Job Simulations for Selecting Employees: What might the future hold?

Mar 11, 2009

Those of you who have kept up with my writings over the years know that I firmly believe that simulations are the future of pre-employment assessment. Over the years I have dedicated a good deal of thought and practice to understanding how technology can be used to begin creating the next generation of simulation tools.

The purpose of this article is not to provide a detailed outline of the virtues of simulations (please refer to some of my earlier writings for this type of information). Beyond this, the crux of the issue is that simulations offer some really nice advantages over simple employment tests. These advantages include:

  • A high degree of candidate engagement. Simulations are more fun and engaging then simply filling in radio buttons.
  • A high degree of accuracy. Since simulations are miniature replicas of the job for which a person is applying, scores on simulations are likely to be strongly correlated with actual job performance.
  • A realistic job preview. Simulations provide candidates with the opportunity to try out the job in question and allow applicants who do not feel the work is for them to remove themselves from consideration saving time and money.
  • An employment branding tool. Fun and engaging hiring practices can really help reinforce an employment brand. Considering the trend in gaming and computer simulated environments, this may offer a competitive advantage when it comes to the coming generations of job seekers.
  • Reduced bias. Simulations offer a way to help reduce bias and subjectivity in the hiring process due to their realism.

In order to better understand the future of job simulations for selecting employees, let’s take a quick look at the past and present state of affairs.

Simulations in the Past

Believe it or not, simulations for use in employment testing have been around for a really long time. The first simulations were used in industrial and manufacturing environments to help test an applicant’s ability to perform tasks that required strength and manual dexterity. Many organizations developed their own tests that were directly linked to the job in question. If a worker, for example, was required to thread a screw through a hole in a certain amount of time with a certain level of accuracy, then a mock-up of the task would be provided to potential employees. Pass the test and you are hired; fail, and it’s back to the ‘ol drawing board.

The fundamental idea behind these tests remains the same even to this day. This idea is that an employment test should have what is called “point-to-point correspondence” with the job. This simply means that activities found on the employment test are a miniature replica of activities that are required on the job.

Simulations for employment evolved beyond use in manufacturing to include exercises known as in-baskets. Here, applicants are placed in a situation where they are required to assume the role for which they are applying and handle the daily tasks associated with that job.

The drawbacks of each of the type of simulations used in the past are that the simulations themselves and the evaluation of the applicant’s performance on them were all analog. It was not possible to re-create many work environments and the low-fi nature of the simulations that did exist meant that humans were needed to score and evaluate applicant performance. This means that in the past, simulations were labor intensive and thus time-consuming and expensive.

Simulations in the Present

As with almost everything else in our lives, technology provided a serious upgrade to the evolution of employment simulations. While other areas of employment testing are still using much of the same content, simulations have benefited greatly from technological advances. For instance, it is now possible to recreate a great deal of work environments; performance on simulations can be evaluated in an automated manner; and simulations can be given remotely from anywhere in the world.

Here are some highlights of what is presently available in the world of employment simulations. I don’t usually use this column to mention specific vendors; however, in the present case I feel such mention is warranted given the value these products have to the evolution of simulation products.

Call centers: The bulk of simulations currently available for use in evaluating job applicants can be found in the call center space. Call centers are very amenable to simulations because the work environment (a series of computer programs and databases) is relatively easy to replicate and the tasks that make up job performance are easy to measure (data entry speed and accuracy, customer service, multitasking, etc). Some of the best call center simulations are those offered by FurstPerson, which has done an excellent job of creating technically sound and engaging simulation tools.

Manufacturing: Several companies are also currently offering excellent simulations for use in manufacturing environments. Today’s manufacturing jobs often place a higher premium on computer and logic skills than they do on things such as manual dexterity. Companies such as DDI and Select International have created excellent simulations for predicting a variety of valued business outcomes in the manufacturing sector.

Custom simulations: Simulations can be very expensive to create, especially when cutting-edge technology is involved. Most of off-the-shelf simulations currently available are off-the-shelf products that offer the ability for light customization. However, when it comes to accuracy and realism, nothing beats a custom simulation that has been created to directly correspond with the environment and requirements for a specific job. Shaker Consulting Group is a company that leads the way when it comes to building one-off custom simulations for hiring.

