Competency frameworks, the good the bad and the ugly

Effective use of competency frameworks provides employees with a clearly-defined set of personal development objectives and managers with a consistent measurement tool that could be used across geographical, cultural and work boundaries.

The concept is simple. To complete any task, people need to have the behaviour, skills and knowledge to undertake the task. Defining the behaviour, skills and knowledge (competence) to undertake a set of tasks (a job) and measuring the competence of people allows managers and employees to understand the gap between desired and demonstrated competence and develop a plan to close the gap.

Many organisations however fail in their attempts to build a framework to proactively manage competencies.

The major reason for failure is that competence frameworks are developed and implemented with no clear business purpose in mind. Without a business purpose, there is no objective on which to base design decisions as the framework is built. The resultant design is usually flawed, serving too many masters and is discontinued after a year or two of use.

Competency development frameworks built with a clear business purpose in mind suffer from other fatal flaws limiting the use of and belief in the framework. Frameworks built which confuse tasks with competency are usually complex and difficult to administer and therefore are difficult to communicate to employees.

For a framework to be successful, not only do managers need to believe that business performance will improve, but employees also need to believe that the framework, especially the measurement of competence, is fair and transparent.

A common fault of competency frameworks is that they confuse competence with task. Tasks are better positioned in the job description. Frameworks which confuse tasks with competencies generally have between forty and fifty competencies described. Each job description tends to have between twenty and thirty competencies to be evaluated in an employee.

In the early days of the internet, before people were careful about what they put in the public domain, I stumbled across NASA’s competency framework. It was huge with hundreds of listed?competencies and resembling a list of all of the tasks that astronauts and the support staff do. It was doomed to fail to deliver any business purpose other than being a repository from which to write the tasks part of job descriptions.

Competency development frameworks should have about twelve competencies to describe and measure to be successful in the long term. Any more makes them difficult to administer and communicate. The competencies need to cover the range of behaviours, skills and knowledge required to complete the tasks undertaken by the organisation or section in question.

The difference between behaviour skills and knowledge can be examined through occupations which require the driving of a motor vehicle.

Firstly, a courier driver requires the behaviour, skills and knowledge as follows.

Behaviour; the driver must be courteous, punctual and not too much of a boy racer in the traffic as we don’t want to accumulate fines. Skills; must be able to drive a car, evidenced by a licence, read a street directory and able to use a hand held computer to access orders, make payments etc. Knowledge; must know the road rules, again evidenced by a licence, our delivery and credit terms and our returns policy.

Secondly, let us examine another driver, a specific one whose name is Michael Schumacher. Herr Schumacher needs to have the following skills behaviour and knowledge. Behaviour; has ice cool nerves, steely determination and confidence in his ability to the point of arrogance. Skills; a much higher level of driving skill than our courier driver, a licence will not suffice as evidence, able to change gears by pressing buttons and have reflexes measured in milliseconds. Knowledge; must know the racing line of every Grand Prix track, the relationship between track, tyre and suspension set up.

Designing a framework with competencies defined at different levels, e.g. driving ability in the above example, allows a range of jobs to be described using the same competency set. Typically, a competency framework will have between three and five levels of each competency defined.

If significantly more than twelve competencies need to be defined to cover the range of jobs in an organisation, it is better to develop separate linked frameworks. The linkage comes through the behaviours and some of the skills. Behaviours are closely related to the values and organisation desires and therefore the requirement is likely to be the same in different functions. Some skills will also be the same, for example, communication. However, the knowledge requirement of different functions is normally quite different.

Good competency frameworks will be easy to administer, easy to understand and built for a business purpose. Bad competency frameworks will confuse competency and task and be difficult to administer and understand and will have been built without an obvious business purpose.

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