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Great Organizations | Great Leaders

Wired for Success

To assess your whole pipeline effectively, you need to have the right assessment architecture.
Wired for Success
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A few years ago when I was shopping for a house, I sought the assistance of a professional home inspector. I was looking at an older home that had been added on to over the years. When the inspector pulled off the electrical panel he found a jumbled mess of wires going every which way, like a pile of spaghetti. It was clear that the workmanship was questionable, which raised some serious concerns about the quality and safety of the wiring throughout the house. Needless to say, armed with this information, I opted not to move forward with buying the house.

Think for a moment about how you evaluate leadership talent in your organization. What assessment tools do you use, and for what purposes? Chances are you likely use tests and assessments to evaluate candidates for selection into the organization. You may also use assessments for evaluating internal promotion candidates and participants in succession management programs, and as components of your learning and development programs. When you multiply these tools and combinations of tools by the number of organizational levels, divisions, and geographic locations, you begin to see a potentially complex picture.

Ideally, these assessments will be part of a larger, formulated strategy to assess talent across your entire pipeline, in which each tool is employed in a purposeful way to gather the data and insights you need about each population—from candidates for entry-level positions to senior executives who need highly targeted development.

What does your assessment architecture look like? Is it an efficient, well-organized system or does it resemble the spaghetti-wire electrical panel I encountered in that home inspection? In my experience working with a variety of organizations, I’ve found talent management professionals often struggle to make sense of their assessment architecture. Due to misaligned targets, inconsistencies, and inefficiencies, the complexity they face is accompanied by a nagging uncertainty about whether the investment in assessment is paying off for the business in terms of data insights for making the best talent decisions.

Considering Business Impact

Let’s first examine the issue of business impact. In most cases, assessments need to help us make better decisions about talent. These decisions may involve selecting someone for a new assignment, moving a leader into a more senior-level role, or identifying high-payoff development priorities and actions. Gathering objective high-quality data is vital for making these decisions as wisely as possible.

To attain high-quality data, it’s critical to have the right assessment targets—the right criteria upon which the assessment is based (e.g., competencies, attributes). Too often, the assessment targets are widely varied (even for similar roles) and they may or may not align with what the business really needs from its talent. A critical consideration: If you are not assessing the capabilities that are most relevant to business needs, you are taking big risks with the decisions that rely on the assessments.

When you think about your assessment strategy, do you have an image of “spaghetti wires” forming in your mind? Ask yourself these questions: What is the cumulative impact of all of these assessments?  How does the organization’s HR/generalist community feel about the complexity? And, what about the perceptions of your internal customers (managers, assessment participants) and senior stakeholders? Are they confused, or can they see a clear picture of how each assessment is delivering value (and consistently providing the information they need to make better talent decisions)?

What you are likely to find if your assessment architecture is chaotic or overly complex is that it is marked by inefficiencies and inconsistencies. These challenges will, in turn, generate push-back from stakeholders. For instance, think about the time people need to spend getting re-familiarized with a range of assessment tools that they only encounter on an occasional basis. Or, consider the administrative time needed to keep track of which assessments are used where, and the time needed to manage a wide range of vendor relationships, billing, etc. Inefficiencies can breed discontent and a lack of buy-in for your assessment initiatives.

This is where the need for a whole-pipeline assessment strategy becomes critical. When you have such a strategy, not only does your assessment architecture become logical and orderly, but, more importantly, assessment becomes a critical organizational function that helps support the direction of the business, its strategic priorities, and its need for the right talent—at all levels—with the right skills.

Here’s some advice for creating both a strategy and an architecture for better assessment across your whole pipeline.

Ensure that assessment targets are relevant both to the role and to the broader business context.

A fundamental requirement for assessment is determining what exactly you are assessing. If you are assessing irrelevant or less-important criteria, the assessments will not deliver sufficient returns for the business. Say, for example, that your company is expanding rapidly into new global markets. You would probably want to know how strong your senior leadership candidates are when it comes to having market insight and operating in a global environment. If the assessment does not deliver data related to these critical business priorities, its value to the business will be minimal, regardless of how “cool” the assessment tool is or the amount of other data it provides.

Impact becomes an even thornier issue if you take inventory of all the assessment processes you use across your whole organization. When you do, you may find that the picture becomes very complex very quickly—different assessments used for different purposes, across different levels, across different functions, and across different regions. If these assessments and their outputs are not aligned to business requirements, there may be some serious concerns about the ROI on your assessment spend, and questions about how the organization can make accurate decisions quickly and consistently with so much variation in the decision-making inputs.

