It would be impossible for any single instrument to measure the multitude of technical skills required for success on the job. In any event, measuring these skills is better done through an in-depth analysis of the person’s resumé, thorough background, and reference checks, and by work samples and portfolio reviews. There is, however, one basic factor that underlies all technical skills and is essential to all jobs. That is the cognitive ability or intelligence. The importance of intelligence to on-the-job performance has been highlighted by Seligman (1997) who reported that the overwhelming body of research supports the conclusion that “Intelligence matters in all jobs,” although how much it matters depends on the nature of the job. By intelligence we mean the speed of thinking; how readily new material is learned; and how quickly underlying patterns are recognized and decisions made in response to those patterns. In the development of the BestWork DATA assessment,™ an early decision was made to include a measure of the participant’s cognitive skills, especially in the areas of fluid intelligence, inductive reasoning, and general sequential understanding, as well as quantitative understanding (Horn & Noll, 1997). Based on both research and professional experience, it was clear that these particular cognitive skills were important to on-the-job success, regardless of the job to be performed.
The true importance of matching cognitive abilities to a specific job is often lost amid the many misconceptions about intelligence. The idea of smart or not smart is the worst. All people are smart but in different ways. DATA helps to describe each individual’s version of smart. No one is smart in all situations. Five key areas depend upon cognitive abilities. The descriptions below will offer some more practical concepts of smart and how it is manifest.
The other concept that creates misunderstandings with cognitive abilities is IQ. It is essentially a volume concept, with a scale that is positive in one direction. The model suggests is that higher IQs are better than lower IQs. However, IQs have proven to be poor predictors of job performance. BestWork DATA does not measure IQ. The cognitive abilities measured by BestWork DATA contribute to IQ scores, but they are only a part of it. They represent the most advanced thinking in cognitive science. More importantly, BestWork DATA’s cognitive instrument was designed specifically to measure general or fluid reasoning, those elements of cognitive ability that have the most direct impact on job performance and human interaction.
Some of the principal capabilities related to general reasoning are:
At first thought, it would seem that the faster one’s learning speed, the better it is. That is true when the job is fairly complex or challenging. When the job is simple or when it consists mainly of an extended routine, quick learning speed is a liability. The job is learned quickly, but the fast learning employee becomes bored and soon becomes a turnover statistic. In jobs where close attention to routine is associated with safety, speed of learning can even become dangerous. Slower learning speeds are important strengths for routine jobs. Training programs may need to be longer and include more repetition, but the long-term benefits are significant. Some jobs that favor slower learning speeds are auditing, certain types of data analysis, pharmaceutical research, teaching, some types of product sales, some restaurant roles, and others that have clearly defined job behaviors.
Fast learning speeds can also be a powerful strength. It makes it easy to learn a new job or to deal with new product information. In a world that changes continually and one in which knowledge is always expanding, it can help keep up. It also enables the person to know about a wider range of situations.
An individual’s general reasoning speed determines how quickly they communicate. The majority of effective teachers or college professors process information somewhat slowly, and therefore they communicate information to their students slowly. This makes their teaching understandable to most of their students. The problem arises with people who process information quickly. They tend to communicate with others at the same speed. If their audience processes more slowly, it is unlikely that their message will be completely and accurately understood. It is not just a speed problem. Fast processors do not think sequentially (A, B, C, D, E…). They skip from one thought to the next, leaving out elements that they assume everyone knows (A, C, G, K, …). This makes it difficult for others to follow their thinking, but they may not be willing to ask the questions necessary to clarify it.
The question is not whether or not someone is a problem solver, but what kinds of problems can they solve. Fast information processing enables a person to consider multiple solutions for a problem and to project the potential outcomes for each of the solutions. Slower and more deliberate information processing limits the number of alternative solutions. Therefore, slower information processors are generally more successful when problems are simpler or when they can be handled with a set of standard solutions. As the problems become more complex or when they are unexpected, faster processing is necessary.
When a job involves handling extended routine tasks, faster processors quickly become bored. This results in a lack of attention to the job and ultimately to turnover. Slower processors are engaged with routine tasks once they have been trained effectively.
Field of Focus
General reasoning also is the foundation for what can be called the field of focus. Camera lenses have what is called a depth of field. A telephoto lens focuses clearly on distant objects, but closer ones are blurred. A macro or close-up lens focuses clearly on close objects, but distant ones are blurred. Slower processors tend to focus on the immediate issues of the job. They have less clarity on more strategic issues. Faster processors tend to focus on strategic issues or their vision of the future. They typically put less attention on immediate or tactical issues. This is why executive teams debate priorities and why it is important to have those debates, in order to understand the full range of immediate, tactical, and strategic issues of the business.
“Multi-tasking” is a misnomer. Human beings cannot hold more than one thought at a time. Just as slide projectors project one slide at a time, the human brain considers each thought separately. When several different thoughts are engaged at one time, the brain is flipping back and forth among them. Extensive research has shown that in almost every case, the quality of performance declines as the number of disparate tasks increases. While true “multi-tasking” does not exist, individuals with fast processing speeds can “flip back and forth” with greater facility than those who process more slowly.
All and all, having more information that helps someone understand how they can best position their talents in the world is valuable. A person's cognitive abilities are a core element to their job success. There is essentially a job for every type of cognitive ability. It's all about finding the best environment that works for each person.
Chuck Russell is a thought leader on applying behavioral data to business, educational and social challenges. For over 25 years, he has worked with companies of all kinds to optimize their talent acquisition and talent management practices with behavioral data. He is an international speaker on behavioral data analytics.