Since they first appeared on the scene more than 40 years ago, assessment centers historically have been used to screen candidates or target employees for promotion. But as the war for talent and retention has heightened, assessment centers increasingly are playing a more leading role in nurturing employees and accelerating their development.
"Assessment center activities are becoming a tool for HR professionals to make sure ambitious employees will have the necessary abilities," says Judith Brown, research director for the International Personnel Management Association (IPMA), Alexandria, Va., and its affiliated IPMA Assessment Council, an organization of applied personnel assessment professionals. "Assessment centers also can be used as a needs-assessment tool. For instance, results can indicate whether a current employee might require some minor training to move into a specific position, rather than having the company go through a full-scale recruitment effort."
In 1956, Doug Bray first used assessment center methodology when he conducted the Management Progress Study for at&t. The study evaluated managers' development over time, comparing college graduates to nongraduates, and measuring how their ability in 25 key characteristics affected their careers. While the results weren't used operationally, Bray established many of the key assessment center components in use today—including the well-known in-basket simulation exercise requiring candidates to prioritize various tasks, leadership group discussions, and training multiple managers to serve as observers and assessors (see "Assassination Centers," page 56).
The methodology, however, is moving away from the process of putting round pegs in round holes and into other types of applications, says Dave Heine, senior vice president of Personnel Decisions International (PDI), a Minneapolis-based training and assessment consulting firm. Such applications include developing pools of leaders, uncovering employee training needs and workforce realignment. "More specifically," says Heine, "companies are looking less at long-term potential and more at near-term readiness."
A 'Code Red'