Discover how the right assessment tools and technologies can improve your hiring process, making sure you’re getting the right person in the right position at the right time, so your business can grow and flourish.
Rich: As a consultant and entrepreneur, our next guest built three regional organizational development or OD consulting practices during a 28 year period, grew two of them to be recognized as Inc 500 companies, and subsequently took them international. He has designed, implemented and led HR OD functions for two large, highly complex medical centers. His practice is focused on assessment driven HR solutions. He developed an online assessment and development program for Compaq Computers’ global sales and marketing division that received an ASTD Best Practices award, later adopted by Hewlett Packard following their acquisition. He has more recently designed two online and facilitator led training programs for a global financial services organization that focuses specifically upon improving one’s critical thinking and decision making practices. He has worked extensively with clients in technology, biopharm, biomed and healthcare. In 2015 he resigned to return to his own practice, Aclarity Partners Limited, primarily to pursue the development of new assessment driven consulting solutions. We are very excited to be sitting down with Barry Nelson today. Barry, welcome to the show.
Barry: Well, thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Yury: We are delighted. Thank you for coming to the studio. Barry, the first question is, what drew you to HR and organizational development?
Barry: It was kind of serendipitous, in that as I was an undergraduate at … Went to the University of Louisville to do my undergraduate work, which I thought was going to be premed, one of my first professors was an instructor in applied industrial psychology, and he had his own consulting practice, and I answered an ad on campus and I ended up working for him my freshman year and throughout the remaining three years, four years that I was in college, and by the time I left I was helping him run his consulting practice. I changed my major over to psychology for applied purposes. How do you take theory about the human condition and apply it to real life business issues?
Rich: Fantastic, thank you. What are some of the challenges that businesses face when it comes to HR and OD these days, and are there any challenges that are specific to main businesses?
Barry: I can’t say that there are any that come immediately to mind to me other than the usual difficulties that we have of sometime attracting talent to the area, competitiveness with other geographies and other businesses. But the common issues for most businesses right now is that for the first time we’ve got more generations in the workforce than ever before, and that has been something that we’ve been experiencing for the last 15 years, and it’s going to continue with very often different sets of values, expectations and needs. Neither good nor bad, but sometimes different.
Barry: And also in terms of the broadest sense for organizations, it’s managing across the talent continuum, from the time that we’re recruiting to the time we’re hiring them to the time we’re actually developing them and trying to integrate them into succession programs. How do we manage our most valuable resource and do it with a degree of diplomacy, discretion, and with a concern for how we can actually help them continue to be at their best?
Rich: So it’s interesting you mention this multigenerational workforce that we have right now, and they do have different values based on when they grew up. How can a business owner or manager deal with that? What are some of the tools or some of the approaches that they might take when they’re dealing with different generations that the younger generation might be in the, “Okay, boomer,” kind of phase of their life, and the older generation may feel that millennials don’t work hard enough or whatever the tropes may be.
Barry: Right. A lot of expectations, but I think it’s in terms of the teaming that occurs within organizations, because my focus has always been on, “How do we help individuals become more effective? How do we help teams and ultimately organizations be more effective in what it is that they’re trying to accomplish?” But from a teaming standpoint, working with one another, it’s helping to clarify aspirations that each of these groups or individuals might have. What are the expectations that they have of how it is they’re going to work together, and what it is that they’re going to be accomplishing? So very often just a more open communications rather than just operating on unspoken biases and assumptions go far, and clarifying how we can work more effectively together, even though we may look at the world or approach it with some differences. We usually have more things in common than we do differences, although the differences more often get in our way.
Yury: Barry, we’re almost at full employment. What can businesses do to attract, develop and deploy right workers?
Barry: In terms of the attraction, that’s probably the hardest one if we’re talking about Maine businesses. I mean, I think we have probably the most desirable quality of life to offer than any of the geographies, but at the same time, cost of living, basically being able to bring talent in is difficult from out of state, so that’s a hard one. But I think in terms of recruiting talent, it’s a matter of really helping them understand and for us to understand the talents that they do bring in, how they fit into our organization, not only into a current role that we might be recruiting them into, but also where the organization is going. What are the aspirations, what’s the vision for that organization, and how might they have a career path going forward beyond the role that they’re being hired into? Because most people really want to understand not just the job that they moving in, but they’re going to be motivated by an understanding of where the organization is heading and how that role fits into something much bigger than the work they’re being asked to do.
