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Testing times

Testing times

Employees are a company's biggest expense. Here are ways to help chief information officers recruit the right talent and identify the potential of their existing staff.

It does not matter how fancy your business processes or technology may be, success usually comes down to one thing: The people who work in the company. Huge slabs of corporate cash are spent on hiring the right people and enticing them with enough motivation and career opportunities to stay with the company. Get it wrong and the costs can be crippling. "If you recruit the wrong person, then you are potentially tripling their salary in terms of the cost to the business," says Caroline Beard, director at Xancam Consulting, a UK-based firm of business psychologists. But how do chief information officers ensure that they have found the right person for the job?

The obvious answer is to advertise for candidates with the right skills and experience, then interview them to establish whether they have the personality and drive to match.

However, that will only take you so far. Apart from the fact that it is relatively easy for someone to make all the right noises in interviews, they will only tell you what they have achieved, not where their potential may lie.

"Typically, you recruit people on what they've done before and what they know, and that's not going to be enough any more," Beard says. It is no longer enough because companies — and people's jobs — are changing so fast. With the need for corporate agility becoming more critical, companies need staff with skills that can shift as the business shifts — and skills that they may not have used yet.

With so many demands, companies are turning towards personality and ability testing to back up interviews and give them extra insights into the true potential of future staff.

While an interview provides a superficial snapshot of someone (on their best behaviour), psychometric testing is more of an MRI scan of people's true motivations. "The classic interview mistake is to look at whether a person's face fits," points out Beard. "What companies need to do is to look at it much more in depth — someone's ability to think strategically and their emotional strength."

There are hosts of different types of tests, most of which fall into two main categories of ability — numerical, verbal skills or technical capabilities — and personality. As you move up the corporate ladder, personality tests become more important.

John Brunton is regional director of Profiles International New Zealand, which provides a web-based assessment tool. He says these tests are important, particularly in IT organisations where people are recruited for both technical and people skills.

"Our assessments can not tell you whether that person can configure the server well," says Brunton, but they could measure a person's natural work interests. "So if you got an IT support role and the person is not interested much in people service, he is going to find all those people ringing him up, saying, ‘My computer is playing up. Come help me right now.' He will find it really hard."

Talent spotting

Fujitsu Services used personality testing as a way of stepping off the recruitment treadmill and pinpointing internal talent for the key role of client account manager. "The traditional account management role is a responsible senior role and we'd reached the stage when we were continuously recruiting outside the organisation, which was expensive," says Rachel Rose, head of talent management at Fujitsu.

"We are a large organisation and thought that there must be people internally if only we could find them. So we decided to find a way of identifying people who could get up to speed within a year and opened it to anyone in the organisation." Fujitsu spent time identifying the qualities needed to fulfil the high-level role of account manager. Namely, to be able to think strategically, multi-task and have the ability to foster good relations with clients in the £100 million-plus bracket.

The short-listed 40 candidates (out of 300 applicants) were put through a number of different tests devised with the help of Xancam to assess whether they had the right mix of skills.

These tests included putting together a business case, based on "live" client issues developed by existing account managers, as well as giving a presentation. As well, to test how they would cope with stress and unplanned events, applicants were told they had a meeting with the chief information officer.

"The most useful of all the tests was the cognitive process profile, which measures people's ability to deal with various levels of complexity," Rose says. The test basically assessed, through using symbols rather than language, how people solve problems.

It identifies five levels of ability, from someone who needs to process information as it comes in, one piece at a time, right up to level five — where someone can deal with complex problems.

So it looks at how people can cope with ambiguity and whether they need structure in the working environment.

"We didn't use that in isolation, because you could be a level five but no good at some of the more emotional intelligence needed for this job," points out Rose.

These types of skills became apparent in the interview and role play. At the end of the process, people were either deemed not ready, to have potential or to be ready now. Most fell into the middle category and gained useful information about how they could pick up the necessary skills to make the transition.

The tests were tough and some senior people, who from the outside would seem perfect for the job, did not fit the profile. In the end, 10 people from sales, IT and procurement moved into account management roles.

The 40 candidates got feedback about their results, which helped them identify where their strengths lay and the areas that needed work to improve their careers. The company was so pleased with the results that Rose's job was changed to specifically look at how internal talent can be identified in other parts of the business.

Starting with a specific job role is typical, suggests James Bywater, head psychologist at assessment company SHL. "Inevitably what organisations do is start with a ‘problem child' and look at where there are lots of them and they have a big impact or poor performance," he says. "The classic in an IT department are people who are selected for their technical skills and move into sales or management, but after a few years it's just not working and you need to work out whether they are struggling," says Bywater.

He also warns against pigeon-holing them either. Just because someone is happy locked away being a programmer, does not mean they will always feel like that.

People change and you should not assume that just because an assessment says one thing, people's attitudes will not alter over time. Used properly in conjunction with interviews, work placements or other measures, personality tests can be a huge help in spotting and keeping talent. Just as importantly, from an individual perspective, it can help people identify their own strengths and weaknesses.

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