Caution: Skill assessment pitfalls ahead

Sep 05, 2014
David Zahn

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from Getting Personal About Business, the blog of Zahn Consulting, LLC.

Skill assessments are appropriate and a highly recommended step to take when a retailer or any other business is looking to prepare itself for managing change and preparing for a new set of challenges. However, they are best done with certain cautions considered and accounted for to prevent misinterpretations and increase the likelihood of success.

Here, a few common cautions in the process:

Not observing behavior/performance: Having people behave as they would when put into the situations that they will be required to confront is the best indicator of their skill level. If a simulation or role-play scenario cannot be constructed to actually "test" or observe actual behavior, some executives will rely on reported or self-assessment insights (asking the job incumbent or their supervisor to rate their skill). The danger in relying on this information alone is that each of us may have very different interpretations of what a performance standard would include.

Ignoring contributory factors to performance: Be aware of other contributory factors that may influence whether performance is actually demonstrated. A lack of observable performance may be a function of:

  • Few (or no) opportunities to demonstrate performance due to the "newness" of the position
  • Confusion or uncertainty of what good performance looks like/undefined standards/poorly identified metrics/etc.
  • Competing performance incentives that are not rewarding the right behaviors, and so they are not being observed or demonstrated because they are not rewarded
  • Lack of skill, knowledge, or abilities to achieve the desired results (THIS is fertile ground for training)

Assuming skills transfer: Another frequently seen phenomena is assuming that if someone is expert at one task, they will also excel at another task. Exemplary performance (or subpar performance) under a particular environment, set of expectations, access to resources, etc., cannot be assumed to be indicative of the level of performance under a new set of criteria.

What common missteps or unhelpful assumptions often frustrate the skill assessment process? What particular challenges do retail stores have around skillset evaluations?

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8 Comments on "Caution: Skill assessment pitfalls ahead"

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Ken Lonyai
6 years 1 month ago

David brings up some really good points that affect training and evaluation. My feeling is that most retailers don’t have very solid/practical training and their real world skills assessment is even shakier, if existent at all.

It seems that due to the typical high staff turnover, retailers largely invest the minimal effort in training and then real world (on the floor) evaluation. Structured observation by a mentor, trainer, or manager would be best, but few retailers have the staffing to make that happen. Ongoing observational systems utilizing technology can be a useful method to cover the shortfall and get better meaning out of training.

Roger Saunders
6 years 1 month ago

When offering feedback, make certain that all parties have the opportunity to “inspect what is expected.” If the associate doesn’t know and understand what skills are of importance for the position, both they and their supervisor will be blindsided when feedback is offered.

In most retail situations, associates are evaluated on human, technical, and conceptual skills. Specifically defining and agreeing upon those skills in the first 90 days of employment will support all parties’ needs to focus and work on those practices.

Ian Percy
6 years 1 month ago
There’s another side to this discussion stirred up by David’s article. “Skills,” IMHO, is a term applied to situations where there are predefined expectations of what a behavior should, or even must, look like. Medical and financial procedures for example. Those that do it “right” are deemed to be “skilled.” Skill is a learned thing. This is a thoughtful article especially when applied to that side of the coin. Unfortunately the moment you declare that “THIS is what it should look like” is the moment you also dismiss innovation. It’s safe to assume that all innovation is born out of situations where someone didn’t do something the established way. In Picasso’s early years his painting looked like paintings “should” look like; realistic, in other words. I’m sure he was deemed “skilled.” Then around 1906 he released something else from within his soul and became the brilliant stylist painter he is known as. If he’d started with his “Three Musicians” painting I doubt the art community of the time would have used the word “skilled.” My… Read more »
Ben Ball
6 years 1 month ago

Knowing your objective going into the assessment is pretty important. Particularly at more advanced levels of management, “skills assessment” or the ability to perform a certain combination of tasks at a high level of proficiency, is confused with “potential” in assessing bench strength or creating development plans. These are two very different animals.

Ryan Mathews
6 years 1 month ago

The best test of skills is in situ. Asking people if they are up for a challenge isn’t the same thing as seeing if they are actually equal to a task.

As for the biggest challenge, I would say that organizational resistance to change always exceeds individual capacity to change, so sometimes companies aren’t ready for the changes they are asking for.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
6 years 1 month ago

Identifying the relevant skills is the first hurdle. The second hurdle is creating a simulation that actually helps people acquire the designated skills. Ensuring that those skills translate to the real life situations is the third hurdle. This may sound like a straightforward and simple process but it is not. Each of these steps is a major challenge that is often not thought through well. If each step is not given the attention it needs and is not tested, then the whole system collapses.

Don Uselmann
Don Uselmann
6 years 1 month ago

Depending upon the nature of the skills there should be awareness of The Hawthorne Effect. The Hawthorne study suggested that the novelty of having research and observations conducted and the increased attention from such could lead to temporary increases in productivity. In addition, the individual being observed may have the skill for the new challenge and be able to demonstrate it, but will they have the desire to do it on an ongoing basis? One may need a specific skill to perform a prescribed task, but simply having the skill does not necessarily mean they have the motivation to do it.

Ralph Jacobson
6 years 1 month ago

I think there is less of a unique situation for retailers with skills assessments, and more of a general execution challenge with them, regardless of the industry. Defining skills required and currently possessed is a different consideration than a company having the capability to develop required skills. This leads the discussion to employee potential performance versus actual performance. I have seen some extremely detailed assessments and I believe you need to be very prescriptive in the desired outcomes of the assessment before you can leverage any findings of them.


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