Having been born in the second world war, development
centres have become stuck in a time warp, offering little of relevance in
today’s workplace. At least that is what some critics say. But they still hold
enormous potential and HR teams can play a pivotal role in realising this,
reports Nic Paton
The prosecution team is on its feet and the case against development centres
is warming up. Development centres, once beloved of organisations that wanted
to pinpoint their future leaders or simply stretch their middle managers, are
accused of failing their clients.
Many, it is argued, are fine at the diagnostic stage, suggesting the skills
and strengths an individual should be taking forward on their return to the
workplace. But when it comes to follow-up – making sure employees develop as
recommended – they are leaving a lot to be desired.
Key among critics is Colin Barnes, a director of Sapient Partners –
specialist assessment and development consultancy – and former UK director of
consultancy at rival SHL for seven years.
He cites a number of problems. First, development centres have been a victim
of their own success. Because they are an effective and useful diagnostic tool,
firms often see that as their main benefit, forgetting that diagnosis is always
just one part of a cure. As a result, they do not have the support structures
in place when an employee returns to the workplace and any initial enthusiasm
fired up at the development centre quickly wanes.
"A number of organisations have stopped using development centres
because what they wanted was development rather than diagnosis," Barnes
says. Development centres can also overlook key psychological areas, such as
how to make people – both participants and managers – buy into the process in
the first place.
Adding his weight to the list of charges is Barry Spence, chief executive of
specialist HR consultancy Cubiks, who argues that, for the past 20 years,
assessment centres and their development counterparts have been stuck in a time
He views too many exercises as irrelevant and old-fashioned – for instance,
managing a paper-based in-tray or running a meeting in the office. "I
probably get two to three pieces of paper a day but 80 to 100 e-mails. And
managers do not have a large group of people at their beck and call. People are
"The technology being assessed is paper and the application is
electronic. Development centres have not caught up with working practices and
are not that relevant. They do not operate as a springboard.
"What I want to understand is how you can communicate and motivate
people who you are in touch with rarely, or you have to communicate with them
in a different format. I do not know of a single development centre that looks
Assessment and development centres have been established fixtures on the HR
landscape for many years. Assessment centres grew out of the second world war,
when they were invented in parallel by the US, British and German armies as
means of identifying potential officers and military leaders. OSS, the
forerunner of the CIA, also used assessment centres to help recruit spies.
After the war, the Civil Service Selection Board was the first non-military
organisation to make use of an assessment centre function, and US telecoms
giant AT&T was the first commercial organisation to set up one in 1956.
The centres began to evolve into assessment and development centres in the
early 1970s. Firms began to realise they could make better use of data they had
been collecting as part of the selection process to help with employee
By the mid-1980s standalone "development centres" had surfaced.
The most common name, however, is still "assessment and development
centre", or a close variant, with the terms "assessment" and
"development" often used interchangeably. Some are even now known as
"succession centres", just to confuse matters.
This confusion over their role and name is an ongoing problem, says Nigel
Povah, managing director of HR consultancy Assessment & Development
Consultants. "Just because a venue is called an assessment centre or a
development centre does not necessarily bestow upon it the credibility
associated with these processes. They use the same methodology but their
purposes are different," he says.
"Development centres are most vulnerable, if one is honest, with the
follow-up. People have to recognise that the development centre itself is the
start of the process. An assessment centre sits at the end of the process –
picking the best candidate."
The HR department must therefore play a pivotal role in maximising the potential
of a development centre and, critically, this role must start well before the
individual has even been signed up to go. First, it is worth examining what the
organisation wants to get out of the function and, indeed, whether a
development centre is the right answer.
Then there are issues such as ensuring senior management is "singing
from the same hymn sheet" and is wholly supporting the process. Line
managers must be brought into the process to allow the time, space and support
for an employee to develop. And the employee must think through career goals
"HR professionals have to talk to consultants who understand
development centres. They need someone to guide them through what is a complex
process," says Povah.
The best organisations at developing people are often those where the
observers and facilitators of the process have been through the system
themselves, adds Barnes. This means the whole focus of the development process
has to change, he argues, to ensure the programme is focused on work-based
simulations and working with peers. "Feedback from peers is more helpful
than manager feedback, especially on their development points," he says.
At Sapient, immediately after a development point is flagged, there is a
coaching session on that issue, then the individual undergoes the test again
incorporating what they have learnt from the coaching session. This can be done
four or five times.
