It’s hard to deny that business landscapes will be altered as social distancing rules ebb and flow around the world, but one thing is reasonably sure: The war for talent will rage on. As organisations large and small look to gain a foothold in tenuous times, the demand for competent leaders will go up, not down.

How will candidates be assessed in the future? One approach– psychometric testing – has re-emerged in recent years, and could become even more relevant as the 2020s unfold.

Origins of psychometric testing

The First World War was fully underway, and the British Army had lost too many from their officer rank. The aristocratic applicant pool was thinning. They needed a better way to find highly skilled candidates in the general public.

The Army established a number of assessment centres. They removed signage and identifying landmarks, so that applicants’ first test was to find the venue. They were then subject to several days of assessments which included a series of verbal, numerical, and abstract reasoning tests, now collectively known as psychometric testing.

Going beyond the military

The constructs and terminology used in the tests developed by the British military simply didn’t translate well to the business world of the early 20th century. For the most part, psychometric testing was restricted to the world of psychiatry.

During the 1990s, though, the idea of testing job candidates for cognitive abilities gained strength. Efforts were made to update the language and scope of psychometric testing, so that employers could evaluate for specific competencies. Personality tests (e.g. 16PF, Humm-Wadsworth) were incorporated, bringing another level of insight to employers.

But there was a problem: Since online infrastructure was relatively primitive, psychometric tests had to be carried out in a controlled environment, in-person. The results had to be scored by hand. Due to time and cost constraints, these procedures were often only seen as feasible for senior appointments or large-scale recruitment efforts. Countless hiring teams that could have benefitted from psychometric testing did not have reasonable access to it.

A saturated online landscape

As cyberspace has evolved, the market for psychometric testing has expanded. Effective tests can now be administered and scored online. Hiring managers across countless industries can look at specific metrics for specific roles. Better hiring decisions can, in theory, be made.

But there’s a new problem.

As psychometric testing edged into the mainstream, a swarm of online tests and platforms appeared. Is one as good as the next? Are the procedures rigorous? Will they produce insights that actually lead to valuable hiring decisions? These questions are more difficult to ask (and answer) as cyberspace becomes saturated with testing platforms – many of which don’t even produce actionable insights for a given company or a given role.

Finding your way to a quality assessment

In Britain’s WWI assessment centres, candidates were often subject to a final challenge. They had each been given an alternate identity at the beginning the assessment process, and asked to maintain it throughout. On the final night, at a reception with a bar, those who reverted to their real identities were automatically disqualified, no matter how they had performed on the tests.

The point is that psychometric testing does not wholly define the concept of ‘fit,’ nor does it supersede the instincts of hiring managers and interview panels.

In capable hands, it adds a rigorous and scientific dimension to the way business teams are built. It offers a new way to understand applicant pools, and to weigh specific qualities against the needs of a specific company.

In order to unlock this value, modern employers are faced with the challenge of navigating the cluttered landscape of psychometric assessments. Fortunately, they can also rely on an experienced partner to oversee a focused, valid and customised testing effort – one that feeds into proven strategies for 21st century talent management.

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