Liam Healy & Associates

chartered occupational psychologists

Assessment and Development Centre Design

Research demonstrates that  that there is no substitute for objectively observing and systematically measuring how people actually perform "on the ground". A well designed Assessment Centre is the most effective tool available for assessing individuals in both individual and group based environments for selection or development.

We provide a complete range of  Assessment Centre design and delivery services, from competency matrix design through assessor training, exercise design and the provision of psychometric testing.  Even if an organisation has no prior experience of this most effective assessment method we can design and manage the whole process from scratch using either our own established procedures and assessment tools, or designing  entirely new and highly organisationally relevant systems and exercises. From the most basic unassigned role exercises to highly complex assigned role problem solving and decision making exercises for senior  managers/directors, we apply psychometric rigour to every centre we provide to ensure it is highly accurate, stable and job relevant.

There is no such thing a 'standard' Assessment or Development Centre - some can last as little as half a day, while others can go on for three days or more. However, all demand considerable commitment from the host organisation.

What is an Assessment/Development Centre?

The term assessment centre does not refer to a physical place, instead it describes an approach. Traditionally an assessment centre consisted of a suite of exercises designed to assess a set of personal characteristics, it was seen as a rather formal process where the individuals being assessed had the results fed back to them in the context of a simple yes/no selection decision. However, recently we have seen a definite shift in thinking away from this traditional view of an assessment centre to one which stresses the developmental aspect of assessment.

A consequence of this is that today it is very rare to come across an assessment centre which does not have at least some developmental aspect to it, increasingly assessment centres are stressing a collaborative approach which involves the individual actively participating in the process rather than being a passive recipient of it. In some cases we can even find assessment centres that are so developmental in their approach that some of the assessment work done is carried out by the participants themselves and the major function of the centre is to provide the participants with feedback that is as much developmental as judgmental in nature.

Assessment centres typically involve the participants completing a range of exercises which simulate the activities carried out in the target job. Various combinations of these exercises and sometimes other assessment methods like psychometric testing and interviews are used to assess particular competencies in individuals. The theory behind this is that if one wishes to predict future job performance then the best way of doing this is to get the individual to carry out a set of tasks which accurately sample those required in the job and are as similar to them as possible.

The particular competencies used will depend upon the target job but one will often find competencies such as relating to people; resistance to stress; planning and organising; motivation; adaptability and flexibility; problem solving; leadership; communication; decision making and initiative. There are numerous possible competencies and the ones which are relevant to a particular job are determined through job analysis. The fact that a set of exercises is used demonstrates one crucial characteristic of an assessment centre - namely that it is behaviour that is being observed and measured. This represents a significant departure from many traditional selection approaches which rely on the observer or selector attempting to infer personal characteristics from behaviour based upon subjective judgement and usually precious little evidence. This approach is rendered unfair and inaccurate by the subjective whims and biases of the selector and in many cases produces a selection decision based on a freewheeling social interaction after which a decision was made as whether the individual's 'face fit' with the organisation.

The type of centre can vary between the traditional assessment centre used purely for selection to the more modern development centre which involves self-assessment and whose primary purpose is development.

One might ask the question 'Why group assessment and development centres together if they have different purposes?' The answer to that question is threefold. Firstly, they both involve assessment and it is only the end use of the information obtained which is different i.e. one for selection and one for development; secondly, it is impossible to draw a line between assessment and development centres because all centres, be they for assessment or development naturally lie somewhere on a continuum somewhere between the two extremes; thirdly most assessment centres involve at least some development and most development centres involve at least some assessment.

This means that it is very rare to find a centre devoted to pure assessment or pure development. The issue is further confused by the political considerations one must take into account when running such a centre, it is common practice for an assessment centre with internal candidates to be referred to as a development centre because of the negative implications associated with assessment. It is easier to think about assessment centres as being equally to do with selection and development because a degree of assessment goes on in both.

Development centres grew out a liberalisation of thinking about assessment centres and it is a historical quirk that while assessment centres were once used purely for selection and have evolved to have a more developmental flavour the language used to describe them has not. Another problem with using the assessment - development dichotomy is that at the very least it causes us to infer that little or no assessment goes in development centres. While you will hear centres being called 'assessment' or 'development' centres remember that assessment goes on in both and so to some extent at least they are both assessment centres.

The end result of this is that it is not possible to talk about assessment or development centres in any but the most general terms. It is more useful to talk about the constituent parts and general processes involved in each.

In these terms we can identify a number of differences between assessment and development centres that one might typically find:

Assessment Centres usually -

  • have a pass/fail criteria
  • are geared towards filing a job vacancy
  • address an immediate organisational need
  • have fewer assessors and more participants
  • involve line managers as assessors
  • have less emphasis placed on self-assessment
  • focus on what the candidate can do now
  • are geared to meet the needs of the organisation
  • assign the role of judge to assessors
  • place emphasis on selection with little or no developmental feedback and follow up
  • give feedback at a later date
  • involve the organisation having control over the information obtained
  • have very little pre-centre briefing
  • tend to be used with external candidates

Development Centres usually -

  • do not have a pass/fail criteria
  • are geared towards developing the individual
  • address a longer term organisational need
  • have a 1:1 ratio of assessor to participant
  • do not have line managers as assessors
  • have a greater emphasis placed on self-assessment
  • focus on potential
  • are geared to meet needs of the individual as well as the organisation
  • assign the role of facilitator to assessors
  • place emphasis on developmental feedback and follow up with little or no selection function
  • tend give feedback immediately
  • involve the individual having control over the information obtained
  • have a substantial pre-centre briefing tend to be used with internal candidates