BENEFITS FOR THE LEARNING ORGANIZATION
While this study had a focus on the learning benefits for the individual learner, I learned from many years of running Assessment Centers that there is ample opportunity for organizational learning within the AC. This can typically be leveraged wherever management teams are involved in the design or deployment of a corporate Assessment Center.
For example, during the design phase of the Assessment Center, the leadership team needs to go through the definition of leadership competencies and characteristics which are deemed critical for the future of their company. This process requires each of them to get deeply involved in the long-term corporate strategy, to break down the abstract strategic imperatives into down-to-earth descriptions of their "perfect manager" of the future. This process requires their broad understanding of the current company culture, the strategic objectives and to finally agree on what type of leaders will finally run the company in the future. It goes without saying that this is an immediate implementation of strategy, which should involve the senior management team as well as the strategic business partners within human resources. However, we find the real value comes from line management who find themselves in a position to offer their insights in a completely "development based" environment, where their opinions are being evaluated because of their contribution to development goals, and not on day to day criteria.
Another organizational learning opportunity comes up in the deployment phase of an AC, where the final ratings are typically concluded after a reviewing process. In this phase, the board of observers convenes in the "integration session" or "observer conference"; all observations are weighed and balanced against each other, to be condensed into a final recommendation per candidate. From years of running leadership assessments, I found it quite surprising that all levels of managers kept learning from their peers about the standards of the desired leadership behaviors, about the values and beliefs that are evident within their company, entering very lively and fruitful discussions. Even midlevel managers keep reporting back that after each Assessment Center, they understand the criteria for good people in management even better than from their classroom leadership development trainings. As a best practice and in order to exploit this opportunity for peer-learning, a sequence of briefing and debriefing sessions was established, that made mutual exchange between the observers possible. Where the design of the AC allows for this measure, it can be helpful to match up pairs of observers with varying levels of experience, so they can learn as they conduct their observation work during the day. In either case, this shows the importance of a well designed setup of the AC, so that both agenda and facilitators allow for sufficient time and space for informal exchange and learning of the observers.
With this final recommendation, the author concludes that three key factors to adult learning—(1) the individual determination to learning, (2) to understand own strengths and weaknesses and (3) to see the benefits of the learning (Belling, James, & Ladkin, 2004, p. 243)—can be addressed by an AC, if the findings from this study are applied by the AC practitioner:
• provide explicit learning opportunities relevant to the AC, and solicit the relevance for managerial job role,
• address the implicit learning opportunities, and make them visible and understood,
• ensure the focus on the topic of observation, evaluation, feedback and development,
• carefully assemble the observation team and allow collaboration among the managers from the observation team.
The findings from this study are relevant to reposition the value proposition of ACs: as long as we consider the AC as a complex instrument for simple recruiting decisions, the investment in ACs will appear higher than the apparent benefit. With a fresh look at the AC as a planned learning activity for all parties involved, a much different light is shed on Assessment Centers as a management and organizational developmental opportunity.
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