Agile learning: The new frontier in candidate assessment

This article first appeared within Recruiter on 19 April 2017 –

In today’s shifting world of candidate assessment, learning agility is one of the latest aspects to be assessed through gamification in the virtual world.

Frontiers are where the known ends and the unknown begins. The arrival of games – dynamic, interactive, multi-dimensional – in the assessment market is opening up a huge field, which designers of tests and their customers are only just beginning to explore. One of the first features of this new landscape to be mapped, however, is learning agility.

Technology cycles are shortening – even as its capabilities are expanding exponentially. In response, job roles are shifting. More importantly, the speed and breadth of that shift is becoming a topic in its own right.

From rare storms to weather pattern

It’s one thing to see your job shift from typewriter to PC; earlier generations might see one such upheaval in a career. In such a world, the focus is on mastering the new – and then settling down to carry on much like before.

But in a world where the new is in turn uprooted for something else, not once in a career but continually, the perspective shifts. Upheavals become seen not as wild but rare storms in an otherwise calm sea, to be survived by each as best they may, but as a weather pattern the ship should be routinely rigged to sail in.

With this shift in mindset percolating through industry, employers are reasonably asking: how do we select for this? And this is where the field of games comes in. By using the additional dimensions offered by a game – time, space and environment, character interaction, choice and consequence – a much richer seam of data is opened up. But what can it tell us?

Learning on the virtual job

This multi-dimensionality is already well established in another quarter: that of training simulators. Pilots train on flight simulators because it provides effective learning. A work-environment simulation likewise creates learning; players are stretched and immersed and, as they get to grips with their virtual world, they learn.

As any pilot will tell you, a session in a simulator is as demanding as the real thing. It matters not that there’s no real aircraft, or 96 passengers sitting behind you. The concentration required is absolute; the immersion total. It’s this quality, the sense of immersion, where the ‘real’ world drops away as the player works at the given task, that makes simulators so powerful and the learning that results so enduring.

The environment that creates learning can also measure it – the data is already being collected. This data – the task performance, error rates, and the choices and trade-offs that a player makes – permits a picture of the player’s learning patterns to be developed.

A working example

For example, in the Ipsemet game each game-play gives the candidate a series of tasks to do which they must get done while events unfold around them. The game is set in a hotel and the role is framed as a summer job. Meanwhile, a boss, colleagues and guests add a human dimension to the day. The work unfolds in a sequence of four shifts with the essential outline of the shift repeating.

Each candidate deals with the simulation across a number of periods at work – the learning agility measure assesses whether the candidate improved their performance at completing tasks, being accurate, team-work, customer contact and managing resources as they experienced various situations and demands.

Essentially the game is a resource allocation puzzle in which the candidate has to apply organisation, planning and trade-offs to complete the game. Optimising within his or her time and resource constraints, the candidate can be seen learning as the game develops – their task performance rises and their mistake rate falls. Plotted for a cohort of applicants, this data allows us to see the spread of learning agility in a cohort and locate an individual on a percentile of their peer group.

Reaping the benefits

Just as psychometric games are at the frontier of candidate assessment, so many businesses – particularly those experiencing rapid growth – find themselves at a frontier where the known ends and the unknown needs new tools to measure. The additional capability that these new technologies bring can offer exactly the needed insights to enable them to build teams for a changeable future.

Selecting candidates who have a fundamental ability to adapt and learn rapidly is likely to be essential to any business that finds itself repeatedly on the frontier – be that technical, commercial or social. For organisations facing that reality, new thinking and new technologies have become the weather pattern. Those who have hired for learning agility will be the ones better equipped to weather the storms.

Don’t let candidates be put off by an outdated hiring experience

This article first appeared in Personnel Today on 11 April 2017

Finding the balance between effective candidate selection and a positive candidate experience is no mean feat. Charles Martin looks at the trade-off between subjecting job applicants to tests and positioning your brand as a forward-thinking place to work.

The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing.” So said Louis XIV’s finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert.

