CIOs spend a lot of time thinking about and talking about how to optimize their IT infrastructures. In a business where technology is king, it’s sometimes easy to forget about the true foundation of IT: its people. CIOs should make sure they pay as much attention to optimizing their staff as optimizing IT infrastructure.

Many companies are using online assessment tools to screen job applicants in an effort to make better hires. In a previous article, I discussed those types of tests and how they’re used. In this article, I’ll explain how CIOs and IT managers can use assessment tests to pinpoint the work aptitude and communication styles of existing staff and to leverage employee talent to achieve corporate goals.

According to Michael Spremulli, a certified behavior analyst and president of The Chrysalis Corporation, a developer of assessment tools, “Behavior and personality assessments, when used properly, can enhance communication between management and staff and dramatically enhance team productivity.” Employees who are more content and comfortable with what they’re doing are more productive employees. Using the feedback from such tests, managers can assign tasks and avoid the “square peg in the round hole” scenario. For example, if tests indicate that an employee is research or scientifically oriented but isn’t comfortable with the people side of things, maybe that employee shouldn’t be put in a support position.

Assessments in action
When David Turner was tasked with heading up Rational Software’s Leadership Development Program, he wanted to find a way to pinpoint the leadership capabilities of certain company employees. He also wanted to ferret out any potential weak areas in these folks and formulate a plan for strengthening them. He soon found the solution in Human Asset Technologies.

Founded by Dr. Stephen Schoonover, a board-certified psychiatrist, Human Asset Technologies offers a blend of software and services that enable companies to align employee performance with corporate goals. Specifically, its Voyager software system allows companies to standardize and automate the process of employee performance planning, competency assessment, development planning, performance review, and reporting.

Of Voyager, Turner said, “What attracted me first was the seamlessness and workability of the software. It’s very intuitive, has drag-and-drop capabilities, and an online development planning component, and it was easy to change and add content. Human Asset is basically a company of engineers rather than HR folks, so they depend on the customer to develop the competencies on which the assessments are based.”

Before making his choice, Turner had Rational’s IT staff work with Human Asset’s staff to “test the test.” This included addressing issues with firewalls, browsers, and bandwidth. After a close look at the program’s capabilities, Turner took the plunge.

With the help of Dr. Schoonover, he pinpointed 16 behaviors or capabilities that successful leaders have. Then he worked with Human Asset developers to design the tests according to those benchmarks. He was able to illuminate gaps in individual performance and construct, from compiled reports, individual development plans based on those. “The development programs were basically, ‘here’s what you’re doing and here’s what we want you to do.’”

According to Dr. Schoonover, since there’s a movement within IT to become more aligned with business strategy and more responsive to customer needs, and to develop a renewed emphasis on speed, quality, and production, assessment tests can help.

“There’s a sharper focus on assets for maximizing human resources,” said Dr. Schoonover, whose customers have included Sun Microsystems and Oracle. Performance management and talent management assessments can help you make better fits for jobs in your organizations, which yields greater productivity. “Knowing what talent you have on your staff can help you when committing to future deployments and IT initiatives. The tests can also help you develop your bench strength.” We’ve all seen an employee who is the only staff member skilled in a certain technology leave the company and put the manager in a spot. Assessment tests help you identify staff holes and work to correct them before you’re caught off guard.

Problems with implementation
Companies can sometimes face cultural issues when getting assessment tests up and running. While they’re accepted more readily as part of an interview process, existing employees can sometimes be a little cynical and feel that the test could lead to pigeonholing. “However, if you have a solid rationale in place for an assessment process and a solid feedback process is in place, employees won’t be so reluctant to buy into it. If you use a test to ‘see who stays and who gets fired,’ you’ll have problems,” Spremulli said.

The rollout of the test to the intended subjects at Rational was seamless because, as Turner said, “I made sure everyone knew that the results would be kept confidential and that they were not for the HR files. They were for development purposes only.” All participants felt they benefited from the tests because they were given specific development plans as a result.

The choices
When you start looking into assessment system providers, you’ll find yourself overwhelmed with choices. You can opt for an off-the-shelf product for less than $20,000 (including implementation), or you can work with a consultant to design an assessment specifically for your organization. The test you choose should be a proven product backed by rigorous research and have current (within two to four years) validation studies as reported in the technical manual for each tool. Ask potential companies for the reliability measure of their software (the U.S. Department of Labor recommends .75 or higher). You should also run the test by a legal firm with expertise in labor law to make sure it will not cause problems with compliance with federal law.

When all of these conditions are met, assessment tests can offer CIOs a unique glimpse into staff strengths and weaknesses.