How the Web Will Test Your Sanity and Competence YOU'VE GOT MAIL. IT'S AN E-QUIZ!
(FORTUNE Magazine) – Microsoft, a company that has turned intellectual intimidation into a core competence, is notorious for peppering job candidates with brainteasers. Steve Ballmer, the software juggernaut's president, was fond of asking aspirants to calculate how many gas stations there are in the country.
Sigmund Warburg, a devout believer in graphology, required handwriting samples from prospective bankers. Andersen Consulting empirically tests for certain behavior patterns. Knight-Ridder, Sanford C. Bernstein, and Best Buy are just a few of the firms that take psychological testing very seriously. No fewer than 3,000 different standardized tests exist to measure the mental aptitude, attitude, personality, and integrity of job- and promotion-seekers. There's even the Swinn Test Anxiety Behavior Scale to measure how well people react to taking tests.
Whether the enterprise is more concerned about a manager's IQ or EQ; whether it prefers Myers-Briggs personality metrics over the MMPI's; or whether it finds Rorschach inkblot responses more revealing than Stanford-Binets, one fact is becoming clearer day by day: The Internet is the greatest medium ever invented for conducting standardized tests. Any company--any executive--believing in the value of testing for intellectual acuity or emotional stability or managerial potential is going to treat the Net as an irresistible opportunity to poke into people's psyches.
Smearing the screens of executive desktops with virtual inkblots might seem neurotic, but even the toniest headhunting firms like to trot their thoroughbreds through thickets of psychological tests. One can't be too careful. Now resume-driven Websites like Monster.com and Careerpath.com are sprouting up all over, and traditional executive recruiters like Heidrick & Struggles and Korn/Ferry are bringing their professional services online. The inevitable extension? Count on a rising tsunami of testing to wash over the Web. New genres of quizzes, questionnaires, and, yes, virtual interrogations will emerge. Candidates become fair game for the tricks, techniques, and technologies of the testers.
Does your digital resume claim fluency in French? Don't be shocked when e-mail comes back asking you to translate the attached business letter. By the way, you have 20 minutes starting now. You're a clever financial analyst? Please parse this spreadsheet in under an hour. You list Ms. Keiko Akimoto and Mr. Charles Delgado as references? Please tell us what they will say about your greatest managerial strengths and weaknesses. We reserve the right to e-copy them on your response. On a scale from 1 to 10--with 10 being highest--please rate how much of a team player you are; how entrepreneurial; how self-assured; how honest; how creative; how flexible; how ethical; how obedient. You have five seconds for each question.
And this is all before you talk with anyone. The ability to create "digitally dynamic resumes" that attach your attitudinal and aptitudinal responses to customized queries should transform the way companies screen job aspirants. The computational costs for performing these kinds of due diligence are marginal. You can bet cutting-edge firms will require applicants to participate in sophisticated business-simulation games to probe their real-time decision-making abilities. Your speed of response may be even more important than how you respond.
The high-tech testing imperative holds for organizational insiders as well. Project teams may be assembled as much on the basis of psychological profiles as on individual skills. Top management doesn't want its new product teams packed only with "analytical intuitives," or stuck with brand managers with IQs lower than 120. Maybe knowledge workers consistently falling short on their EQ measures are either targeted for special counseling or quietly shunted off the fast track. Managers fitting organizationally desirable psychological profiles but lacking functional expertise get sent to executive MBA programs. Sales people with the strongest entrepreneurial bent are supervised closely when dealing with the firm's largest clients. One can't be too careful, right?
In cultures of testing, the rules of professional development change. Organizations that honestly believe quality managers are born and not made use tests far differently than firms that celebrate self-improvement. Does the firm withhold or disclose its test results? Are tests treated as screens to filter people out or as tools for self-improvement? Just where are the lines drawn between tests that give the firm greater insight into you vs. tests designed to give you greater insight into yourself? The former is an exercise in power and control; the latter shifts the value proposition from externally invasive to internally persuasive.
Of course, wherever there are tests, there's going to be cheating. As digital resume "pop quizzes" become commonplace and managers catch the drift of how their companies (mis)use competency and psychological tests, all manner of software circumventions will evolve. A software "agent" will instantly translate that French passage for you; you'll be able to buy programs that advise you how to best project the desirable psychological profile; savvy individuals will learn how to "game" the network tests--especially ones purporting to assess honesty and integrity.
None of this is a function of whether these tests for intellectual and emotional capabilities are valid or relevant. That's an issue for the psychometricians and the lawyers. But as test-automation becomes ever faster, easier, and cheaper, organizations will use these tests as a form of assessment shorthand that saves time and money. Of course, this will make face-to-face interactions--framed by the expectations managed by test results--ever more important. Interpreting tests will become as much a managerial skill as beating them. You and your company may think such tests are silly and meaningless, but if your biggest customer insists on testing as a prerequisite for doing business together, who cares what you think?
MICHAEL SCHRAGE is a Merrill Lynch Forum Innovation Fellow and a research associate with the MIT Media Lab. He may be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org