Relevance and validity are the watchwords for any good development centre,
says Roger Austin, commercial director at SHL. This means, again, that the HR
department has a critical role to play in moulding the development centre so
that it best meets the needs of the organisation.
"In the early days, people thought the process was self-evident so the
content did not matter. But you have to design exercises so that the
information you want is there," he says.
"It is all about getting the individuals and the organisation to agree
that the profile of strengths and development needs is an accurate one when put
against the competency model. If you have brought in 360-degree assessment and
it correlates, it will be much more difficult to reject."
Such feedback – which enables individuals, peers, senior managers and
subordinates to see how they handle particular aspects of their job – can be a
very useful tool in making development centres work, says Cubiks’ Spence.
"You do not have to reinvent the wheel. You simply need to feed the
development centre output into the 360-degree feedback," he says.
Along with the changing face of workplace technology and the increasingly
rapid pace of management, development centres need to address the issue of
work-life balance, Spence says. Firms need to know how a key manager copes with
pressure and their thoughts on the balance between wealth and personal life.
"More organisations are recognising that they do not want burn-out for
their top people. If they can assist those partners in balancing their lives
they can prolong the active life of the partners within the organisation,"
Half-day reviews every six months or even an office "buddy" scheme
can all help, adds Sarah Macpherson, senior consultant at business psychology
"If you can give people realistic goals that they can test and commit
to they will be fired up. You need to make sure that the plans cover long-term
career goals and home life. It is also a good idea to identify a mentor to act
on the development plan," she says.
It is up to the company and the HR department to make sure its fingers are
not burnt and its money wasted. Pre-work and pre-thought is common sense and
can help answer a lot of the questions to ensure that the right option is
"If the organisation does not know much about it, it is at the mercy of
the seller and the provider. If people think development centres are a black
box – a magical process where its future leaders are going to be identified, it
is probably not going to work for them," says Angela Baron, adviser in
employee resourcing at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.
"There is a myth that there are certain individuals and if you can only
spot their importance it will be the be-all and end-all. But it is about
nurturing talent and individuals."
Ultimately, with the right preparation, the prospect of returning to a
lonely vacuum where the development plan is left after a few days sitting in
the bottom drawer of the desk need not happen, sums up Sapient’s Barnes.
"You need to start at the end and work your way back to the beginning.
Start with your objective and work back from there," he says.
Map-maker takes a new direction
The next phase of Ordnance Survey’s plan to shake up its development
training and processes will be launched in September. The government map-maker,
working with HR consultancy Assessment & Development Consultants, is
switching from a process aimed primarily at developing middle managers to one
designed to fast-track staff into senior positions.
"What we are saying is, if you want to progress where do you need to
develop? In effect, we are doing a bit of talent-spotting," explains John
Green, staff development manager at OS.
The move is the culmination of a process that began in 1997. Ordnance
Survey, with management drawn largely from the civil service, began to realise
it was operating in an increasingly commercial world where different management
imperatives – such as dealing with private customers – applied.
The function operated initially through six centres, with about 45 senior
managers going through it in the first year. This quickly developed into a
process focused on middle managers, with about 10 events a year for eight
people each time at a residential centre.
Green admits that until then the agency had tended to concentrate on
developing people only when they were promoted and with little formal
follow-up. Now there is more a sense of finding out how effective people are
when measured against the core competencies of OS.
"It is about trying to make sure that development is part of the
culture of the organisation," he says.
The key to success has been explaining to both participants and line
managers what they should expect, why it is important and what will happen on
their return. The participants need to be given a sense of ownership in the
process to help motivate them back in the workplace, he says.
Once completed, the assessor goes through the feedback with the participant
and the line manager and they come to an agreement about strengths and
development areas. An informal follow-up procedure, using OS assessors, has
also been put in place.
"We go back after six months or so and see what people are doing and how
they are developing," says Green.
The redesigned model, which will start as a pilot, will form more of a link
between participants and senior management. There will be four assessors – two
from OS and two from A&DC. One of the assessors will be an OS director.
"That is so that everyone can see that this is something that is really
important, that there is a clear commitment from the top," says Green.
There will be tests on leadership, performance, interaction and other areas.
Green adds that he expects about 50 people to go through the new three-day,
£3,000-a-head programme in its first year.
The process will be open to all the OS’ 1,900 staff, backed by their line
manager. "If you think you have the potential, you can put your name
forward," Green says.
"By putting people through development centres we think we have created
a better development culture within the organisation. The feedback we have got
from most of the middle managers has been very positive. People have said,
‘this is the best thing we have ever done’."