A-level results: Students now pass exams like they are going out of fashion...

... and they are, sort of, as three big employers alter the way they judge people, probably for the better

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The Independent Online

First of all, congratulations to the successful A-level candidates in what in most countries would be the equivalent of a first-year university test. There are many criticisms of our exam system – should it be broader, should it not force students to specialise so early, and so on – but nothing should diminish the achievement. However, it is also worth observing that in the world of work, as opposed to that of education, the emphasis is beginning to shift away from testing and measuring and towards other ways of assessing whether people are doing a good job. Given the almost obsessive rise in the UK of the importance of targets, particularly in the public sector, this will come as a relief to most of us.

Several recent stories highlight what has been happening. Three of them concern giant, multinational, professional service firms. Here in Britain, Ernst & Young is stepping back from using the class of degree that people get in its selection process. It found that there was no correlation between whether people got a good degree and whether they did well in the professional examinations they need to take. So, yes, tests still matter. If you are hiring an accountant you need to be assured they know their stuff, just as you need to know the pilot can fly the plane. But the exams are specific to the job; not general or, even worse, artificial standards passed to tick a box.

The second story may prove even more revolutionary. Both Accenture and Deloitte are ending the dreaded annual review. At Accenture, instead of this once-a-year evaluation managers will give feedback on a more regular basis to their 330,000 staff. The chief executive, Pierre Nanterme, explained to The Washington Post that the existing evaluations were cumbersome and expensive and “the outcome is not great”.

Deloitte, another of these great professional service firms, is doing much the same. It found, surprise, surprise, that their people hated annual reviews. So, after every project they asked managers to reply to a set of direct questions. One of which was: “Given what I know of this person’s performance, I would always want him or her on my team.”

They also asked whether people should be promoted as soon as possible or whether they were at risk from low performance, the idea being that the team leader should be reporting on what should be done with the people that they had been working with, rather than what they thought about them. You might think that this is common sense, but the idea was thought sufficiently revolutionary to feature as a cover story on the Harvard Business Review.

What Accenture and Deloitte are doing matters, partly because of their size but also because the raison d’être of these huge professional service companies is to advise other enterprises in both public and private sectors about how best to run their businesses. They aim to be the best managers in the world. I remember some years ago visiting Accenture’s employee training centre which is outside Chicago. It was like a university campus. I was so impressed by the amount of effort that Accenture put into staff development that I asked them whether they weren’t worried that their staff would take all that they were being taught, and go to a competitor with the knowledge.

“No, you don’t understand,” my host replied. “These are clever people. They know about human capital. It is the moment that we don’t keep adding to their human capital that they go and look somewhere else for a job.”

Identifying, analysing and building human capital is at the very core of what these companies do. So, if they themselves are widening their recruitment process, and ending the annual performance review, that is what they are likely to be teaching other companies to do. It is quite plausible that now that this retreat has begun, the annual performance review will be dead in 20 years’ time. It is, after all, a relatively recent invention, only moving into widespread use from the 1980s.

School exams have a much longer history. A-levels go back to 1951, when they and O-levels replaced the School Certificate and Higher School Certificate. Whatever happens to our education system over the next century, exams will be part of it. But thanks to technology and in particular the almost unbelievable range of information on the internet, education is changing too. As far as work is concerned, what employers need is people who can do the job, not a list of exam passes or an ability to score well at annual performance reviews. If we are starting to move towards the “can do” culture rather than the “tick box” one, then it will be a relief for all. Meanwhile, if A-level scores are really getting better, that too is worth a cheer.

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