From assessing individuals to transforming organisations

Nigel Evans has become an acknowledged expert in testing and assessment – as a trainer, consultant, author, and adviser. Ian Florance interviewed him about his career and how he has helped to shape psychometric policy and practice: as a verifier for the British Psychological Society’s Psychological Testing Centre (PTC); the UK representative on the International Test Commission (ITC); and the current Chair of the Board of Assessment within the European Federation of Psychological Associations (EFPA).

Nigel began by telling me about comments on draft legislation from the European Commission, around artificial intelligence. ‘Most people welcome the emphasis on “putting people first” and on limiting decisions that algorithms can make about people without human oversight. However, we feel the proposed legislation needs to be refined, otherwise it might treat psychometric tests as a high-risk use of AI, triggering more severe legislation. As Chair of EFPA’s Board of Assessment, I liaised with EFPA’s senior executives as well as with trade organisations such as international publishers and distribution groups. This ensured we covered important points from different perspectives. We made clear that test users are already trained on the limitations of test results and why data is just one source of evidence for making decisions. We also pointed out that some algorithms actually help to prevent human error, leading to fairer scoring.’

On behalf of EFPA – which represents almost half of the world’s psychologists – Nigel was then invited to contribute to a conference on AI: From Ambition to Action organised by the European Commission. Further developments are being debated, such as regulations on medical devices.

Nigel’s involvement with the Society’s Psychometrics Test Centre (https://ptc.bps.org.uk/) began in 2004 when the Society set up test review systems, competency frameworks for test use and accredited training which allowed non-psychologists to be qualified to use tests in the occupational area. ‘Since I’d worked with many tools, I was asked to apply for the role of verifier: evaluating the assessment methods that test trainers used in Society-recognised programmes. After a number of years, I became senior verifier for personality tools. The Society couldn’t police every training course so you had to help people do it themselves. Ability and personality test groups were merged and the centre fully adopted the EFPA model for reviews. One of the EFPA Board of Assessment’s key tasks at the moment is to revise the framework for test reviews in light of huge, largely technology driven changes in testing.’

Has the PTC helped improve UK test practice? ‘I think so. Some test publishers have improved their tests in light of how they’re reviewed. At least now there is a transparent set of standards for tests and training that you can point to, enabling you to identify where practice does and doesn’t comply. We have competencies for occupational, educational, and forensic testing but it’s so far proved challenging to develop them for the health-related areas because it is such a broad area. The PTC would have a bigger role and influence if it developed these.’

Every psychological experiment is pioneering and unique
Nigel didn’t set out to become a psychometrics guru or, indeed a psychologist. ‘Psychology wasn’t offered in my secondary school but BBC TV programmes like Horizon interested me. I began to find that I could predict how stories would work out: I understood for instance that someone like the Hillside Strangler [a Los Angeles serial killer in the late ‘70s] was duping psychologists when reacting to Rorschach inkblot tests.’

‘I chose Hull to study chemistry but got bored with working in the lab since I wanted to have more time to write for the student newspaper, host my morning radio show, and organise entertainment at the Union. So, I reapplied for psychology which gave me more flexibility with my course work. There were two other aspects that attracted me. First, as a keen observer of human behaviour, it helped bring structure to what I had already thought. Second, every psychological experiment is pioneering and unique: it’s with a new person rather than, as in chemistry, replicating a procedure on the same sort of material.’

Nigel’s personal tutor at Hull was Professor Dave Bartram, the international pioneer in psychometrics training, research, and commercialisation. ‘Dave was doing such interesting things. He’d set up his own company alongside his academic work; he was computerising assessments. Dave also drove a very nice car, whilst other tutors took the bus! We weren’t just involved in lab-based activities but acting in the real world… essentially working on developing practical tools in our very first group project.

‘At the end of my second year we had a lot of talks on different, clear routes into psychology. Whilst I was interested in postgraduate studies in neuropsychology and neuropsychiatry, I felt more drawn to occupational. It was then seen as a precarious route given the lack of funding, so I chose to partner with a stress management firm who funded my postgraduate degree at Bristol in Organisational Psychology.’

His experiences interested Nigel in organisational transformation rather than one-on-one change. ‘I became, and still am, interested in having a positive impact economically and for society.’ A critical event in Nigel’s studies links up with much of his present activity. ‘One of our tutors at Bristol didn’t turn up for a lecture and, to pass the time, we looked at the various tests in the test cupboard – titles like 16PF, MBTI and FIRO. They combined a science base, practicality, and the possibility of making a huge impact… especially when used in executive assessment with leaders and their teams.’

Working with one of the largest independent test trainers introduced him to a range of tests and also to global consulting. ‘One moment I was involved in local consumer research at Leeds University, the next I was leading programmes for international bankers in New York, Zurich, and Hong Kong. Over the years I’ve had the privilege of working in 40-plus countries alongside some very talented people.’

Nigel accepted an offer to direct a division in a City-based head-hunter: ‘a very commercially driven environment. Understandably 9/11 paused recruitment for a while so I used the opportunity to become a consultant with my own business. Since then, I have worked with a huge range of organisations, be they corporates, government, growth firms and start-ups.’

The needs of these businesses have changed over the years. ‘They require more of a connection across individual, team and organisational data – moving from a psychometric to an organametric approach. At the moment, corporate psychology addresses the needs of an elite group of buyers who can afford our services. However, we could help more people if we use self-service models and technology to manage costs and increase reach. This links back to the proposed EU legislation I mentioned earlier; as psychologists, we can do this ethically by making sure AI is trustworthy by being human-centred in its design.’

I asked Nigel where he saw his future work. ‘I see myself as an applied psychologist and behavioural scientist who happens to have done his initial work in the occupational area. I’m finding new areas of application in the broader economic arena; for instance, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) suggests that as many as 50 per cent of the UK population could be vulnerable as customers in day-to-day transactions. To identify and help these customers, I worked with a start-up to bring a vulnerability profiling tool to market. It is innovative as it looks at cognitive, health, biographical and social factors.

‘My role initially involved delivering specific projects. Now it’s more about acting as a board advisor, using the knowledge I’ve gained over 25 years to apply a game changing and strategic mindset to their agendas. I will continue to advise tech companies, global businesses, alongside professional and scientific organisations to make a positive impact on the world.’

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