Strive to create alignment of assessment targets across functions, locations, and business areas. Aside from unique technical and functional skill requirements, there are common competencies and capabilities that transcend functional areas, especially for leadership roles. For example, most first-level leaders need to plan, make good decisions, influence others, collaborate, and communicate. Leaders at higher organizational levels, meanwhile, will have their own sets of capability requirements that will be shared across business functional areas. Creating common competency frameworks that represent current and future business needs, and identifying consistent assessment processes by leader level, will create efficiency and simplification in your assessment architecture.

Establish and manage assessment tools and processes by organizational level and purpose.

Once you have created competency frameworks by organizational level that can effectively be leveraged across functions and business areas, you can begin to build a simplified assessment architecture. Such an architecture can guard against the aforementioned chaos and inefficiency that often arise when assessment tools run amok.

It’s been my experience that a growing number of organizations are moving toward aligned global assessment strategies and “toolkits” to create efficiency and simplification. This is a smart move because it catalogues the go-to assessment solutions for specific purposes and for each organizational level. The following graphic helps to illustrate this concept.

Each cell represents a placeholder for the assessment tools and solutions appropriate for the purpose and level. Having a consistent toolkit helps talent management centers of excellence to manage a simplified and efficient framework, as well as leverage analytics built on consistent tools. Likewise, HR business partners and business areas can become more time-efficient and compare results more easily across the organization.

Nevertheless, some organizations struggle to implement common assessment platforms. The reasons vary but one common challenge is achieving buy-in from regional/global or business unit stakeholders who may have entrenched legacy processes they want to preserve and continue using. Resistance to change can be strong, and it takes a well-formed influence strategy to gain the buy-in needed to implement common processes. It’s important that the assessment strategy balances scalability with an eye toward how the assessments address or accommodate regional and cultural considerations. Involvement from global partners in the design process is critical for success in this area.

Each square represents the assessment tools and solutions needed for the purpose and leader level.

assessment strategy

Create a consistent assessment strategy—not only for efficiency, but also for quality.

A challenge related to the efficiency and complexity issues that arise with fragmented assessment processes is the “apples to oranges” comparison of assessment results. To illustrate this point, consider the following example: Imagine you need to support filling a senior global operations role. Through your succession planning tools, you have been able to identify five strong internal candidates. However, because regional offices utilize different assessment processes and vendors, it is difficult to compare candidates adequately and objectively. (What’s more, even in situations where similar competencies are evaluated, assessment processes and rigor can vary dramatically.)

As talent management becomes more global, and with talent increasingly moving across organizational boundaries (e.g., regions, functions, business units), the need for common assessment metrics grows. You’ll also need to make sure you align your assessments so that HR and line leaders can evaluate the health of your talent pipeline without having to apply different “measuring sticks” for each population you assess.

Depending upon what assessment approach is utilized, variability in quality and calibration can cause problems when interpreting and using the results. Assessments like tests and inventories are based on norms, which can minimize problems, but global and cultural factors can still influence interpretation. Assessments that rely on gathering data on, observing, and evaluating behaviors or performance (e.g., interviews, assessment centers) should be designed and managed to ensure calibration and reliability. Even though the same type of process is used across different parts or regions of the organization, evaluators may not necessarily be delivering reliable and valid ratings.  This can be true for organizations that use internal processes as well as those that rely on external providers for assessment.

You should strive to achieve an equivalent measurement discipline across all of your assessments, whether you rely on an internal process or if you utilize external assessment providers. You also need to be mindful of the fact that assessments that rely on evaluators’ observations and judgments inherently can, over time, fall prey to drift and idiosyncratic variations. Ongoing due diligence and quality control in evaluator education and calibration can result in a sustainable level of high quality and consistency in your assessments.

Putting It All Together

The graphic above describes a straightforward architecture for assessment. It depicts a prescription for unifying competency models within levels, and utilizing a standard, consistent set of assessment tools across different talent management purposes. You can use this model as a starting point to bring order, alignment, and greater efficiency and effectiveness to your assessments.

Remember, simplifying your assessment architecture and toolbox will help to create consistency, but only active management of assessment practices, including calibration across regions, business areas, and so forth, will ensure consistent quality and confidence that you are measuring according to the same metrics.

Do these things and you can avoid the equivalent of a confusing pile of “spaghetti wires.” You’ll also get the information you need to make your critical talent decisions.

Eric Hanson, Ph.D.Eric Hanson, Ph.D., is director, assessment and succession solutions, for DDI.

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