Know What's Needed Before Choosing Assessment Tools

By Shelley A. Kirkpatrick and Selena Rezvani Feb 29, 2008
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Workplace assessments are increasingly popular tools for collecting information that can facilitate organizational improvement. But choosing the right type of assessment is a necessary first step toward obtaining the right information. This article describes three assessments that are used to help determine how to improve the performance of current employees as well as overall organizational effectiveness:

Training Needs Assessments

A training needs assessment, or skills gap analysis, identifies individuals' current level of competence, skill or knowledge in one or more areas and compares that competence level to the level required for their position. The difference between the current and required competencies can help determine training needs.

These assessments often are conducted at the beginning of employees' performance improvement or development planning to guide them in their selection of training courses and other relevant developmental experiences. They also can be repeated as employees gain experience and new skills.

Training needs assessments can range in length from a relatively small number of competencies to long assessments containing a large number of items. Many competency models include between five and 15 competencies, each rated by a single item. More-detailed competency models, however, can include several hundred competencies or sub-competencies. In addition, a knowledge-based assessment could include a quick snapshot of 10 to 20 items or a longer test containing 50 or more items.

To complete the assessment, employees rate themselves. To supplement or confirm a self-rating of competency or skill level, a supervisor rating also can be obtained.

The results presented to employees are designated as high/low or strong/weak, rather than being compared to a standard. Employees may choose to share the results with their immediate supervisors, who might recommend specific training courses. In other cases, employees can use the training needs assessment results to justify the need for training to their supervisors. In addition, the assessment conveys information to employees about the competencies that are important or needed in their occupation.

However, these assessments are not intended to provide a detailed measurement of competencies. Unless companies develop and implement a systematic training needs assessment that is applied organizationwide, it will do little to inform management about the competencies that reside in the workforce. Thus, results of these assessments cannot inform senior management of needed strategic planning of human capital investment.

If training needs assessments are developed independently of the organization (i.e., by an external assessment or training provider), they also will not reveal to employees what competencies their employer finds valuable or expects to emphasize in the future.

Competency Assessments

Individual competency assessments have some similarities to, but also important differences from, training needs assessments.

Individual competency assessments can range from a relatively short assessment of five to 15 items about a specific aspect of the job to long assessments that include 100 or more items designed to yield detailed results about a broad range of job-related factors.

In some cases, employees' self-ratings are not validated or confirmed. In other cases, self-ratings may be validated by supervisors or an internal or external consultant.

Requiring more time to complete, individual competency assessments yield more precise, detailed results than training needs assessments. An individual competency assessment is undertaken by an entire organization, or part of an organization (e.g., division, department, work group) to guide management decisions on employee development and strategic planning.

Results usually are shared with employees, sometimes immediately following completion of the assessment survey. For example, online survey software can give employees real-time results. In addition, management is provided individual employees' results and may be given group or team results.

While individual competency assessments provide employees with a more detailed picture of their strengths and weaknesses than training needs assessments, they also provide employees with information on how they compare to their peers as well as what competencies are of value to the organization.

Managers and supervisors can benefit from individual competency assessments by having a clearer picture of their employees' strengths and areas where improvement might be needed. Information on the strengths and improvement areas of groups and teams also may be provided and used as input in strategic planning and allocating team members across projects or other work units.

Dialogue between supervisors and their employees is facilitated when they discuss differences in their respective ratings. Thus, individual competency assessments are a useful tool that supervisors can use to give their direct reports clear feedback in order to develop.

Individual competency assessment results can be used to form new teams, selecting team members based on competencies rather than selecting them solely because of their availability, or other criteria.

A Comparison of Assessment Types

Features

Training Needs Assessment

Individual Competency Assessment

Organization Maturity Assessment

Drivers leading to assessment

Employee's need to grow, develop.

Employee's need to grow and develop.

Need for team development, improved performance.

Succession planning.

Need to align employee, team capabilities with strategy.

Need to improve performance in functional area, role.

Desire for higher performance (e.g., quality, customer satisfaction)

Need to align business practices, strategy.

Typical length and format

Range from five to 15 items completed in a few minutes or over 100 items.

Employee completes survey.

Supervisor may complete survey.

Employee receives results immediately (i.e., web-based survey).

Range from five to 15 items completed in a few minutes or over 100 items.

Competencies accepted in the field.

Employee receives results immediately (i.e., web-based survey).

Group/team report may be provided.

100+ items.

Based on accepted best practices.

3-5 week assessment process if survey's validated.

Organization-level results reported to management as part of larger change effort.

Results reported

Employee's strengths, weaknesses on competencies, knowledge, skills

Employee's and supervisor's ratings of employee's strengths, weaknesses.

Employee may also be compared to an expert rating or standard.

Group/team strengths, weaknesses.

Inventory of organizational competencies.

Overall maturity level rating.

Maturity level rating for specific organizational processes.

Prioritized identification of best practices to put in place.

Results reported to whom

Employees.

Employees.

Supervisors.

Team leads.

Executive-level decision makers.

Mid-level decision makers.

Supervisors and team leads.

Informed decisions

Employee choice of training courses.

Employee development plan.

Employee choice of training courses.

Employee development plan.

Team formation.

Team development.

Strategic planning of workforce development.

Implementation of new functional practices.

Top-down organizational change.

Competencies needed to implement new functional practices.

