Several opportunities are available in the next few months to enhance your knowledge of the various facets of the assessment center methods. As shown in the list of Events on the home page, conferences are scheduled in South Africa, the US, and England. Seminars are scheduled in three cities in China. Check with websites or contact persons for more information.

Terms and Definitions

Terms and Definitions
The assessment center method is a proven flexible intervention to deal with a variety of talent management challenges. Specific applications are known by different titles that are not used consistently. Furthermore, the practices included under these titles are not consistent. The purpose of this report is to provide the most commonly used definitions and to encourage consistency in the use of these terms.

The most generic term is “assessment center method.” This is a process that follows all specified essential elements of an assessment center as defined in the International Taskforce’s Guidelines and Ethical Considerations for Assessment Centers: systematic identification of dimensions/competencies to assess; multiple assessment techniques, including behavioral simulations; multiple, trained assessors; observation, recording, and rating of overt behaviors; a systematic integration of data by consensus discussion or statistical aggregation or both; feedback to participants. All of these elements must be used to be called an “assessment center.” Elements are carried out differently based on the purpose of the specific assessment center application, as articulated in the following terms.

“Assessment center (AC)” This term is used when the method is used to assist “high stakes” decision making in selection and promotion. This term originated when most assessment center were used to identify individuals with long range potential to fill middle management positions in the future. Assessors were typically middle level managers. They assessed behaviors relevant to multiple leadership and manager dimensions and aggregated these into an overall assessment rating. In addition to feedback to candidates, the results of the assessment were provided to higher level managers and human resource staff who were in charge of making decisions about who would be promoted or hired. Evaluation of this application involves empirical study of the accuracy, validity, and fairness of the results in terms of criteria of success.

Over time, the assessment center method has been used to serve additional purposes, such as identifying strengths and weaknesses. While most assessment centers result in evaluations of performance on dimensions, for the traditional assessment center, these ratings are made as an integral step in deriving the overall assessment rating. Dimension ratings have increased importance for the next application.

“Diagnostic center” or “Diagnostic AC.” This term is used when the method is used to identify strengths and developmental needs and to recommend follow-up actions. Here the dimensions ratings are the key results and must stand alone, because an overall assessment rating is usually not made or reported to participants. Dimension ratings must be accurate measures of the performance constructs, such as problem solving or leadership. Assessors are typically persons trained in psychology, education, and behavioral sciences. The results typically include (a) feedback to participants about the effective and ineffective behaviors related to each dimension, and (b) suggestions for alternative behaviors and suggestions for follow-up training. Evaluation of this application involves providing evidence of the differential measurement of multiple dimensions. That is, the assessment must accurately show the highs and lows of dimension ratings, and it must provide truly diagnostic information of strengths and areas in need of development.

Sometimes this process is called “development center,” but that is a misnomer for the process. The term does not accurately describe what takes place. That is, assessment and feedback alone do not lead to development or change. To use a medical analogy, the physician’s diagnosis of an ailment does not, by itself, lead to improved health. Furthermore, extensive research shows that participants seldom follow up on the assessment report.

Due to the failure of most diagnostic centers to result in change, another AC process and name evolved over time. Its purpose is actual development of the participant.

“Developmental assessment center” This term, DAC, is used when the method actually fosters change in participants’ competencies. Knowing what we do about the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and abilities, we certainly should not expect adults to change from just an explanation of the competency or just one opportunity to learn. We know that skill learning requires more than one experience, and this experience must be guided. We typically need good coaches to provide behavioral feedback, and then opportunities to practice again. Thus, the DAC provides two cycles of practice/feedback and another practice/feedback. The results of this method are evaluated in terms of evidence of actual change in understanding the competencies and in actual behavior related to the competences. Dimensions in a DAC must be “developable.” Whereas in other AC methods the competencies may be rather basic cognitive abilities and personality characteristics, in a DAC the dimensions must be amenable to change. That is, this method must assess only those dimensions that can be changed in a reasonable amount of time and effort. In other words, it is fruitful for the DAC to assess skills in analyzing and solving problems, but we would not “general intelligence” or “IQ.” The evaluation of a DAC involves measures of actual change over time of behaviors related to developable dimensions.

In summary, the assessment center method is used for different purposes and must be designed and evaluated in different ways. A traditional assessment center will provide an accurate overall assessment of potential. But, only a true diagnostic center can claim to provide accurate diagnosis, differential feedback, and prescription for follow-up training for multiple performance dimensions. Moreover, the traditional AC, and even a diagnostic center, will probably not result in actual improvement of competencies. Change in behavior will come only with repeated practice and feedback, as offered in a developmental assessment center.