What is an Assessment Centre?

The term 'Assessment Centre' can be defined as:

‘A method for assessing aptitude and performance; applied to a group of participants by trained assessors using various aptitude diagnostic processes in order to obtain information about applicants' abilities or development potential.’

As you can see, this does not refer to a location, but to a process that is being increasingly used by organisations to assess staff, either as part of the recruitment process or for internal development and promotion. The ‘Aptitude Diagnostic processes’ referred to in this definition are the exercises and tests that you will undertake during your assessment centre.

The assessment centre focuses on a set of varied exercises, which are designed to simulate different aspects of the work environment. These assessment centre exercises assess how closely your behaviours, that are required for the role, match.

Your assessment centre will usually last from half-a-day to two full days depending on the level of position you are applying for. It is most likely that it will be conducted at the employer's training facility or in facilities provided by the HR consultancy that have been contracted to design and conduct the testing.

Understanding the history of how and why assessment centres were developed will help you to appreciate what the original users were trying to achieve and how they have increased in sophistication. This knowledge will help you to prepare yourself so that you are able to best illustrate the required competencies as well as your knowledge, skills and attitudes (KSA’s)during the exercises, thus allowing you to maximise your score.

Selecting people based on their ability to do the task required has long been established in the selection of military and intelligence personnel. There are several examples of this throughout history, but it was between the world wars that the German Army developed the forerunner of the modern assessment process.

In the book Spies and Saboteurs, by Dr. W.J.Morgan (1955, London – Victor Gollancz Ltd.), the author describes how a German psychologist, Dr. Simoneit observed officers performing a variety of tasks and exercises. The officers were rated on how well they performed and chosen for promotion accordingly.

The successful officer needed to show the following qualities:

  1. Leadership,

  2. Adaptability to different situations,

  3. Ability to find a solution to a problem, and

  4. Ability to work as team member.

Dr. Simoneit's work formed the foundation of what became known as an Assessment in the German army. The virtues of this assessment system were recognised by the British Government and a Selection Assessment Board was created using its own testing methods.

American Intelligence also recognised the benefits of such selection methods and added further psychological tests and more exercises to their assessment days.

Dr. WJ Morgan in his book clearly illustrates: 
That it is how you performed your tasks, whether as an individual or within a group, that matters not how quickly an exercise was done.

This was reflected in the scores of participants, those who scored highest had shown the qualities, competencies and behaviours required for an ‘Intelligence’ role.

Although these original assessment days had a military bias and their specific exercises are unlikely to be used in a commercial or public sector environment, it is still important to be aware that each exercise has been designed to assess your behaviours in performing a task. No matter how trivial or petty an exercise may appear to you remember that the original psychologist designed it to assess how well you display the required behaviours for the role.

The assessment centre method has evolved its own terminology. You should take the time to familiarise yourself with it as this will make the process easier to understand and therefore less intimidating. Definitions may vary but we have found the best ones to be those used in the table below.

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This definition uses more straightforward language and makes it easier to see what you are required to do. It refers to displaying ‘selected competencies’ and the definition of ‘competency’ is ‘a group of behaviours related to job success’. This is the essence of the Assessment centre process.

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