Elaine D. Pulakos, PhD
The exams we deliver at Pearson VUE have a direct and positive impact on communities around the globe, driving progress and helping our clients deliver on the promise of their industries. In this series, we’re taking a deeper look at the ways we make that happen, by speaking to people from around our business who are making a lasting impact in a particular area of assessments.
This time we’re speaking to one of the newer members of our Senior Executive Team.
Elaine D. Pulakos, PhD, is CEO of PDRI, now PDRI by Pearson (following the acquisition of the workforce assessment provider earlier this year). Elaine is the go-to-expert in her field in building organizational and team capabilities that translate into business growth.
She is well-known in the business world for her extensive research and writing on agility and resilience and her extensive global experience has helped companies build these capabilities to increase their competitive advantage and performance.
Elaine has authored numerous articles, six books, and three best-practice volumes for the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM). Her most recent book, Performance Management Transformation: Lessons Learned and Next Steps, is a set of case studies from marquee companies, new research, and implications for the future.
Q. Elaine, it’s been 9 months now since we welcomed PDRI to Pearson’s Assessment & Qualifications division. Please can you tell us a bit about your role within the new ‘PDRI by Pearson’?
Thank you! We’re very happy to be a part of the Pearson family and the Assessment & Qualifications division. We’ve found Pearson’s ownership to be a very positive experience so far, especially due to the warm welcome we received from Gary Gates and Art Valentine. While I’m still serving as PDRI’s CEO and performing the typical duties and responsibilities that come with that role, I’ve acquired some fantastic new colleagues from Pearson. Now that I’m part of Pearson VUE’s leadership team under Gary, we’ve been working closely together and further strengthening our relationships with VUE’s federal government sales team.
Q. What opportunities or new capabilities have you identified since we joined forces?
We’d already been working closely with Pearson VUE prior to PDRI being acquired by Pearson, and I believe it’s likely the acquisition came about from the opportunities we identified through that partnership.
Our PDRI business brings the unique security, accounting, and other systems and contracting vehicles that are required to “do business” in the U.S. federal government. PDRI’s core product is a secure, flexible platform that we use to deliver talent management products and services to our customers. These include competency modeling, hiring and leadership assessments, and development and training programs, although the majority of our business comes from unproctored assessments.
As you can probably imagine, federal government testing programs are high-stakes. And because of this proctored assessment administration is preferred over unproctored. This is the sweet spot and where the strength of Pearson VUE and PDRI’s partnership really comes into force.
Most recently, we brought our capabilities together to expand Pearson’s services to the U.S. Air Force. We’ve already delivered a successful pilot to this client earlier this year, transitioning its U.S. Air Force Assessment Program over from paper-and-pencil to computer-based testing. PDRI has provided assessments to the U.S. Air Force for more than 15 years, but now we can offer this client so much more. With Pearson VUE’s delivery of the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test (AFOQT) and Weighted Airman Promotion System (WAPS) tests from 2024, we’ll use our combined expertise to make important enhancements to improve this large-scale national testing program.
Q. We see that you’re also a published author and have a background in psychology. What does a typical day look like for someone with so many things going on?
I’m a PhD industrial-organizational psychologist by training (the study of individual, group and organizational dynamics in the workplace). I spent the first phase of my career working with organizations to design and implement talent management systems, such as hiring systems, leadership development programs, performance management processes, and organizational development interventions.
But since becoming CEO of PDRI in 2011, my day has shifted from largely client-facing work to activities that are characteristic of a “typical CEO” role, However, I continue to do some client-facing work to ensure we’re responding to the needs and priorities of our customers.
My writing and publishing work occurs on my own time – nights and weekends.
I started contributing to professional literature and writing books early in my career. I’ve always enjoyed this, and it’s a hobby really – rather than part of my day-to-day work activities.
Q. As you’ve noted, PDRI by Pearson is focused on the US federal market. What kinds of assessment solutions are most in demand by government agencies?
The government, just like the private sector, has numerous assessment needs that can vary depending on the agency and type of role in question. PDRI’s largest customer in the federal government is the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM). We run OPM’s USA Hire assessment program, which makes assessments available to over 90% of government agencies that use OPM’s USA Staffing system to support their hiring needs.
The USA Hire program offers cognitive, noncognitive, automatically scored writing assessments, and online interviewing, among other assessment types that can be easily configured using PDRI’s platform, depending on the role and agency need. Other federal customers use higher fidelity work samples (the exact replication of work tasks), resume screening, or more specialized assessments for their specific assessment needs. PDRI’s assessment platform allows Pearson to offer virtually any type of assessment a customer may want to use.
Q. PDRI by Pearson is a thought leader around the scientific study of human behavior in organizations and the workplace (industrial-organizational psychology or I/O). What workplace trends do you see on the horizon and how should organizations be adapting?
The biggest workplace trend that has become the “new normal” is the extent to which organizations have to adapt to constant change and disruption from predictable as well as unpredictable sources. This has underscored the need for companies to develop adaptability and resilience so they can successfully withstand whatever disruptions they may face and thrive through that change.
PDRI began studying adaptability and resilience in the late 1990s as part of a research program funded by the U.S. Army. Three years ago, we’d just begun a research program aimed at understanding how teams and organizational entities can develop higher levels of agility and resilience. This research was hot off the press - just as Covid hit.
We were not only able to show that more agile and resilient organizations deliver higher levels of financial performance, but that there are three specific and essential practices business leaders need to drive that create the conditions for organizational agility and resilience to exist:
- Creating a stable environment – an organization cannot be agile unless it is stable first
- “Rightsizing” rather than overdoing teamwork
- Building self-correcting teams
This work forms the basis for what we’re advising companies to do today to prepare for the future and handle whatever disruption they may face.
For anyone interested, the research findings are summarized in two Harvard Business Review articles and a blog:
Q. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given and applied in your own career?
I don’t know if anyone necessarily gave me this advice but I’ve learned two instrumental lessons that I’m happy to share.
The first is don’t wait for someone to come to you and ask you to do things. Look for opportunities and don’t be afraid to pursue them.
The second is to remain as differentiated as possible. For the PDRI business, this is about constantly thinking: What can we offer that is different – from other business units and competitors?