Assessment Centers Across Asia
A record number of participants from around the world converged on Singapore to attend the 35th International Congress on Assessment Center Methods, the first time the Congress was held in Asia. Out of the 25 countries represented, Indonesia had the largest delegation, not a coincidence considering the widespread use of the assessment center method there. During the 2-day meeting, scientists and practitioners presented more than 20 different plenary and concurrent sessions on assessment center research and practice. Described below are some key highlights of how assessment centers are conducted in various countries in Asia.
Japan – Self and peer assessment/feedback
One would think that the AC method does not fit the Japanese culture. However, since the 1970s, the Japanese have been one of the biggest users of the methodology. One Japanese consulting firm reported processing over 500,000 participants in the past 40 years.
The classic talent management assessment application with an overall promotability score at the end would not fit with the Japanese culture of lifetime employment, family-like work environment, and seniority-based promotion. The typical Japanese assessment center involves self and peer assessment/feedback, presentation of best practices and onsite feedback by professional assessors, and the drafting of a personal development plan. The primary objective of these „development centers“ is to provide learning opportunities throughout the process.
The conduct of the assessment is quite different from the typical Western style assessment in that there is no formal rating by assessors of the participant on dimensions. Instead, subgroups of participants observe each other (i.e., while one group of participants performs the group exercise, two additional groups of participants observe as a learning opportunity). Rather than providing constructive critique, the assessors present best practices relative to what was seen.
Singapore – Key resource: people
The Republic of Singapore is an island country off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. It has a diverse population of close to 5 million people made up primarily of Chinese, Malays, and Indians, as well as people of European extraction. The country is the second most densely populated in the world after Monaco. One of the presenters at the Congress pointed out that „Singapore’s key resource is its people, since it has no natural resources.“ It is a melting pot of many cultures, religions, and languages. Therefore, Singapore provides an example of how to conduct assessment centers with participants from multiple cultures. A typical challenge is how to interpret differences in behavioral patterns among various candidates. For example, a participant from Australia might speak up more than a participant from Indonesia. The assessors would then be faced with the question of whether the quiet candidate was behaving in such a way due to his cultural background or his personality.
Some aspects of the classical assessment center do not work well in Asia (such as the typical role-play exercise where participants are asked to deal with a conflict within 15 minutes without ever having seen the role player before). Since „Singapore managers do not discuss performance issues with an employee in a first meeting,“ the local consultant tackles this issue by allowing participants to meet the role-players in an informal meeting without instructions prior to the exercise. This makes it more culturally realistic for the participants. However, the speaker went on to explain that they do not use separate behavioral anchors or exercises for the different cultures. The participants are actually expected to adopt a more Western style business approach.
South Korea – Strong market for assessment center preparation courses
Assessment centers have been used since the end of the Second World War for officer selection in the Korean army. They are now systematically in place throughout South Korea, especially in the public sector where there is an identical promotional system for all governmental ministries. The original intent was to use assessment centers to help create a „fair society“ and to overcome paternalism in promotions. To be promoted from one rank to the next, candidates must pass an assessment center.
External assessors are generally over 40, highly educated, and mostly male. Internal assessors tend to be retired government officials. The assessors specialize in certain types of exercises instead of rotating through all of them. This is meant to ensure better calibration.
Due to the importance of „passing the assessment center,“ there is a growing private industry of assessment center preparation courses, which is seen as a challenge to the reliability and standardization of the process.
Indonesia – Smiling does not mean agreeing
Former General Suharto was widely accused of corruption and suppression of political opposition. Since Suharto’s resignation in 1998, a strengthening of democratic processes has included a regional autonomy program and the first direct presidential election in 2004. This political change was the determining factor in the explosive growth of assessment centers, unmatched in the rest of the world. In 2004, a special association for assessment center consultants was established, and they published their own ethical guidelines for assessment center operations in Indonesia. In 2005, the first national congress on assessment centers was held with more than 500 attendees, far more than comparable events in other countries around the world.
Indonesia itself is a cultural melting pot. With a population of over 238 million people, it is the world’s fourth most populous country and has the world’s largest population of Muslims. Indonesia’s national motto, „Bhinneka Tunggal Ika“ („Unity in Diversity“ literally, „many, yet one“), articulates the diversity that shapes the country.
As Vina Pendit, an assessment center specialist in Indonesia, pointed out at the congress, several cultural adaptations were necessary to the method. Given that the educational system under Suharto emphasized learning everything by heart, adults educated during this era are not accustomed to reading case studies and responding with their own suggestions. Therefore, more reading time has to be given during the course of the assessment center. In addition, more pictures, diagrams, and tables are provided. There is a strong cultural tendency toward compromise and gaining „buy-in“ from all parties, with an avoidance of „aggressive, take charge“ behaviors. Moreover, smiling and nodding does not mean agreeing; rather, it is a gesture that one is paying attention. When interviewed, participants tend to answer „we“ instead of „I“ as a gesture of politeness. This means that assessors have to be trained to ask specific follow-up questions to clarify the role of the participant in the situation.
Further adaptations must be made to the role-playing exercises. Since candidates tend to do all of the talking (monologue instead of dialogue), role players must be trained to prompt the participant to get more involvement. Rapport-building is very important in communication, and therefore the instructions for the role plays have to be expanded to include information on the personal background of their counterparts (family, children, etc.).
China – Multinationals lead the way
Victoria Wang, General Manager of Dupont China, discussed the growth of assessment centers in China. The primary users are multinationals that have been operating in China since economic reforms began in the late 1970s. State-owned enterprises have been slower to adopt the method. Dupont has used assessment centers to systematically identify talent and put the best qualified on a fast track for development. The majority of participants are actually expats.
India – Minimum IQ for military assessors: 130
India is the second-most populous country in the world with over 1.18 billion people, and the most populous democracy. Seven of the world’s top 15 technology-outsourcing companies are based in India. Professor Seeta Gupta from the Institute of Management Technology in India stated, „Prior to the economic opening of India, there were 1 billion poor people; now there are 1 billion potential customers.“
India is a nuclear weapons state and has the third-largest standing armed force in the world. It is not surprising then that the assessment center method has had an enduring track record in the Indian military since 1947. Nitin Sawardekar, one of the former assessment center leaders of the military assessment centers, highlighted the rigorous procedures for selecting internal assessors, such as a very high IQ score (two standard deviations above average or 97th percentile).
While Western assessment center practitioners feel obligated to adjust the assessment center to cultural differences, this is not possible in India, given that each of the 28 states and 7 of the union territories has its own official language (and neither the Constitution of India nor any Indian law defines any national language). While Hindi has the largest number of speakers, English is used extensively in business and has the status of a subsidiary official language. Consequently, there is no such thing as „the“ culture. Nevertheless, it would be seen as normal for assessors to prefer candidates from their own religion or state. Dr. Gupta put it this way: „In India you have discrimination anyway, so all you can do is mix up the participants and observers.“
AC / Audits International Obermann Consulting
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