The art of recruitment follows a similar pattern, with candidate evaluation taking the role of the feathers and the level of applicant dropout the role of the hissing.

At each stage of the recruitment process, employers need to extract further information from the candidate in order to decide whether to advance them or drop them.

And there’s the rub; information takes time and effort to acquire and, where the time and effort concerned belongs to the candidate, getting it depends on the balance between job attractiveness and process ugliness.

In the graduate recruitment process, for example, candidates know that the organisation they spend their early years with will leave an imprint on their careers that will last a working lifetime. Wherever they subsequently go, those first years will be seen as their apprenticeship. Think of an IBM graduate, Proctor & Gamble or EY, and a stereotype is conjured up even before you’ve reached for their CV.

Any job applicant knows that companies have culture, values and world views and that they themselves will, inevitably, be shaped by these once they join up. They consequently aim for a company whose name can provide a halo in years to come and whose culture and outlook fits readily with their own.

New graduates however, operate at a major disadvantage to those just a few years into their careers. They lack the daily contact and routine experience on the job, the war stories of colleagues that equip an insider with a nuanced understanding of their industry. So how are they to know who has a solid reputation and who does not?

First impressions

Possessing none of the knowledge of experienced hires, they emerge blinking into the daylight from their studies and fasten on to clues from the company’s annual report or Glassdoor, the sum of which is not much compared to what’s at stake. Furthermore, the authenticity of this evidence is hard to gauge.

The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing … the art of recruitment follows a similar pattern”

This paucity of real information means that candidates are acutely sensitive to clues – and the more unwitting a clue, the more revealing it will seem to be.

If a company scrimps and saves on your travel expenses, what will be its attitude to, for example, paying to train you? If it can’t provide feedback on your application, will it give you any more attention once you’re on the payroll?

And if it’s using outdated, clunky tools at the “dating” stage, how up-to-date will the thinking of your future manager be?

Modern applicant tracking systems have, mostly, smoothed the conventional admin of recruitment. But one area where contemporary expectations collide hard with traditional tools still stands out: the psychometric questionnaire.

What about psychometrics?

Though effective, it has settled into a niche as one of the least loved of tasks (it’s dull, candidates believe it can be manipulated and and it feels one-sided; your soul is prised open but usually only to your assessor’s eyes, not yours).

Psychometric questionnaires rest on the happy assumption that candidates either don’t mind or, if they do, they’re resigned to it as a necessity. But attitudes can change fast once it’s clear there’s a better way to get the job done.

So where is the better way emerging? It’s coming from outside, taking a staple of this generation’s everyday lives and re-purposing it with a twist.

Psychometric questionnaires are making way for games. While questionnaires bludgeon through your defences by asking you the same question in numerous different ways, games work with the grain of the human mind.

Games are based on the simple fact that when we are immersed, we are at our most natural. In a state of flow, we are ourselves, for better or for worse, but always truer.

Keep up with expectations

The workplace has been changing and it’s critical that employers signal to information-hungry candidates that they’re keeping up.

Whether it’s bring-your-own device or virtual teams, the workplace today’s candidates expect to enter is unrecognisable from that of their parents.

Savvy candidates know that not every business has moved with the times and few want to join a company and then realise it’s stuck in a time warp. So why let your candidate experience give them that impression?

For these young employees, pre-digital hangovers can stand out as warnings. Candidates can use their feet, just as geese can use their wings.

Assessing Progress

This article was first published in issue 175 of The Global Recruiter –

Charles Martin, CEO at Ipsemet says psychometric testing is evolving fast.

If you’ve ever sat across an interview desk from a candidate, you’ve probably asked yourself: ‘What will you really be like if we hire you?’ Until recently, psychometric questionnaires were your best answer to that question. These lists of self-report questions have become an institution – and they’ve acquitted themselves well over the years.

It’s axiomatic that you hire for attitude, train for skills. And it is so because mangers have long known that skills can be changed, temperament can’t. There are exceptions – the performing arts prima donna or cranky coding genius – but they’re rare and tolerated only as long as they’re indispensable. Frequently they work in solo fields.