Rich: You’ve got a background in technology and a lot of the things that we read in your bio are very much maybe technology driven, or there’s a lot of online assessments that you mentioned. What role do you think technology plays in helping us find these right people?
Barry: It’s a much bigger role than ever before. What technology has done, because I’ve kind of grown up with it over the years, from basically early programming, to with all the iterations and generations of PCs that have come, and also working with a number of the high tech organizations of all sizes, the human capital systems have really developed significantly and are applying technology much better than ever before. As I mentioned, across the talent continuum from selection, to onboarding, to continuous development, the performance management systems that are internal to the organization, communications, succession planning, workforce planning, et cetera.
Barry: But what technology has done is really opened up and allows us to really get more insight about an individual earlier on, what the goodness of fit might be for a particular position that we’re seeking to fill, and help that individual also make an informed decision. It’s not just from the employer’s standpoint. It’s actually helping the person make an informed decision about, “Is this the right role for me?” Because too often we hire a person, they go into the role with the best of intentions, and then after two weeks they realize, “This is not what I signed up for.” And that’s an expense. The cost of a mis-hire is incredible. Most people don’t realize the expense associated with a mistake in hiring the wrong individual, and it’s usually done with the best of intentions, but it does happen.
Barry: So the technology can be used to provide greater insight both for the employer and for the employee to make a better quality decision, and then once they’re on board, to accelerate how they get off to the fastest start possible with the highest degree of success, and also on an ongoing basis, understand where they are in terms of the organizational fit, and what it is that they can do to further their career going forward. And that’s the most important thing, is really career development and continuous learning.
Yury: Are there any particular recommendations on how to prevent a situation like this from happening? Right out of the gate, that the people don’t even apply for the role that they’re not going to fit in?
Barry: The usual one is trying to rush and haste. I mean, it’s usually trying to fill the position too quickly because it’s desperation. Too often we’re not thinking about having a pool of candidates available to us that we can perhaps go back to at some later point in time. Many are, and I would say that might be developing a bit more again with the technology and the fact that we can stockpile maybe backgrounds, experiences, resumes for further consideration, but usually trying to rush and bring a person on quickly without really thinking through the consequences of, “Is this the right individual? Do they have the right skills, the right abilities?”
Barry: And in looking at a candidate, I would encourage people to really look at cognitive abilities in terms of problem solving, critical thinking. In this case, the needs, motives and values. What’s really driving this person? What is it that matters to them? What’s the type of environment that’s going to bring out their best? And what are the behaviors that they bring in terms of the role that they’re being asked to take on? If it’s a customer service role, if it’s a leadership role, if it’s a management role, whatever it might be, sales, what are the behavioral practices where they have strengths that they can step in quickly, take on responsibilities, and be effective from the get go? Or are there perhaps developmental edges that they’ll be a fit but they need to work on some select things, and how can they use that to get off to the fastest start? So build to your strengths, understand maybe that there might be some areas for development, and how to move those forward or really try to correct those as quickly as possible.
Yury: So you focus on assessment tools. So can you talk a little bit about what these tools do, how they work, and how businesses might use them?
Barry: Well, in terms of really at the beginning, I would say for selection, and it’s part of a selection process. I would say first of all, even though I’ve worked on developing diagnostics and I work with probably about 600 different tools from maybe 80 to 100 different vendors, I’m kind of agnostic. I think they’re all good. They all have their place and I’ve kind of arrived at that over a number of years.
Barry: So the tools provide additional insight, they provide additional information, but it’s also the interview process. It’s the culture that you’re creating. It’s the onboarding process and helps in terms of once you make a decision, how do you bring that individual into the organization, get them acculturated and up to speed as quickly as possible, and make the transition from wherever they’re coming from as easy as possible, and really integrate them quickly?
Barry: So the tools, I think, provide valuable insights. They provide focus upon what that individual can do to get off to the fastest start possible in the first 100, 120 days. They also provide insight for the manager on how to coach, how to develop that particular individual, and how to be supportive of them. So it works both ways. It’s both for the person as well as for the organization.
