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Kate Phelon

Sift Media

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Development centres: How to get the most from them

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When HR is working its way though transition towards becoming fully strategic, development and assessment centres can play a pivotal role in helping with that change. Jan Hills discusses the advantages that these centres can bring.


Assessment and development centres are not actually physical centres but events, which range from half a day to half a week where participants are given a range of tasks and exercises to perform, and are observed in action by assessors.

There is often some confusion in the definition between assessment centres and development centres, but generally both follow a degree of development and assessment.

Regardless of this debate, it is clear that development centres are becoming an increasingly important part of the HR landscape. In HR transformation, development centres should be able to provide an objective means of aligning people and roles in order to identify the potential for future roles.

“Assessment and development centres are often quite costly, so before you engage one, it’s vital you make sure that the value will outweigh the cost.”

Because HR functions are often separated into distinct areas (typically business partners, centres of excellence and shared services), HR professionals often find it hard to see which function best suits their skills and talents. Centres are there to provide a clear, objective view of candidates for roles in the HR team so that HR leaders can best identify the people suited to each role.

But equally centres need to go beyond basic identification and move towards being a key source for identifying and clarifying key development needs and identifying people with the potential to develop into the role. This means that centres should have the dual functionality of also giving job holders a clear account of the requirements of the role and providing details for development plans, so that an HR employee can begin to put together a clear development path for themselves and truly understand where their career can take them.

Is it worth the cost?

Assessment and development centres are often quite costly, so before you engage one, it’s vital you make sure that the value will outweigh the cost. The ultimate goal of a successful programme is for the assessors to understand what will make the difference in performance within a specific company. Materials for the centres can rarely be bought off the shelf, and they need to be carefully designed. Because of this, at the planning stage you will need to work with the key HR stakeholders to identify the essential factors that create high performance on the job, and an understanding of how to recognise these attributes.

There should also be a very defined organisational benefit and a strong commitment to using the results. Quite aside from wasting an investment, there can be a significant loss of goodwill from participants if they find that the results are sitting dusty in a drawer and all their efforts have been for nothing.

Ultimately, identifying specific features that work for a business comes down to the fact that successful people succeed not just because of their technical skills but because of their attitude and the purpose they bring to their job. This means that a successful development centre will identify skills not only on a practical and technical level, but also on an attitudinal one. Centres should assess knowledge on multiple levels including skills, beliefs and purpose as these are the things that will make the real difference and pinpoint essential development areas.

Of course centres are not real life. They are specifically designed so that HR professionals can go through examples of the role. If this is not carefully controlled, a clear failing of an unsuccessful development centre can be that it is too clinical, too controlled and therefore not really giving the HR professionals involved the chance to truly demonstrate how they work.

This is why the scenarios that the participants experience need to be as close to real life as possible, based on actual situations that have happened in the past, and not on made-up classroom exercises. The designers of the exercises used in development centres should build real-life experience into their design approach through using examples to create exercises that feel real to participants. It is vital that a centre identifies and uses current issues that have genuine validity for participants.

Essential rules for getting the most out of a development centre:

1. Clearly identify the purpose and intent of the centre, all too many projects set out with no clear goal, which makes it very hard to asses whether anything of value was actually achieved.
2. Make sure the analysis stage involves key stakeholders, establishes their belief in this approach and their commitment to use the results.
3. At the analysis stage, make sure that the discussions and research focus on identifying differentiating factors that can be clearly identified.
4. But conversely, limit the number of these dimensions so that they can be successfully identified during observation and feedback.
5. Make sure the centre has plans in place to measure those dimensions repeatedly across a number of exercises.
6. Make sure the planned simulations and activities are completely relevant to your defined goals, and reflect real life.
7. If the assessors come from within your own company, rather than being external consultants, make sure they are fully trained and prepared for their role.
8. Ensure results are followed up and feedback given to participants.
9. Ensure clear development plans are developed as a direct result of the feedback from the centre.


Jan Hills is from Orion Partners and HR with Guts

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Kate Phelon

Content manager

Read more from Kate Phelon
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