Managerial simulations and in-baskets: Managerial jobs are more complex than are entry-level jobs, and as such, creating simulations for these jobs has proven to be a difficult proposition. Modeling the job and the job environment can be difficult, and understanding behaviors that lead to success can be harder because successful performance is often a blend of a variety of traits. Censeo Corporation has recently come out with one of the first simulation tools that begins to offer a peak at the future of managerial hiring. This simulation uses scenarios and business problems to help evaluate key skills required for success in managerial positions. Beyond this product, a gap begins to be revealed in the ability to use technology to create simulations for advanced jobs. This gap highlights the drawbacks or limitations that currently mark the world of simulations.

While advanced managerial simulations (also known as assessment centers and in-basket exercises) are able to use technology to help create a realistic model of the environment and make administration of assessment content easier, these tools still require trained assessors to make evaluations. We are not yet at the point where we can evaluate complex behaviors in an automated fashion. We are facing a technological barrier in this area as translating choices and actions made by assessees into measurable human characteristics has not been successfully automated.

A Look at the Future

The best of simulations is yet to come. I firmly believe that as technology evolves, we are going to begin seeing a whole new breed of employment simulations.

I believe that the future lies in gaming technology. While this may not be true for every situation, most every job I can think of can benefit from game-type employment simulations. Take a quick look at the advantages I listed for simulations at the beginning of this article, and you can see that gaming magnifies all of them. Here are some of the companies that are working on the bleeding edge of gaming and employment-related simulations. The work these folks are doing offer a window to what the future may hold.

Brand Games: Specializes in creating video-based gaming to support employment branding initiatives. While it is not creating simulations to be used to evaluate applicants, the work it is doing is some of the most advanced out there when it comes to the combination of hiring and gaming.

The U.S. Military (profiled in the March Journal of Corporate Recruiting Leadership) has been creating some of the most advanced simulation tools out there. Many of these are specific to a particular role and are used for training, but they are also using gaming as part of employment branding exercises.

ETC-easy: It is currently working on the first customer-service gaming simulation ever created. I’ve seen the product (which is still in development) and I think it is a really great step. ETC is currently looking for validation partners for this product, so anyone interested in learning more should contact me directly to learn more.

Hudson Soft’s “Help Wanted/Job Island” video game: This product will be perhaps the most unique job-related game available when it arrives on shelves later this year. The game requires players to work in a variety of virtual jobs in order to discover what they like doing while engaging in video game play. I don’t think that the makers of this game are intending it to be used for any type of actual employment-related activities, but the mere fact that this game exists is very significant in my mind.

As advanced as the various products I have discussed may be, they are still far short of what the simulation of the future will look like. In the future we are going to see products that offer:

  • Ability to translate actions on the screen into work-related performance dimensions. This is one of the biggest hurdles we currently face in terms of developing game-like simulations. Once we get over this hurdle, things will never be the same.
  • Ability to score complex interactions that occur in an environment with few limitations (aka “Sandbox”). To make simulations realistic, they will need to offer a wide-open range of possibilities for the person engaging in the simulation. Providing the ability to attach scores to an almost limitless range of interactions is a significant hurdle.
  • Potential for social networking, linkages, and communication. The movement toward web 2.0 and the ability for increased communication and flow of information will absolutely be a significant part of a good deal of future simulations.
  • Continuum between selection and development. The connection between gaming and training is already one that is being cultivated and which clearly makes sense. There is no doubt that games used for selection can also offer opportunities for developing employees.
  • Ability to create a data dossier that can follow one through the evolution of their career — say goodbye to the resume. In the future, individuals will be able to present their work history, skills, etc., within the framework of virtual interactions.
  • Ability to ensure safeguards against cheating and ability to secure data. As with employment testing today, security and cheating are hot topics and justifiably so. The stakes are getting higher, especially in tough economic times such as those we are currently facing. The more open simulations and testing become, the more important this area will be to their success.

While these things may seem to be a long way,the development of all technology-based solutions is an evolutionary process. While progress may be slow, any movement forward no matter how small the steps is essential. Given the accelerated rate of technological change that is currently in effect, we need to be open to the fact that things we have not thought possible, will indeed be possible.

While its fun to speculate about the future, it is important to understand that simulations are not just a pie-in-the-sky pipe dream. There are things that are now available that can provide excellent ROI for companies looking to make smart, accurate hiring decisions. So, in the short term my advice for companies is to begin thinking about how simulations can be a benefit to hiring. Investment in simulation technology in the here and now can serve as a learning experience that can also have a strong impact on the bottom line. This represents a classic “win-win” situation.


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