Room for improvement
Previous Article Next Article Having been born in the second world war, developmentcentres have become stuck in a time warp, offering little of relevance intoday’s workplace. At least that is what some critics say. But they still holdenormous potential and HR teams can play a pivotal role in realising this,reports Nic Paton The prosecution team is on its feet and the case against development centresis warming up. Development centres, once beloved of organisations that wantedto pinpoint their future leaders or simply stretch their middle managers, areaccused of failing their clients. Many, it is argued, are fine at the diagnostic stage, suggesting the skillsand strengths an individual should be taking forward on their return to theworkplace. But when it comes to follow-up – making sure employees develop asrecommended – they are leaving a lot to be desired. Key among critics is Colin Barnes, a director of Sapient Partners –specialist assessment and development consultancy – and former UK director ofconsultancy at rival SHL for seven years. He cites a number of problems. First, development centres have been a victimof their own success. Because they are an effective and useful diagnostic tool,firms often see that as their main benefit, forgetting that diagnosis is alwaysjust one part of a cure. As a result, they do not have the support structuresin place when an employee returns to the workplace and any initial enthusiasmfired up at the development centre quickly wanes. “A number of organisations have stopped using development centresbecause what they wanted was development rather than diagnosis,” Barnessays. Development centres can also overlook key psychological areas, such ashow to make people – both participants and managers – buy into the process inthe first place. Adding his weight to the list of charges is Barry Spence, chief executive ofspecialist HR consultancy Cubiks, who argues that, for the past 20 years,assessment centres and their development counterparts have been stuck in a timewarp. He views too many exercises as irrelevant and old-fashioned – for instance,managing a paper-based in-tray or running a meeting in the office. “Iprobably get two to three pieces of paper a day but 80 to 100 e-mails. Andmanagers do not have a large group of people at their beck and call. People aredispersed. “The technology being assessed is paper and the application iselectronic. Development centres have not caught up with working practices andare not that relevant. They do not operate as a springboard. “What I want to understand is how you can communicate and motivatepeople who you are in touch with rarely, or you have to communicate with themin a different format. I do not know of a single development centre that looksat that.” Assessment and development centres have been established fixtures on the HRlandscape for many years. Assessment centres grew out of the second world war,when they were invented in parallel by the US, British and German armies asmeans of identifying potential officers and military leaders. OSS, theforerunner of the CIA, also used assessment centres to help recruit spies. After the war, the Civil Service Selection Board was the first non-militaryorganisation to make use of an assessment centre function, and US telecomsgiant AT&T was the first commercial organisation to set up one in 1956. The centres began to evolve into assessment and development centres in theearly 1970s. Firms began to realise they could make better use of data they hadbeen collecting as part of the selection process to help with employeedevelopment. By the mid-1980s standalone “development centres” had surfaced.The most common name, however, is still “assessment and developmentcentre”, or a close variant, with the terms “assessment” and”development” often used interchangeably. Some are even now known as”succession centres”, just to confuse matters. This confusion over their role and name is an ongoing problem, says NigelPovah, managing director of HR consultancy Assessment & DevelopmentConsultants. “Just because a venue is called an assessment centre or adevelopment centre does not necessarily bestow upon it the credibilityassociated with these processes. They use the same methodology but theirpurposes are different,” he says. “Development centres are most vulnerable, if one is honest, with thefollow-up. People have to recognise that the development centre itself is thestart of the process. An assessment centre sits at the end of the process –picking the best candidate.” The HR department must therefore play a pivotal role in maximising the potentialof a development centre and, critically, this role must start well before theindividual has even been signed up to go. First, it is worth examining what theorganisation wants to get out of the function and, indeed, whether adevelopment centre is the right answer. Then there are issues such as ensuring senior management is “singingfrom the same hymn sheet” and is wholly supporting the process. Linemanagers must be brought into the process to allow the time, space and supportfor an employee to develop. And the employee must think through career goalsand expectations. “HR professionals have to talk to consultants who understanddevelopment centres. They need someone to guide them through what is a complexprocess,” says Povah. The best organisations at developing people are often those where theobservers and facilitators of the process have been through the systemthemselves, adds Barnes. This means the whole focus of the development processhas to change, he argues, to ensure the programme is focused on work-basedsimulations and working with peers. “Feedback from peers is more helpfulthan manager feedback, especially on their development points,” he says. At Sapient, immediately after a development point is flagged, there is acoaching session on that issue, then the individual undergoes the test againincorporating what they have learnt from the coaching session. This can be donefour or five times. Relevance and validity are the watchwords for any good development centre,says Roger Austin, commercial director at SHL. This means, again, that the