Organizations run on talent. To be effective your employees need to have the right mix of knowledge, skill, ability, and other characteristics—the KSAOs—needed to perform the job well. So you have to be sure that your employees have what they need. To do that you have two choices. You can use pre-employment assessments of the KSAOs to select people who have the right mix, or you can train employees to provide them the KSAOs they need. But which is best—should you test or train?
The Selection Approach
The selection approach means testing employees prior to hiring to screen out those who do not have the KSAOs that they need. This means starting with a job analysis to identify the KSAOs that are needed for the job, and then identifying assessments that can test for those KSAOs in applicants. There is a lot of background work that needs to be done to be sure that the assessments can actually predict job performance or other important outcomes. Once that is done, the assessments can become part of the recruitment process. Their use can be automated, and provide a relatively inexpensive and efficient way to screen applicants, particularly at early stages of recruitment.
The Training Approach
Almost all organizations provide some training for employees, and there are countless ways of providing such training. Training can be part of the onboarding activities for new employees, and it can be ongoing to enhance KSAOs of existing employees. Training in most cases is focused on enhancing job-relevant knowledge and skills that can be applied to the current job, or enable employees to move into different roles over time. It can also be used to assure that knowledge and skill remain current. Well-designed training involves three important steps. For more on these steps see my I-O Psychology textbook.
- Needs assessment to determine what training is needed. This can be accomplished by identifying KSAO gaps in the current workforce. If employees lack important knowledge or skills, training can be provided to fill the gaps.
- Training delivery should incorporate best practices to assure that the training is effective, and will have the maximum chance to transfer to the job. Training that covers the right topics, but is performed in a way that limits retention, for example, will be unlikely to have the desired effects on the job.
- Evaluation of training should occur to be sure that employees learned what was intended and that the training transferred to the job. This can be done with an examination at the end of training to see what was learned, and a follow-up on the job to see if intended outcomes were affected. For example, training in customer service might be evaluated through a survey of customers conducted before and after training to see if customer reactions improved.
Should You Test or Train?
There are a number of factors to keep in mind in determining whether you should test or train.
- Is It Feasible to Test? Not every KSAO can be found in job applicants. Job-specific knowledge and skill will only be found in experienced employees. In such cases there is no choice but to train. And do you have assessments available, and if not, do you have the resources to develop them? If the answers are no, then testing is not feasible.
- Is It Feasible to Train? Many job requirements are characteristics of people that would be difficult or impossible to train. Basic abilities such as hand-eye coordination, personality, and values are best assessed in job applicants, as it is not feasible to train them. And do you have training available, and if not, do you have the resources to develop it? If the answers are no, then training is not feasible.
- Availability of Applicants. If there are a sufficient number of applicants that have the needed KSAOs, testing can be helpful in identifying them. If there are many applicants for each position, you can be selective in hiring only those who do well on your assessments. On the other hand, if you have few applicants for each position, you will be forced to hire those who need training or leave positions unfilled.
- Relative Cost. What is the cost of testing versus the cost of training? Assessments can be expensive to develop, but once you have them they can be relatively inexpensive per applicant, and require few human resources. Training requires the cost of the trainer plus employee time. The costs increase as the training consumes more and more hours of staff time, not to mention the time of one or more trainers. For KSAOs that require little training time, or can be self-paced and delivered electronically, costs can be quite low, making training a feasible option to assessment.
In reality, organizations need to do both testing and training. The question of should you test or train is really about what you should test versus what you should train. It comes down to testing for those KSAOs that are easily assessed in job applicants, and training for those KSAOs that it makes sense to train. Balancing the two can go a long way to making the most of human resources and assuring your organization is as effective as possible.
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