Yury: When we were talking about these tools, I’m interested to learn a little bit, are those tools actually evolving over time as well? Because I’m thinking about onboarding program, and again, for some organization it can be five days, for some organization it can be five weeks. But when do we know that our onboarding is working and when there are the opportunities to shorten the period, can the system help us understand when it’s time to reassess the way we do business or the way we onboard?
Barry: Well, the onboarding is going to be part of really a continuous discussion, a dialogue between the manager and the employee, as to how they’re doing in terms of getting up to speed expectations. And I don’t think any tools are ever going to take the place of effective management practices or effective leadership practices. I mean, we can parse words on those and look at many different models. So that really comes down to the talent that you have within your supervisory, your management and your leadership ranks within the organization. In terms of onboarding, clarity of communication, basically setting of expectations, ongoing followup and communication of what’s going right, what could be done better, what could be done differently, and then continuous feedback.
Barry: So that’s more the developmental aspects where it then becomes more skill based on the part of the incumbents within the organization, as opposed to the tools that might have been used to provide background information about the person coming in, or getting off to maybe, again, the tool is providing a resource about how they might get off to the fastest start possible. That ongoing journey is then going to be up to the skills and the abilities of the managers and the supervisors to whom and with whom they work, to whom they report them with whom they work.
Yury: Awesome. Thank you.
Rich: You mentioned there’s hundreds of these assessment tools out there, and so I’m just wondering-
Barry: That’s a charitable understatement.
Rich: Okay. I’m just wondering, thinking in the back of my mind, as an employer, when are we using these tools? Are there certain tools that we use when we’re just starting to gather the first group of resumes? Are there other tools where we’re getting down to the last three candidates, and there are other tools that we’ve chosen somebody, but we want to make sure that we’re utilizing that person in a way that they’re best suited for, and maybe where they can have a path for development?
Barry: Right. Yes to all the above and then some. First of all, I’m coming from a background where, and again, having been at it for over 40 years, we started at the point where you are the assessor, you are the diagnostic, you are the tool. You use interview questions to get at traits, attributes, qualities that provide insight about the candidate and specific to the position that they’re being considered for. As I said, the cognitive abilities, the motivational aspects, as well as the behavioral traits.
Barry: Over the years, we’ve taken, in one of my firms, former firms, Mahoney Brand Management Research Group, we took those approaches and turn them into products, and those products became assessment tools that we could use or others could use, and this has been done by many other firms, whether it’s looking at personality, whether it’s looking at needs and motivations, whether it’s looking at critical thinking abilities, whatever the attributes might be that they’re attempting to measure.
Barry: So the tools replace what was before a human intervention, and provide insight in a quicker, faster way. Before they were paper and pencil. Since over the years obviously we’ve moved to technology, they now can be done online, and we’re actually moving away from questionnaires where tools can be more situational and can be more experiential.
Rich: Can you give me an example of that?
Barry: A simulation? Well, one of the firms, when I sold my consulting practice, I was recruited. I competed for years when I sold my firm with PDI. PDI was Personnel Decisions International. They were the largest group of, I believe, the largest group of IO psychologists here in the States. We had 29 global offices and 670 consultants. They were known for simulations, so when we did an assessment, an individual was given pre-work that they would look at about a case study about a business and a role that they were applying for.
Barry: They would read it ahead of time. They would come into the office, and from that day they stepped into our office, they were in the role of … They were a manager, let’s say, in this case. So they were in the role of a manager. They were given an office. They had a schedule for that day of meetings that they were going to have held. The first meeting might be with a customer that was coming in, and a psychologist who was trained to play the role of a customer was coming in with a particular situation. This person knew all about the case, and knew all about the business, knew all about the issues, and they were prepared to try to handle whatever that issue was the customer was coming in with. But of course they didn’t know the entire story of what was going to be thrown at them. Then they had scheduled basically, another might be an employee meeting with two employees, and the employees were coming in with a issue that they wanted to discuss. It was really a conflict that that manager had to all of a sudden get into and try to resolve on the spot.
Barry: So from the day that they came in, they were in a board meeting, they were in a supervisory meeting, they were in a customer meeting. They were in various types of meetings that they had to respond realtime in the moment to a situation, describing how they would handle it, not just what they would, not just saying what they think they would do, but what they actually did on the spot. And there were trained individuals observing what they did, and then going back and writing it up afterwards. So by the end of the day we had multiple data points coming in from different observations and different simulations that this person had been through besides testing that provided a composite picture of the individual in terms of how they responded to questionnaires and to items, but also how they responded realtime to business situations that tested their ability to think on their feet and make quick decisions.