Diagnose obstacles to applying job training.

Intended impact

Employee development.

Employee development.

Group/team development.

Organizational maturity.

Organizational capability, leading to improved quality, lower costs, and higher customer satisfaction.

The organization and its top management benefit from individual competency assessments in several ways. First, assessment results can be used to plan across the entire organization where training and development dollars should be invested. Rather than assuming that all employees need training , or even the same training, management can make informed decisions about the best ways to address competency gaps among individual employees, specific job categories or groups/teams.

Second, the distribution of competencies across the organization is important to consider when engaging in restructuring or when aligning human resources with business strategy and goals.

Third, the individual competency assessment identifies where experts exist, allowing the organization to act with speed and agility. Employee mentoring also can be facilitated by knowing exactly where experts are located in the organization.

Finally, competency assessments set the stage for change. The act of administering the assessment tells employees to expect upcoming changes and provides a framework for them to understand organizational improvement efforts. Top management can use the framework to track progress.

Organizational Maturity Assessments

Organizational maturity assessments are different from training needs and individual competency assessments. They are becoming a more widely used approach for determining an organization's capabilities.

Created at Carnegie Mellon University's Software Engineering Institute, capability maturity models, or CMMs, initially were developed to help software development projects become more effective. Other approaches, generally referred to as organizational maturity models, have been developed in a wide range of areas, such as project management and leadership.

Organizational maturity models define a structured set of best practices. The practices are defined as any standard process that reliably impacts performance. When an organization uses the practice in a standard and consistent way, then it can be said that an organizational capability exists.

Organizational maturity models usually specify levels of increasing organizational maturity. Higher levels of maturity are associated with higher performance, such as higher productivity and quality, lower cost, more timely results and higher customer satisfaction. Capabilities at lower levels form the foundation-or are prerequisites-for capabilities at higher maturity levels.

Because organizational maturity assessments ask about organizational practices, they are not simply collections of individual competencies. Instead of asking each respondent to rate his or her own competency level, they ask about the practices that are in place in the organization. After identifying the organization's existing capabilities, decisions can be made regarding the individual competencies required to carry out current and desired capabilities.

An organizational maturity assessment asks employees in a given function or role to report on the practices that are used. Because a practice is either used or not used, respondents customarily give yes/no responses to a detailed survey. Respondents indicate whether the practice is used on their job or for a particular project or role that is being assessed.

Often consisting of 100 to 200 items, the survey is completed with respondents reporting on practices that are used consistently. Respondents do not rate themselves on their ability to apply the practices.

The survey might be the sole basis for the results, in which case the survey results are not validated. To validate the results (i.e., confirm the accuracy of the responses), interviews and focus groups as well as a review of work products can be undertaken. The validation process ensures that respondents understood the practices that were described and provides documentation that the results were substantiated.

Results are reported in terms of maturity scores for the overall organization (in the case of a staged maturity model) and for specific processes (for staged and continuous maturity models).

Employees can benefit from further growth and development, as they learn the competencies required to implement new practices.

Organizational benefits include having a better understanding of the company's existing capabilities and establishing a baseline for tracking improvements over time, with the focus on organizational growth and development.

Such assessments also can help prioritize capabilities that need to be put in place to reach higher maturity levels and, thus, higher performance. In this sense, the organizational maturity model lays out a roadmap for change and provides a way of aligning business strategy with organizational processes and the tools and techniques that are needed to implement those processes.

This type of assessment might work especially well for organizations in which training never seems to take hold. Organizational maturity assessments are based on the premise that effective practices must be in place before employees are asked to learn and apply competencies that are required to carry out those practices.

Maturity assessments set the stage for organizational change and improvement by facilitating the identification and sharing of best practices.

Guidelines for Choosing the Right Type of Assessment

To choose which type of assessment is right for you, there are several considerations to keep in mind. A training needs assessment might be needed if you answer "yes" to these questions:

  • Is the company's only goal to select training courses?
  • Does the company need to prepare a training and development plan for individual growth?
  • Does the company need a quick assessment of an individual's competencies to figure out which training fits the employee's needs?

If the answer is "yes" to these questions, an individual competency assessment might be the best choice:

  • Does the company need to allocate a training budget across a group of employees?
  • Does the company want a better understanding of what employees in particular groups/teams/units can and cannot do?
  • Is information needed to inform succession planning?
  • Does the company need to take stock of the competencies that exist across the organization?
  • Does the company want better alignment of individual capabilities with overall strategy to foster productivity?

Positive responses to these questions might indicate that an organizational maturity assessment is needed:

  • Are you an executive or middle manager that wants to improve your organization's effectiveness?
  • Have you previously implemented new practices, tools and techniques with little success?
  • Do you feel that you have high a performing staff that is working within a broken system?

These are only some of the considerations in choosing an assessment. The technical quality of the assessment, the assessment consultant's experience and the readiness of the organization are additional factors that affect the choice of assessment. Regardless of which type of assessment meets a company's needs, an assessment should provide the information needed to make informed decisions. Ultimately, assessments are important tools that can lead organizations and employees toward increased effectiveness.

Shelley A. Kirkpatrick, Ph.D., is director of assessment services, and Selena Rezvani, MS, is an assessment consultant for the Vienna, Va.-based professional services company Management Concepts, which specializes in consulting, training and publishing.

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