Assessment Centres: From World War II to the Present Day

I’m a big believer in using assessment centres for recruitment, development, identifying high potential, promotion and succession planning.  Well I suppose I would be, as we have worked with many of our clients to design and deliver assessment processes.  In terms of our own experience we have seen the increased usage of assessment for the identification of high potential, and restructuring with many using situational judgement tests SJT’s.


Looking back at the history of assessment centres – they originated in a military context by the German intelligence and were refined by the British and the Americans in WWII, moving into commercial use in the 1950’s by AT&T and other large organisations such as IBM, Sears, General Electric etc. The expansion of usage came mainly in the seventies where they also began being used for development purposes.  Today, they are fairly commonly used in all sizes of organisations.

Historically research has concluded that assessment centres are a good way of predicting job performance in comparison to other methods.  However, recent studies and articles have presented information that the validity of assessment centres has fallen and are questioning this? (Thornton et al, Human Resource Management Review).  Of course with wider use and practice this brings with it differing levels of design and delivery which will obviously impact their success and with companies under pressure to reduce and cut costs this may also be affecting the standards.

Other thoughts are that organisations are using outdated competency frameworks or in fact, today is just a different leadership world!  Outdated delivery practices, where exercises often miss the here and now of jobs and perhaps still use a pen and pencil approach as well as the plethora of advice and support for people who are about to go through and assessment process could all be affecting this.

It goes without saying that standards will always vary.  Where we have found it to work best is where we are able to work very closely with an organisation and fully understand their challenges and the objectives.  The 5 step approach we follow is:

1. Job Analysis, Role Scoping and Behavioural / Skills Criteria Definition

This is key to the success of an assessment process, understanding the job to be performed, the work environment, knowledge, skills, abilities and competencies needed to perform the job well.  Using a range of techniques, including observation, interview, and questionnaire based analysis  and ensuring input from a variety of perspectives ensures a reliable job analysis.

2. Competency definition

Defining the competencies and the associated +/- behaviours is the backbone and reference point of any assessment process providing clear criteria for job performance.

3. Defining the Assessment Method

Using a range of exercises either designed for  your organisation or off the shelf in order to gain both primary and secondary evidence of preferred behaviours these typically include: On-line or supervised assessment Psychometric ability (Verbal, Numeric, Creative, Spatial, Situational, job specific); on-line or supervised assessment Psychometric Personality (Trait, Values & motives, EI, Type, Team Type, leadership); Simulation exercises (E-tray / meeting simulation / Group exercise / Case Study Analysis or Presentation) and; Interview (Competency / Motivational / Situational / Strengths).  Don’t forget there are also key practical considerations that of course come in to play: resource; volume; capability; cost;  location and timings!

 4. Planning the facilitation and administration of the Assessment Event

Time must be spent planning the provision of all assessment materials, co-ordinating invites and administering on-line testing as well as facilitating and hosting the day, managing participants, and collating all evidence and ratings throughout the assessment day.  We also tend to build in an end of day calibration and wash up session to rate the evidence gathered.

5. Provision of Feedback

Its important to think about the provision of feedback and scoring for input into  the selection or development decisions and the provision of individual performance feedback including any reports or Aggregated reporting.


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Written by Sarah Crocker, Client Solutions Director.

Our services are bespoke to the customers needs so they may not include all of the above elements.  If you would like to find out more about our assessment services and how they may assist you and your specific need please call Sarah Crocker  on 07734 972681 or Charlotte Todd-Smith on  07734 972679 or enquire via our website:


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