HRdepartment has a critical role to play in moulding the development centre sothat it best meets the needs of the organisation. “In the early days, people thought the process was self-evident so thecontent did not matter. But you have to design exercises so that theinformation you want is there,” he says. “It is all about getting the individuals and the organisation to agreethat the profile of strengths and development needs is an accurate one when putagainst the competency model. If you have brought in 360-degree assessment andit correlates, it will be much more difficult to reject.” Such feedback – which enables individuals, peers, senior managers andsubordinates to see how they handle particular aspects of their job – can be avery useful tool in making development centres work, says Cubiks’ Spence. “You do not have to reinvent the wheel. You simply need to feed thedevelopment centre output into the 360-degree feedback,” he says. Along with the changing face of workplace technology and the increasinglyrapid pace of management, development centres need to address the issue ofwork-life balance, Spence says. Firms need to know how a key manager copes withpressure and their thoughts on the balance between wealth and personal life.”More organisations are recognising that they do not want burn-out fortheir top people. If they can assist those partners in balancing their livesthey can prolong the active life of the partners within the organisation,”he adds. Half-day reviews every six months or even an office “buddy” schemecan all help, adds Sarah Macpherson, senior consultant at business psychologyfirm CGR. “If you can give people realistic goals that they can test and committo they will be fired up. You need to make sure that the plans cover long-termcareer goals and home life. It is also a good idea to identify a mentor to acton the development plan,” she says. It is up to the company and the HR department to make sure its fingers arenot burnt and its money wasted. Pre-work and pre-thought is common sense andcan help answer a lot of the questions to ensure that the right option ispicked. “If the organisation does not know much about it, it is at the mercy ofthe seller and the provider. If people think development centres are a blackbox – a magical process where its future leaders are going to be identified, itis probably not going to work for them,” says Angela Baron, adviser inemployee resourcing at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. “There is a myth that there are certain individuals and if you can onlyspot their importance it will be the be-all and end-all. But it is aboutnurturing talent and individuals.” Ultimately, with the right preparation, the prospect of returning to alonely vacuum where the development plan is left after a few days sitting inthe bottom drawer of the desk need not happen, sums up Sapient’s Barnes. “You need to start at the end and work your way back to the beginning.Start with your objective and work back from there,” he says.Map-maker takes a new directionThe next phase of Ordnance Survey’s plan to shake up its developmenttraining and processes will be launched in September. The government map-maker,working with HR consultancy Assessment & Development Consultants, isswitching from a process aimed primarily at developing middle managers to onedesigned to fast-track staff into senior positions.”What we are saying is, if you want to progress where do you need todevelop? In effect, we are doing a bit of talent-spotting,” explains JohnGreen, staff development manager at OS.The move is the culmination of a process that began in 1997. OrdnanceSurvey, with management drawn largely from the civil service, began to realiseit was operating in an increasingly commercial world where different managementimperatives – such as dealing with private customers – applied.The function operated initially through six centres, with about 45 seniormanagers going through it in the first year. This quickly developed into aprocess focused on middle managers, with about 10 events a year for eightpeople each time at a residential centre.Green admits that until then the agency had tended to concentrate ondeveloping people only when they were promoted and with little formalfollow-up. Now there is more a sense of finding out how effective people arewhen measured against the core competencies of OS.”It is about trying to make sure that development is part of theculture of the organisation,” he says.The key to success has been explaining to both participants and linemanagers what they should expect, why it is important and what will happen ontheir return. The participants need to be given a sense of ownership in theprocess to help motivate them back in the workplace, he says.Once completed, the assessor goes through the feedback with the participantand the line manager and they come to an agreement about strengths anddevelopment areas. An informal follow-up procedure, using OS assessors, hasalso been put in place.”We go back after six months or so and see what people are doing and howthey are developing,” says Green.The redesigned model, which will start as a pilot, will form more of a linkbetween participants and senior management. There will be four assessors – twofrom OS and two from A&DC. One of the assessors will be an OS director.”That is so that everyone can see that this is something that is reallyimportant, that there is a clear commitment from the top,” says Green.There will be tests on leadership, performance, interaction and other areas.Green adds that he expects about 50 people to go through the new three-day,£3,000-a-head programme in its first year.The process will be open to all the OS’ 1,900 staff, backed by their linemanager. “If you think you have the potential, you can put your nameforward,” Green says.”By putting people through development centres we think we have createda better development culture within the organisation. The feedback we have gotfrom most of the middle managers has been very positive. People have said,‘this is the best thing we have ever done’.” Related posts:No related photos. Room for improvementOn 7 Aug 2001 in Personnel Today Comments are closed.