Rich: That’s fascinating, and I can only imagine having this conversation with you 10 years from now where that’s all done with VR goggles on or something like that.
Barry: Well, it’s also gone further, where there are some firms that have come out and the simulations are now available online with avatars, and basically those can be in multiple languages, can be made available, and there are other simulations that are now being created that take it to another level, and I won’t even try to get into that at this point.
Rich: Fascinating stuff. Although I would tend to think that the exper-
Barry: I don’t mean to digress too much.
Rich: No, no. It’s interesting. The experiential thing to me feels like obviously with another person sitting across, would feel like more immediate and almost more like threat level is higher, especially if two quote-unquote “employees” came in and I had to decide Solomon like, which how to come up with this, moreso than seeing an avatar on a computer.
Barry: Yes, and it’s real time. It’s a real experience. You’re face to face. People come in actually very intimidated, and we’re talking about senior individuals. I mean, if we were doing a CEO, that could have been a three or four day event where they would have had press meetings. I mean, everything would have been set up to really test, “How is this individual going to behave or respond to a variety of things that are being thrown at them?” And at the end, they began to settle in and really … At first it’s intimidating. They don’t know quite what to expect, and all of a sudden, but then they get into it, they find their groove and they come out of it and saying, “I really learned as much from this, whether I get the position or not, I learned more from this than anything else.”
Barry: However, the simulations are highly intense, very labor intensive, very expensive. And at the same time, over the years, that had its place, and what I saw is that the labor intensive, heavy on the consultant type of assessment was needed and had its place, but that was changing with the advent of technology and with better tools, better approaches that would continue to be made available. And I also have found, and one of the reasons I left from the firm that I was with, which ultimately was PDI, we sold it to Korn Ferry, and Korn Ferry was sent 7,000 consultants, and I managed the New England office for Korn Ferry out of Boston, but also managed our strategic alliances and partnerships with our technology groups. I decided to leave Korn Ferry because bigger is not always better, and I wanted to get back to my own practice, but I also saw the market changing away from being able to take individuals out of the job for development purposes or for selection purposes, to go through a timely, high cost type of simulation.
Barry: So I mean, the need was really moving directly in the fast. We need simulations or we need assessment information that’s going to be faster, less costly, easier to get at, will take less time away from the field, but still statistically robust and valid. That will help us make good decisions.
Rich: Well that kind of leads right into my next question, because you have worked with a lot of large companies, and this whole experiential thing, it sounds expensive. It just sounds out of the reach of many small, growing businesses, especially the kind of companies we have here in the state. What do you recommend or what’s available for the small business owner on a much more modest budget? What can they do?
Barry: That’s the good news from my standpoint, because that’s the direction that I’ve been going, and why I wanted to come back, and this was to play with some things that I felt were developing. I’m working specifically with a company where I start looking at the diagnostic, I look back, because with a background in psychometrics, I’m really concerned about, “How robust is it? Is it statistically valid, reliable, et cetera? And what’s it measuring? And is it providing a robust picture of an individual?” So not just a one dimensional. I mean, there are a lot of things out there what I would consider, and it sounds elitist, as parlor games. They are basically, “Here’s a description. You can classify yourself. You can feel good about it,” but it doesn’t really tell you anything as to what you can do with that. And I’m really looking at diagnostics that really provide feedback that are meaningful.
Barry: There are some tools out there that have been developed, and one in particular that I’m working with that we’re doing some launching with, soon to be determined, but it’s a a diagnostic that is both a cognitive measure and a personality measure. It’s built off of the big five, in terms of psychological theory about personality, but it’s very low cost. It’s a very quick questionnaire, takes 25 minutes, has high validity, and it’s unique in that it gives both a cognitive measure in terms of critical thinking and select dimensions about speed of reasoning, thought processing, et cetera, problem solving, as well as a measure of hardwired traits and abilities that are not easily changed. This is a lot about the core of who an individual is, and that’s neither good nor bad, and it’s very descriptive.
