choices on their development, including the motivation to take intended actions to target specific needs.
3. Identifying high potentials and planning for the future
Often, at the top of a leader’s to-do list is to identify the high performers and high potentials in an organisation to groom them to take on different roles within the organisation.
A common misconception in organisations is that high performers in an organisation will also be high potentials, i.e. capable of succeeding against challenges beyond their current role and with more advanced work.
However, to be a high potential requires a different set of capabilities – such as being able to learn and cope with change positively, and not just be able to get the job done well.
A high potential is someone who is geared towards succeeding in the future and in advanced roles, and not just in their current positions.
Often times, it can be hard to tease apart the two – unless you know what you’re looking for.
It is in this case that a formal talent assessment process can be beneficial to an organisation, as it provides a structured approach towards identifying high potentials, based on the understanding of that criteria.
By simulating an environment to stretch individuals to showcase their capabilities, an assessment centre can create a fair platform for comparing talent capabilities.
Complementing it with the use of psychometric assessments to understand an individual from the basis of their personality, talent assessments function outside of less objective (but more common) assessments such as performance appraisals or recommendations.
Instead of replacing these less objective means, talent assessments act as additional information sources to aid management to identify their high potentials based on a holistic understanding of their talents.
In a white paper published by Aon Hewitt in 2013, 96% of global top companies employ the use of a combination of formal assessments, as well as performance rating systems to form a robust talent identification process.
After conducting a formal assessment process, tools such as a talent grid or talent matrix help plot and classify talents into the different categories of whether each talent stands in terms of performance and potential.
It is in this process that the management identifies and differentiates the high performers and high potentials, with the cream of the crop being those who are high in performance as well as high in potential.
Understanding your talents is crucial to knowing how to manage each talent’s development, whether by providing stretch assignments to those with potential or by ensuring high performers are encouraged and rewarded for their efforts.
More importantly, it is this information that helps organisations find their future leaders and groom them accordingly for the talent pipeline.
At the end of the day, the process of identifying high potentials within an organisation is part of a succession plan to ensure that the organisation is ready with potential successors when the need for a new leader arises.
Some organisations may go the extra step in their talent identification process to determine each talent’s readiness to take on specific advanced roles, by conducting succession planning analysis for their talent pool.
For example, determining if a senior manager is ready to assume the role of a managing director, based on assessing them against the expected competencies for that level.
Through the assessment process, the organisation can gauge how soon the senior manager will be ready, and take the intended actions to ensure that the talent is sufficiently prepared for the transition
This conscious action is a step against leaving the succession pipeline to chance, and having the attitude to plan ahead and ensure that the right people are taking over as leaders.
An analogy that I like to use when I talk about talent assessments is that of a photographer taking photos of a subject.
In this case, the individual being assessed is the subject, whereas the talent assessment tools or assessors are the camera and photographer.
The subject may only have been exposed to their own image through their reflection in the mirror, which offers a limited view of themselves from one angle.
The photographer with the camera, on the other hand, is free to take photos from multiple angles to provide a more holistic perspective of how the subject actually looks like.
By showing this photo to the individual or those around the individual, information is provided to help the person be aware and make changes with this awareness.
Talent assessments help to pinpoint the strengths and development areas of employees, with the understanding that these people are those who form the driving mechanisms of any company.
Talent assessments offer a more in-depth approach to talent management and development, by focusing on these core understandings to guide actions.
What to expect in an assessment centre
There are multiple elements to the talent assessment process, but at its most basic, involves a candidate going through multiple activities aimed at eliciting or measuring different aspects of personality, behaviour and performance.
Results and observations from these different elements are then integrated to form a well-rounded insight of the candidate.
- Psychometric assessments: Standardised assessments of personality-behaviour, cognitive aptitude or motivation factors.
- In-tray/e-tray basket: Task-management exercise simulating traditional in-box systems.
- Case study discussions: Solo or team exercise to analyse a given scenario.
- Presentations: Exercise comprising conveying messages to an audience group.
- Role plays: One-to-one communication and interaction exercise.
- Competency-based interviews: Structured interviews focusing on past behaviour. Also commonly known as behavioural event interviews.
These different elements represent different aspects of the workplace, and are meant to elicit job-related behaviours or to garner a deeper understanding of the candidate’s behavioural tendencies.
A talent assessment exercise can take anywhere between one hour to two days, depending on the complexity and combination of activities.