East Meets West:

Two CEOs share their perspectives from different global regions

This year the testing Industry welcomed a number of new CEOs into its community.  The Test Publisher newsletter reached out to two of those CEOs from to different Regions of the world with questions about the future.

YawCheng Yaw (left) is CEO of ATA, headquartered in Beijing, China; Sangeet photoand Sangeet Chowfla (right) is CEO of the US-based Graduate Management Admissions Council ("GMAC"), headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia.

We asked both our CEOs what the impact of the global economy has been on the business of testing in their area of the world. (Either in their organization's particular niche or across the board in the industry.)

Cheng: We are very familiar with how the ups and downs of the economy affects our industry both in a positive and negative manners; the nature of the China market is not much different from the rest of the world. In a rising economy such as China is currently enjoying, there is room to grow for companies to spend extra resources in training and certifications to attract and retain talent. But at the same time, individuals in a strong economy, feel safe in their jobs and there is a lack of urgency to spend time and resources to upgrade or improve their skills.  So, unavoidably, the end-users side of market is not performing as well as the corporate side.

During any economic crisis, globally or locally, HR budget is probably one of those being cut back immediately, corporate training, assessment and certification are taking a big hit; followed by job cut and downsizing; individuals are urged to equip themselves and be prepared to face fierce competition in the job market. Training and certification at this point becomes the growth driver of the industry.

As a major player in this industry in China, that is one of the reasons why ATA has extended our business into the end users market which is complementary to our traditional business serving mainly the score users. Since 2008, we have launched a series of products to service candidates and create new offerings on top of just getting a result or certificate from the assessment.

Sangeet: I think for any observer of graduate management education – and certainly for me as someone who still considers himself to be learning the industry -- the speed of fragmentation and segmentation of the market is astounding. Today, assessments for management education – and potentially for the recruitment of management education talent -- need not only to be global for some students and some institutions but for many more there is also a need for them to be regional and even local or institution specific. That means we have to speak more often, more directly -- and with ever greater curiosity -- to our customers to discover the challenges they face, the problems that keep them from meeting their recruitment or educational aspirations and to be open to providing solutions that may not already be in our product line today.

A global economy doesn’t mean simply having world-wide solutions.  A global economy means being able to respond to a customer anywhere in the world with a solution to a problem or tool that enables them to meet a goal in ways that appreciate and respond to the conditions they face.

That’s the publisher’s challenge, to understand those customers and their goals and to be able to craft solutions that are responsive to the conditions on the ground. These trends challenge our testing paradigms. We need to be able to simultaneously deliver global scale and consistency while being able to adapt to local market conditions.

Our next question: What changes/challenges do you foresee in your company's area of testing in a mobile society?

Cheng: There is no doubt mobile technologies have given Internet based business a big push for the last few years, most of all, it changes our life style. China in particular, a mobile society is vitally important for transactions to take place, it is not surprising to see the quick adoption of mobile-based business model in such a geographically spread out market.

For the last couple of years, we have experimented transforming our products and services to be offered online, playing with various models and technologies; our experience is clearly telling us that simply moving our assessment and training products online is not going to help take us to the next level.  Since our end users’ (learners and test takers) accessibility is significantly enhanced by their powerful mobile devices supported by the scalable cloud infrastructure available around the nation if not around the world, ATA has to come up with a set of value propositions that are attractive to these new clients of ours. 

To embrace the online business world that based on the new lifestyle and habits of our end users; ATA has chosen to extend and transform our services from serving mostly the test sponsors to additionally serving the individual end-users market. Creating communities and useful APPs to attract and maintain individuals that are either our existing or potential test takers; offer free services and tools to prepare them for their testing experience so as to create a strong bond between the end users and ATA.  Seeing the needs from the end users and to serve them well has become our new mission; this is the only way to sustain and grow our business.  

Sangeet: There are two types of mobility to consider.  The technological mobility offered through mobile devices and the actual mobility of the consumer. I saw a recent report from Deloitte Consulting on younger consumers globally that reported a distinct preference to simplify their mobility.  To not own cars – except in India, where everybody wants a car – but to participate in car-sharing plans, to prefer mass transit as a means of saving money (rather than buying a car) and to look for work situations that require less mobility. For the testing industry, that seems to me to mean we are going to have to adapt by bringing the testing opportunities closer to the test taker and make getting to the testing site more convenient.   

The more challenging, but related, form of mobility will certainly be mobile technology platforms, especially in emerging markets in Asia and Africa. The question we at GMAC need to ask is; does the technology do more to connect the talent and aspiration of students to the opportunities offered by schools? If a technology doesn’t do that then it shouldn’t enter our thinking.  If it does then it deserves not only our exploration but, likely, our adoption.  Our Job One is to use our assessments and the underlying technologies to make those connections more seamless for everyone.

As for actually offering exams on mobile platforms, it is sure to come someday but the challenge is to be able to provide both an experience through which the test-taker can perform their best (disconnects or slowed connectivity can’t be a part of that experience) and a platform that the end-users of a score can trust (meaning security).  That’s a hard balance given the state of devices and networks today, but in some form and for some exams mobile has already arrived or is not far off.  For high-stakes testing the window may be opening.  It’s not open yet, but we can all see the benefits from penetration into new markets – like Africa -- or where the convenience and power to connect of mobile is simply too attractive to push off.

We next asked our CEOs: How do would you describe the "next generation assessments" in your specific market area? And are their trends in the market for which we should be on the look out.

Cheng: As I have touched on in the previous question, it is the nature of the many services business to be affected by the growing accessibility of information;  more importantly, or sadly, Internet users are expecting information to be free of charge.  There is no right or wrong about such DNA of Internet free-economy taking its form and its foothold, since there are numerous content and information contributors who are willing to put up unregulated or uncensored information on the Internet to attract and retain their viewers. The million dollar question in this new form of economy is how to monetize through this free business model.