Barry: The unique thing on this one too is that it gives feedback to the person immediately upon completing the questionnaire about, “Congratulations. Here are your strengths.” Because too often people go through assessments and they never hear anything. “Oh, I did this test. I didn’t get the job, but I never heard anything. So I invested that time.” This is unique in that it does provide immediate feedback regardless of … But it tells you specifically, “Here are your strengths,” and that is a unique piece, and I think that, from a just a human standpoint, is invaluable and very meaningful for a particular individual, because they can say, “Hey, I can leverage these. These are things I’ve known about myself but maybe presented back in a language that is a little bit different I can do something with.”
Barry: So this is a low cost, easy to use, quick to take questionnaire, highly valid, and then can be used by the employer to make a decision to look at all of the attributes in terms of the personality, these hardwired abilities, against a particular job, and also how the individual processes the information in terms of some underlying horsepower and thinking abilities, and then make an informed decision. And then if they’re onboarded, there are about 60 different reports that can be generated for the manager, for peers, for teaming, for development purposes, et cetera, for a variety of purposes that can be used by that individual to bring them onto the organization much more quickly.
Rich: Is this a tool that anybody can use, or is it a tool that I would have to go through you, Barry, to get my hands on? And if it is, and can you give us the name of that tool?
Barry: Oh, sure. The name of the tool is Best Work Data. Best Work Data. And the one thing that I like about this is that most of the assessments out there require individuals to be certified or licensed, and then I’m going to get into my own personal bias, because I’ve been there and have done the licensing, have built some, been asked, and I did the licensing for groups. The certification, if you will, is either certification or licensing depending upon who you are and how you’re looking at it, and I kind of have a bias against that, because I think the certification is meaningful. I think it’s helpful to help people get up to speed, but I don’t think it should be a source of revenue. I think the revenue should come for the company from their assessments and using it in the field, et cetera.
Barry: So this one, it requires minimal licensing certification because it’s so self-explanatory. And what it provides back is data that is self evident, and it can be used immediately by an employer because it’s got face validity and it’s very easily interpretable. So the involvement of certification and licensing is probably about a half hour on the phone just to kind of get grounded and know the different applications, and then helping somebody just kind of walk through one use, and then after that they can run it on their own. They can have their own dashboard, they can set up, et cetera, or they can do it through a consultant if they want them to.
Yury: So do you have to be a business owner to have access to it? Or for example, if I want for my own sake to go through this?
Barry: There’s a public, if as an individual, if you wanted to go through and take that, there’s a new public site that’s being opened up on this that’s going to be launching, I think, in the next month. Because of the questionnaire, it’s called Try on Jobs.
Yury: Try on Jobs?
Barry: Try on Jobs, where you can go in and take, basically … I wasn’t planning on discussing this, but since you’re going there, we’ll go there. Try on Jobs will be launched, and it’s a new assessment. It’s the same assessment that takes the 25 minutes. It gets the cognitive and the behavioral, but allows you to then get feedback about those strengths, and then you can look at 450 to I think close to 550 now profiles of different jobs, and click on it and see your background compared to that particular job, and what is the goodness of fit. So you can look at yourself against all these different jobs.
Barry: And this is being geared for a market of perhaps … And this is another side story, but it’s being looked at as a market for juniors and seniors in high school who have no idea about what they want to do and just want to go on and play around and see, “Well, what are the jobs in the world of work?”
Yury: I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do.
Barry: Well I am too. I’m just an opportunist looking for a cause. But you can go on and actually look at yourself against several hundred jobs’ descriptions and what the requirements are in that job, and then how your profile fits against it. What might be your strengths in that role? What might be some of the challenges that you face in that role? If you want, the tool, the algorithms behind it will point you to the top 25 jobs that perhaps you’re the best fit for, if you just want to look at those. So it’s really designed for an individual who’s at a career point. I think you had, Holly Smevog on recently on your podcast, and talking with Holly, and she’s looking at that as well as to how we can use this. It can be used for college students, and it can also be used by returning vets and other individuals that are coming into the workforce saying, “Well, what skills do I have? How do my abilities transfer into these different roles, these different challenges and opportunities that might be presented to me?”
Barry: So it provides some insight now. You talk about cost, the cost for this, I don’t think it’s changed, is $2.97, which is unheard of in terms of assessments.
Rich: Cheaper than the Starbucks my senior in high school usually grabs.
