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How can we assess skills?

When we talk about talent management, we often mention the importance of assessing the skills of employees.

While the principle may seem simple, this is not always the case when it comes to putting it into practice.

In order to clarify this and to help you choose what is best for your organization, we detail the 3 main approaches to assess the skills of your employees.



1. Indirect skills measurements


First, the presence of a skill can be inferred indirectly in certain situations such as:


 The person is a holder of a qualification or certification.


For example, a Master’s in computer science is a good proxy for deducing that the person is familiar with software programming, writing algorithms or handling databases.


 The person has worked in certain jobs in the past for which the set of skills required is well known.


The association with recognized organizations can serve as an additional guarantee. As an example, we can safely assume a person fully masters the skill “apply statistical techniques” if his or her previous position was “Data Scientist at Deep Mind” or “Statistics Professor at Harvard University”.


 The person passed a question-based assessment such as a personality test – to assess his or her soft skills.


A personality test determines personal attributes indirectly, without explicitly asking questions about these skills.


 The person has an outstanding achievement or has managed to solve a difficult challenge recognized by potential employers.


Famously, in 2004, Google posted challenging calculation ads to attract outstanding scientists.



2. Direct skills measurements


There are also direct methods to assess skills, such as:


 Skill proficiency tests:


These could test both the knowledge on a certain topic and the practical skill of operating within that topic. For example, one could test the general concepts of C++ and additionally require the person to write a C++ program to solve a certain problem.




It is by far the most common method to assess a skill. CVs containing self-declared competences are still the most common way of operating in the labour market today.


By far the biggest advantage of self-assessment is the small amount of time required. For a company looking to undertake skill assessment at scale (i.e. on a large fraction of its employees), self-assessment could be the only way to quantify these skills.


Example: Let us consider a company with 500 employees who intends to create an “inventory” of their skills. 


We consider that an employee has on average 42 skills, of which 21 are mandatory for his or her current position. We will focus on these 21 essential skills:


→ Case A : Employees are evaluated through proficiency tests

If we assume that each test takes 15 minutes, then the total time required to assess the 21 skills of all employees is 2,625 hours (0.25 x 21 x 500).
This is the equivalent of 1.3 times the annual cost of a full-time employee. Furthermore, this estimation does not include the time spent preparing the tests, nor aggregating the test results from the employees. In a nutshell, it is very costly.


→ Case B: Employees self-evaluate

The self-evaluation of the 21 skills can take between 10 and 21 minutes. The total evaluation time for the 21 competencies for all employees is thus 175 hours (0.35 x 500).


Conclusion: Self-assessment takes only 6% of the time that skill testing does, which is 15 times lower.


However, a major disadvantage of self-assessment is that the reported level of proficiency may not correspond exactly to a person’s actual level. The level that a person attaches to a competency they have is influenced by two main factors:


→ Lack of an absolute, standard scale for ability in different areas.


→ Cognitive or cultural bias, where people tend to overestimate or underestimate their abilities, assessing their abilities relative to their colleagues.


Of the two direct methods, skill tests promise a higher precision at the expense of the extensive time required to prepare and take the tests. Conversely, self-assessment tends to be quicker (but less precise).



3. Hybrid skill measurement: self-assessment with external validation


Another method used for direct skills assessment is hybrid: start with self-assessment and then ask a third party (manager, peer, etc.) to validate the assessment made. The third party is most often the manager, an HR employee or a peer.


Nevertheless, this approach raises 3 concerns:


Time concern:


Asking a third party to validate a skill assessed by an employee essentially doubles the time taken by assessment across the organization. This has both a financial and an operational impact.


Accuracy concern:


Assuming that an employee assesses 21 skills relevant to his or her job, it is conceivable (even probable) that the third party would not be familiar with all these skills, and thus unable to provide an accurate assessment validation.


Methodology concern:


One needs to establish a process to handle cases in which the manager assessment differs from the employee assessment: will the final rating be an average? A weighted average? Whatever the method, it can impact the trust and the engagement of employees.



In conclusion, regardless of the skill assessment method, it does not automatically guarantee any privilege such as access to a new job or a new training. The incentive to misrepresent skills is then low.


Thus, while each method has advantages and disadvantages depending on the needs of the organization, it is considered that for organizations wishing to conduct a skill assessment at scale (entire employee pool), self-assessment is the most viable approach.


Related: What are the various types of skills?

Find out more about jobs and skills data:

Discover Boostrs’ Jobs and Skills Library APIs

illustration credits: https://www.istockphoto.com/fr/portfolio/nadia_bormotova