Careers: How to spot tomorrow's stars among today's employees: An assessment technique should make it easier to find the right person

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the emptiest sounds in annual company reports is the glib cry that 'our people are our greatest asset'.

It is not just that organisations pour scorn on such statements through apparently never-ending job cuts. They also give them the lie by less public but no less painful mismanagement of employees' careers.

As Gillian Stamp, an anthropologist by training who is now director of the Brunel Institute of Organisation and Social Studies, points out, management is now largely about judgement. As a result, there are great risks. 'When it works, it leads to robust decisions and positive signals about stewardship of resources to stakeholders and competitors. But when it does not, inappropriate judgements that squander resources or place them at risk damage reputation, competitiveness and viability,' she says.

A process called Career Path Appreciation, which Mrs Stamp helped to develop about 20 years ago, can assist organisations and individuals in getting the balance right. Companies that have used it over the past 15 years include Forte, BP, ICI, Bupa and British Gas. Mrs Stamp has also worked with the UK and US armed forces and the Church of England.

Based on the now proven idea that individuals' capabilities - whatever their background - grow with age, CPA is a means of identifying potential. 'The very important point about it is that it focuses on the way that people make decisions in the face of uncertainty,' says Mrs Stamp.

This is particularly relevant at the moment, when the constant changes mean that more and more decisions have to be made by one person. This requires some 'inner resource' that the person cannot call up to order. In the recent past, by contrast, most decisions evolved from data - managers felt that as long as they did the appropriate research the right decision would be obvious.

The very unpredictability of modern business life means that the question managers need to ask themselves when selecting staff is 'What will this person do when he or she doesn't know what to do?'

In other words, since it is impossible to train people for every eventuality, it is essential to have a feel for how a person is likely to act when confronted with the unforeseen.

CPA aims to provide the necessary information by taking a 'whole career view' of the individual. Since it is trying to assess the ability to cope with different types of uncertainty, it takes in the whole working life - including time out for childcare and spells in the voluntary sector or in posts not related to conventional work. As the word 'appreciation' makes clear, the interview of up to three hours is also a bilateral look at an individual - by the person and a trained counsellor - rather than a unilateral assessment. Results are passed on to the company only after the subject has agreed on the findings. The 'guided conversation' is designed to reveal how the person uses judgement in his or her present role, has used it in the past and may do in future.

The material is then interpreted in the light of models of work and seven levels of capability. By linking it up with related concepts such as career path mapping and organisation mapping, the interviewers can help companies and other bodies plan successions and ensure that they have the right people for certain initiatives.

Since the earliest studies conducted at Brunel University in the 1970s by Mrs Stamp and Elliott Jaques, a doctor turned psychologist who is now based in the United States, the concept has spread around the world. For instance, research among thousands of blacks in southern Africa has confirmed the belief that the approach transcends culture, and some South African companies have used it to develop workforces capable of competing in international markets.

However, Mrs Stamp has distanced herself from Mr Jaques over ethical concerns about his decision to promote the idea in a book to be published shortly that a person's career potential can be determined by an interview lasting just 10 minutes.

She insists that the 200 practitioners around the world are properly trained because of the serious ramifications if the exercise goes wrong. 'If you get it right, that's fine. The person recognises that. If you underestimate their capability, they almost always prove you wrong, so it's not a problem. But if you overestimate their capability, you expose them to stress and expectation which is absolutely not on,' says Mrs Stamp.

The stress can inflict appalling damage on the person concerned and leave an organisation facing huge costs for wrong decisions - such as a bad acquisition or a missed opportunity.

But that does not mean there is much science involved.

'It's really no more than turning what everyone knows into common knowledge,' says Mrs Stamp.

(Photograph omitted)