Not too long ago, one would expect that online education cannot possibly be free, for the last couple of years, self-directed MOOC programs are widely used and penetrated in major markets, offering anyone to learn through the Internet free of charge. We are yet to see how this will eventually come to it sustainable form and profitable model. 

Assessment, on the other hand, under the upcoming self-directed learning model would easily find its unique positions.  As we strongly believe, assessment instrument has never been designed to be stand-alone, a test or assessment instrument is deemed useless unless it is designed in ways to enhance the teaching & learning process.  The next generation assessment would be taking up critical roles of ensuring learners are on track and keeping pace with the designed structure through formative assessment; embedding small interactive assessment tools will ensure full engagement of learners and ultimately direct the learners to its optimal learning paths and experiences.  End state examinations at the end of a learning program, on the other hand, will become less important since the track record of learners’ performance has already been formulated. From the learners’ perspective, with better visibility of their weakness and strength along their learning process would reduce their frustrations and thus improve the completion rate of the learning course.

With the latest technologies and computer processing power, formative assessment embedded into learning could generate huge amount of information about a learner throughout the learning and assessment processes; the aggregation of data collected from a large group of people in their learning & assessment process can also be referred as the BIG DATA from the millions of candidates going through our system every year. With proper data mining and analysis models, we will be able to generate customized and targeted offerings to our learners and test takers that they might not even be aware of.  The ultimate goal of the next generation assessment, in our eyes, would be an integral part of an effective learning process which is being crafted along its ways through the use of results from the formative assessment process.   

Effective assessment in the future should take the shape and form that fit into the future ways of continuous education and learning, which is expected to be fragmented, adaptive, mobile and engaging. 

Sangeet: There was a time when a single exam, like the GMAT, met most every need for those who were offering, or seeking to study, management education.  The GMAT is still the premiere global exam for management education.  It is specific to the needs of management education, it was created by providers of management education and it keeps pace with the needs of that particular degree market.  What we‘re learning by talking with institutions and in observing the myriad new forms and platforms that are showing up in management education, is that there exists a need for assessments that acknowledge those changes, but that continue to  provide the rigor and consistency that made the GMAT a gold standard.  So next generation to us means, more configurability, more flexibility, greater recognition of  market-specific requirements, while maintaining the core of what we have learned over the 60-plus years the GMAT has been offered; build tests that leverage the best of what technology offers to enhance the testing experience and the quality of the results, maintain the highest standards of security and integrity and make tests that allow test takers to shine in ways that are meaningful to end users of the scores.

The global assessment market for management education is fragmenting and segmenting – the results of assessments need to be regionally relevant – one test doesn’t fit all – but they also need to be globally applicable and understood. This will have impacts on quality, access, data privacy, portability of results and test administration. The skills needed to be successful are continuing to evolve and so must assessments (witness GMAC’s introduction of Integrated Reasoning on the GMAT and our new REFLECT by GMAC soft skills assessment).  Assessments must evolve with the changing skill set requirements.

Testing anytime, anywhere seems just around the corner, but is it?  How can we position our assessments safely, securely and with the kind of tester experience needed to ensure they perform their best, without the technology or its limitations getting in the way?

And our final question: What can ATP, as an industry-wide trade association, do to improve globally the business of assessments and testing?  

Cheng: Back in 2002, ATA realized the importance and value of an industry-wide trade association to our business and the industry as a whole and luckily we came across ATP and have been growing alongside it since then. ATA is also honored to be one of the founding members of the Asia Division of the Association ("A-ATP") founded in 2011. 

Looking at Asia at the regional level it is composed of a wide range of testing markets that may vary from mature ones like Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Korea, to developing markets like China, India, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam -- which are not to be ignored. Due to differences in culture, economic stages and westernization of various markets, test publishing communities naturally would have varying needs and expectations from an industry association. To name a few, intellectual property protection, data privacy, best practices for all forms of testing, cultural adaptation of tests, interoperability and innovative testing methods and procedures could well be needed across our region.

From a business perspective, test publishers and related services providers in China are at the early stage of creating a test publishing and test servicing industry. The growing need to identify workers with specific skills clearly requires the establishment of a range of testing programs.  These market-driven testing programs, along with the government qualification exams, are expected to lay the foundation for a highly active China test publishing industry.   This opportunity places ATP in a unique position to participate in the development of the industry through offering best practices, latest technologies, potential partnership and training opportunities for China

On top of the above mentioned, I believe education is one of the key roles of the Association that would help the industry in the long run.  The demand for educated, skilled workers China, and the ever-increasing need for knowledge workers require robust qualification frameworks and training providers; the activities of ATP in the Asia region should always bear education in mind. These educational activities are to emphasize the value of professionally developed tests to raise the caliber of the industry and the importance of protecting tests as the intellectual property of test publishers.  ATP is in a unique position to take up the leadership roles in the development of industry professional standards and norms, as opposed to any one commercial company or authority who may not necessarily take a neutral stance in this leadership role.

Sangeet:  I would suggest that a globally recognized and respected organization like ATP can make tremendous contribution by continuing to lead the industry toward better understanding of the needs of our shared customers, the problems they face and how the industry can shape the solutions to those problems.  The other place I can see a great contribution from ATP, is in always bringing the industry back to the fundamental reality that someone’s dreams and aspirations may depend on their ability to perform their best on one of our assessments. 

Technology may also disrupt the vertically integrated linkages between test design, publishing and delivery that we have become used to. A digital world may lead to different models for last-mile delivery. A test may be simultaneously available in test centers, secure events and on-line formats with different players who are specialized in each. Interoperability standards will play a significant role here and ATP would be a natural place for the identification and development of these standards.