Barry: It’s cheaper than a cup of coffee and basically much cheaper, and what it does is a dollar of that goes to the charity of your choice. There are five that are provided, such as St. Jude’s, Wounded Warriors, et cetera, and they’ll be rotating, but a dollar will go to a charitable contribution. This is really a different play to be of service, to provide information that will be valuable, to create a website with functionality, the way you can get information back about yourself, and then you can use it yourself for self-directed purposes, and at the same time it’s providing data back to an individual that they can work with.
Yury: And you said it should be going live-
Barry: Beginning of the year at the latest.
Yury: Beginning of the year? Okay. Fantastic.
Barry: Yeah. That’s going to be Try on Jobs, and it uses a very powerful questionnaire, and that’s for the public. So you can go in as an individual, submit your credit card for $2.9,7 and take this questionnaire, and I’d say try it, because I think you’ll find it to be interesting, challenging. The one thing too about this one is that we talk about questionnaires, I have to qualify, if you’re looking at any type of cognitive measure, that has to be a time test. So this is a component of this questionnaire where the first 15 minutes will be open-ended, will be regular questions that you complete at your own pace. The last 10 or 12 minutes of the completion is a time test, which is the cognitive section.
Yury: Okay. Makes sense.
Barry: So that’s the only part, but again, that’s the only limitation on it, and it can not be done from a handheld, although that capability will be available at some point in the future. It has to be done from basically a laptop.
Rich: All right.
Barry: I’m not trying to, as I said, push that-
Rich: [crosstalk 00:30:00].
Barry: … but that’s one that’s kind of at the other end of the spectrum of being low cost, easy to use, highly valid, and is kind of a new and disruptive player. So if we talk about disruption in the workforce, this is one in terms of what I think in the assessment space that is going to be disruptive, because it’s going at the exact opposite end of where a lot of the work has been in, certainly where I’ve been working in most recent years, in terms of these day long, two day long, in depth assessments that are incredibly rich. This takes it to another end. It gives you rich information. Not the same breadth and depth, but very valid, very reliable and very meaningful in a very short period of time, and at low cost.
Yury: I’m excited. You know, I’m definitely going to give it a shot and see where I stand. So Barry, we have a big question that we usually ask at the very end of the show.
Barry: Are we there already?
Rich: It’s exciting, right? This is much more painless than you thought.
Yury: Right. If you could change one thing to improve the business ecosystem in the state of Maine, what would it be?
Barry: Oh, that’s a hard one. I can’t think of one thing. First of all, the things that I wouldn’t want to change are the quality of life that we offer, and the workforce and the work ethic that is just part of the state, in this case. It’s part of the workforce. It’s part of the DNA, I think, of all people coming out of Northern New England, and again, I’m a stoic, classic Yankee, so I relate to that and I value that in this case.
Barry: But I think the challenges are for the state, we have an aging population. We have difficulty, we’ve got full employment in this case, but we don’t often have enough service workers to help out during the summer months. A lot of the talent basically are … We have a smaller workforce going through education right now and coming along, so we need to be pulling people in from out of state to supplement our workforce, but we also need to hold on to our talented youth as they graduate, that they’re not lured away and go to other states because opportunities just don’t exist here. So the big thing is retaining our students here.
Barry: I think also as we look at education, there’s been nationally and internationally such an emphasis upon college education that we’ve neglected other forms of development for individuals. And I think the push now, and I think Senator Collins, in terms of apprentice programs, has great value for this in terms of trades, not neglecting that, because there are some great opportunities, some great work and some great jobs that are available through the trades. So it’s not just college, but keeping, attracting students from out of state with talent that they can bring with them and businesses that they can bring with them into the state, but then also making sure that we’re not losing talent for the wrong reasons and having that exit the state, because that’s our future in this case, and our population is dwindling. It’s aging in this case, and we don’t have the same influx coming into a back filler or meet our demands going forward.
Rich: It sounds like we have a lot to do. Barry, this has been great and I know that we’ve only touched on a fraction of what you bring to the table. If people want to reach out and connect with you online, where can we send them?
Barry: Well, probably the easiest would be to reach me at Barry@aclarity.com.
Rich: Awesome. Barry, thanks so much for coming by today. This has been really eye opening.
Barry: My pleasure. Thank you for the opportunity.
Rich: Thank you.