Queasy about avatars and hiring employees

What if you could rent a stage set -- one that could easily be manipulated to duplicate almost any environment? What if you could hire an acting troupe to play a variety of characters -- disgruntled customers, stubborn co-workers, prospective clients, all working from a script you designed? Wouldn't it be handy to stick a prospective employee in that situation and see how he or she reacts? Or wouldn't it be a great way to train someone to move into another job?

At a trade show in Philadelphia Thursday, computer geeks Charles Handler and Ben Hawkes said on-line simulations can almost do that job. They made their  pitch at Kenexa's World Conference, a three-day affair that was a combination sales show and technology seminar sponsored by Kenexa, the Wayne-based human resources software company with offices and customers around the world. (For example, Walmart is a customer.) 

Handler, a consultant and founder of Rocket-Hire, and Hawkes, who heads Kenexa's simulation department from the company's offices in the United Kingdom, believe that the future of employment assessments will center on computer simulations that are somewhat similar to video games and look like "Second Life," the avatar-based real life simulation.

The possibilities abound, but there's a long way to go and the question is whether the expense of designing the script and set provide enough information to offset the cost.

Naturally, they said yes.

First of all, they argued, the best job candidate is the one whose abilities most closely match job requirements, whether they are skill-based or a matter of aptitude. These simulations can yield a closer match, particularly if jobs are more complicated. Secondly, they said, the software technology has become much easier to manage, making it simpler and simpler for the lay person to create scenarios with much less hand-holding. 

One member of the audience made the point that such a simulation required a greater understanding of the nuances of the job. Handler and Hawkes said that understanding job nuances was important regardless of what assessment tool was used. Maybe the solution would be to create a library of scenarios for different functions and then string them together into a simulation.

They said this type of assessment has an "employee branding" value, meaning that it helps establish the company as a cool and advanced place to work, regardless of whether the individual candidate is a good fit. "It's the wow factor," Handler said.    

 There are some trade-offs. The best match is when the simulation is the most "localized," meaning tailored to a specific job in a specific place. But that gets expensive.

Also, and you are going to love this term -- there is the "uncanny valley." Awesome term!!! It refers to an avatar who is not quite humanoid enough. "It gives you a queasy feeling," Hawkes said. "It can turn viewers off."

Interestingly, the way around this, especially for the younger generation, may be to make the characters even more cartoonish, so they aren't direct human replicas. 

Other problems: Some people may not have access to computers and older workers may not feel comfortable with this game-like experience.

What Kenexa wants to provide, they said, is the "stage set" and the resources, with the content and applications up to employer clients. The product, they said, is a fledgling one, ready to be tempered by use.

Well by this time, even with the caveats, I was completely interested and ready to see a test sample. Unfortunately, Hawkes and Handler had nothing really to show. There was a bizarre weird dude (uncanny valley!) who entered a hospital, where a guy with a leg wound, hobbled in, laid on a gurney and then, died. What was that all about? It was easy to change the main character's clothes (he went from camo to black jeans) and setting (from a war-torn city, to a hotel lobby, to an emergency room), but what was supposed to be tested?

Later, I talked to some of the attendees. Sibel Aras, a native from Turkey who worked for Kenexa before moving to Nova Nordisk, said that she wanted to see some possibilities because her workforce is global and some language-based assessments don't really provide an excellent measure of skills. For example, she said, a person may not be able to describe how to open a word document, but if you put the word document on a simulation, they could show you that. It's also true, she said, with software developers. You may have someone from India who knows programming inside and out, but can't explain it exactly. 

Sarah Uhland, a recruiter from GSI Commerce in King of Prussia, said many of their hires are people like lawyers or financial experts. She said she couldn't imagine trusting the hiring process to this kind of simulation. But she said, "we could run a test on someone's Java performing skills. I think the simulations could be used from a training perspective."

One last point that came as kind of surprise, but should not have. Hawkes and Handler said that there is one field where simulations are already excellent and that is for customer service representatives in call centers. It's pretty cheap to create call-in scenarios and computer screens that mimic real situations.