Behaviour is the decider

Not only are few of us indispensable, but most of us labour collectively, where individual cussedness can pull a team down much faster than lone stardom can push it up. That makes behaviour the decider. Elusive, complex, variable – but the decider.

As the world of work changes, it’s arguable that we’re seeing a bifurcation of the jobs market into two recognisable types. The first is knowledge work – skilled, creative roles that focus on complex problems, producing for example a marketing campaign or a business strategy. The second is less technically skilled, but is heavily weighted to behaviour. Care work, retail, hospitality – these are roles whose demands for politeness under duress, observance of procedures or simple patience might test many a CEO.

As the rising tide of automation covers jobs once thought too varied or complex to delegate to machines, the areas staying dry longest may be the extremes of these two types; those which rely most on judgment, or personal interaction.

Don’t tell me you’re funny – make me laugh

Thus, time-honoured wisdom and changes in modern work are converging to raise the stakes on that question – what will you really be like if we hire you?

The nub of this question is the qualifier – ‘really’. For all its importance, it’s historically been very hard to know for sure before you committed. Reflected in that ‘really’ is the recognition that people manage the impression they create. Whether it’s first dates or job interviews, the shop window is nicer than the store. Much of this is benign, or is simply about meeting social norms, but the potential for masking is real. No one wants to meet Peter Perfect at interview and Dick Dastardly on the job.

So employers need ways of disabling the impression management reflex, so they can see the store behind the shop window – the everyday, under pressure, managing-between-priorities person that you’re going to work with post-hire.

The tool first to hand is the psychometric questionnaire. This is a technology that has served us well and is only now – after a remarkably long run – beginning to show its age. Digital natives increasingly believe that questionnaires can be gamed, a belief which – even if mistaken – puts candidates in something of a Prisoner’s Dilemma. If others are likely to cheat, what should you do?

Equally long established, and right at the other end of the price scale, is the Assessment Centre. Putting candidates through a series of face-to-face exercises with managers and HR experts observing mimics, in hot-house conditions, the real job. They’re the best tool we have. The only snag is, they’re as expensive as they are good. Costs of £1,000 a head are common – and then you’ve got to herd time-poor senior managers together to oversee it. No wonder then, that assessment centres are top-tier only.

In between these extremes, a new format is emerging, that draws on both these forebears: the psychometric game. With the statistical rigour of questionnaires and the realness of assessment centres, psychometric games hold the promise of assessment centre outputs at questionnaire costs and convenience.

Learn more in one hour

So what’s the magic ingredient in games? “If you would read a man’s disposition, see him game,” wrote the author Richard Lindgard in 1907. “You will then learn more of him in one hour than in seven years’ conversation.” Lindgard offers this guidance in his book A Letter of Advice to a Young Gentleman Leaving the University Concerning His Behaviour and Conversation in the World. Why? The clue is in his revealing follow up remark: “little Wagers will try him as soon as great Stakes, for then he is off his Guard.” What Lindgard was pointing to was, in modern language, immersion. A state of ‘flow’, where the person is absorbed enough in what they are doing that their attention is switched from self-observation to performance. Here, then, is where the person is truly seen.

Psychometric games are built on this same insight. Human attention is singular and, like a torch beam, even as it illuminates the object of interest it throws the remainder into deeper shadow. Self-monitoring and task performance don’t combine (hence the clumsiness that descends when we have to do something difficult before an audience). As a game turns up the heat candidates become immersed and their behaviour is revealed.

Getting real

The shift of psychometric testing from self-reporting to real behaviour requires a fully immersive environment, and sophisticated data capture methods. The emergence of the gaming megatrend and of complex data analysis are the reasons this is happening now, and not before. These powerful shifts in capability make psychometric games possible, but they also mean there’s no going back. Games will have a long development journey ahead of them, as questionnaires did in their day, but the potential is clear. Once you can identify behaviour through software, you need never wonder what that interviewee would really be like again.