Getting the most from online assessment

by 21 Aug 2007

The widespread use of internet technologies has made assessing staff satisfaction levels and competencies easier than ever, but rolling out these kinds of online assessment tools isnt always straightforward. Angus Kidman examines how to ensure that such projects are successful and how they can be integrated with existing HR technology systems

The most obvious impact of internet technologies in the HR field has been in the delivery of employee self-service systems for managing processes such as payroll and leave applications, but online systems also have a vital role to play in workforce assessment. While measuring employee performance and satisfaction isn’t dependent on technology as such, intelligent use of web-based technologies can greatly enhance the process, ensuring that data is collected quickly and accurately and allowing immediate comparison to other staff members or potential employment candidates.

Managing talent within organisations is an increasingly prominent focus for many HR departments. According to the ORC Worldwide HR Priorities survey, 60 per cent of HR specialists identified talent management, including assessment of existing and potential staff, as the top priority for 2007. Deploying technology makes such a prospect more achievable.

Online assessment systems are also becoming more prevalent during the hiring process. While such behavioural testing is arguably more likely to be carried out by specialist staffing agencies (which can more easily defray the infrastructure costs involved) than by individual firms, it has become an increasingly popular tactic even within businesses which manage their own hiring processes.

Deploying such systems online also makes it possible to run individual candidate assessments without requiring staff to attend an interview, a particularly appealing approach for companies who have to employ staff in a wide range of geographical locations. Security firm Armaguard, for instance, uses an online assessment system to rank potential employees for reliability and knowledge of relevant work safety issues.

Although such assessment systems can impact on every aspect of an organisation, getting them to integrate with other HR technology systems is still often something of a hit-and-miss affair. “Although we think the market for stand-alone performance management solutions is positive, the integrated [enterprise performance management] market is only promising,” Gartner analyst James Holincheck noted in a ranking of current performance management and appraisal solutions. “The depth and breadth of integrated solutions is still progressing.”

Satisfactory results

One common topic for assessment programs is the overall levels of staff satisfaction. While such measurements may have been dismissed in the past as of secondary importance compared to more commercial measurements such as productivity or profitability, they have become increasingly important in industries where competition to attract and retain staff is high. This problem is particularly pronounced in the technology industry itself, where employees are vulnerable to poaching, especially if they gain skills in newly popular systems.

Software developer Sybase conducts regular assessment of staff satisfaction levels, and those figures are continually assessed by top-level management to ensure that any potential problems are identified early. “We present those figures to the board every quarter,” chairman, CEO and president John Chen explained during the company’s recent Techwave conference in Las Vegas. “I focus in on this a lot.” In its most recent quarter, Sybase had an overall employee satisfaction rating of 89 per cent, which Chen described as an acceptable result.

Sybase uses the assessment process as part of ensuring that it offers an optimum experience for employees. “We treat our employees with fairness and integrity,” Chen said. Ensuring overall employee satisfaction can also minimise undue pressure for salary increases, Chen noted.

With employees distributed across the globe, and the number of office locations involved constantly on the increase due to merger and acquisition activity, carrying out such activities online is the only realistic method. Given that Sybase’s own products are sold under the slogan ‘the unwired enterprise’, it also provides a useful demonstration of how technology can make such goals a reality.

Having support for the process at CEO level helps ensure that Sybase management takes such measurement processes seriously. Research suggests that many organisations which do have assessment processes in place don’t always make full use of the data generated by this process. In a 2006 study, Aberdeen Group found that only 30 per cent of organisations believed that they made sufficient use of analytic data relating to workforce composition and competencies.

Training and tracking

For Queensland electricity production firm CS Energy, improved measurement and assessment systems promise a range of improvements. One of the most important is keeping track of the training levels among staff in a highly competitive industry where turnover is relatively high.

“We’ve dropped our training ball pretty badly over time,” said Robin Whitehead, business process manager for CS Energy. Previously, the company had tended to rely on informal training and assessment structures, and had assumed that relevant knowledge would be passed on between staff on the job.

However, that model was no longer proving viable. “We can no longer rely on a competency transfer by osmosis, which is what happened before,” Whitehead said.

This is an increasingly common problem. “Today, more and more skilled workers are ‘too busy to attend training’ or often complain that the training that was offered was too generic and did not help them understand how to use the software in their specific job role,” said Gartner analyst Lou Latham in a recent analysis.

The first key element of improving that process was to upgrade the other internal HR and payroll systems within CS Energy, to ensure that systems were operating with maximum efficiency and taking advantage of the newest technologies.

“We wanted to be on supported software,” said Whitehead, who oversaw a major upgrade of the companies SAP-based HR and payroll systems in January this year. “There were some good reasons why we needed those service packs to keep coming through.”

In making that shift, CS Energy made extensive use of information from its previous major upgrade in the late-1990s, which had been extensively documented and assessed following installation. “The documentation from our previous upgrade was utterly vital and valuable. Documentation needs to be complete.”

Staff selection is also essential to this kind of process, Whitehead advises. “The people are really important. Selecting the right internals and externals can make or break your upgrade.”

With the fundamental systems now locked down, CS Energy has begun the process of introducing automated performance appraisal and assessment systems, and a form management system will collect results and return them to the HR team for analysis.

Careful planning for this kind of project is vital. “It was very important to set very clear objectives for the team,” Whitehead said. “We focused on the short-term but talked a lot about the long-term.”

Advance research is also an essential task when tackling new areas such as assessment, Whitehead said. “Be prepared to go outside your normal sphere and learn some stuff,” he said. “My advice to anybody out there is to get out and learn from other people.” Conference environments are particularly valuable for accessing different user experiences in a relatively short space of time.