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Assessing Collaborative Skills in the Workplace

With increasing automation and technology solutions implemented in the workplace today, labour-intensive, routine work is left to machines. The ability of workers in both the government and private sector to collaborate with each other to develop ideas and solutions for problems is valued highly by employers. In addition to looking for new employees with collaborative working skills, employers are looking for ways to assess and enhance these skills in their current employees. So far, reliable methods of assessment have not been readily available.

A recent research project, however, is aiming to change that. The ‘Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills’ (ATC21S) project was launched in 2009 by Microsoft, in partnership with Cisco, Intel and the University of Melbourne, Australia.

The project brought together six governments (Singapore, United States, Australia, Finland, the Netherlands and Costa Rica) and over 250 academics from more than 60 institutions around the world, such as Stanford University in the US and University of Oslo in Norway, to define 21st century skills and develop an effective assessment method for classrooms. Collaborative problem-solving was one of the two 21st century skills chosen by the researchers.

The researchers developed a ‘skills progression’ for collaborative problem-solving. The assessment focused on ‘stages’ of skill – students were assessed and placed at their true level in the skills progression instead of being ranked. The assessments focused on both social skills such as participation and perspective taking which show the way students work together, and cognitive skills such as task regulation and knowledge building, which focus on the way students approach and solve tasks and learn from them.

The assessment methods developed in ATC21S can easily be taken out of the classroom and used for current workers with little modification. I spoke to Greg Butler, Senior Director of Strategic Education Partnerships at Microsoft, who was on the task force of ATC21S, for a perspective on the outcomes of the project. He said that since the project developed stages and progressions instead of ages and grades, the assessment could be applied to anyone.

The research, case studies and methodologies developed in the project will be available for public use - governments and corporations can implement the methodology to assess the collaborative skills of their employees. With access to resources and training, employees in the initial stages of the collaborative skills progression will be able to work on their skills and move up the continuum. New technology is a game-changer for both enhancing and measuring collaboration abilities. Social networks, especially, have emerged as a hugely useful tool for collaboration.

ATC21S uses social networks to assess collaborative problem-solving skills. Two students, who could be in the same room or across the world from each other, are given the same problem to solve, but different information to start with. Using instant chat, students must work together to explain what information they were given to their partner, and analyse it together to reach the solution. Their computers record and interpret their activities and generate data about the way they think and solve the problem. Analysis later allows assessors to score the tasks and place students at their level on the skills progression.

If implemented effectively, this method of assessment of collaborative skills, tested and verified by academics around the world, will not only communicate useful and relevant information about job-seekers to employers, but will help employers assess and enhance the collaborative skills of their employees.

The use of technology is key in this process. Schools and universities have always focused on teaching teamwork abilities – my own university experience, for example, started with a ‘Freshman Team-building Camp’ and involved significant group project work in every course I took. Technology, however, was not introduced into the process. Employers also rely on subjective observation and feedback rather than scientific measurement and evidence to assess their employees’ abilities to collaborate. The incorporation of freely available, consumer-driven tools will enable reliable assessment of collaboration skills and increase productivity in the workplace.

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