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Why competencies may not be enough

Why competencies may not be enough

By Dr Karen Moloney who an be contacted at www.mworld.mce.be

1. Introduction

Competency frameworks are being developed all over the world. But there seems to be no consensus as to what they should consist of. Bandwagons abound and consultants are in the vanguard of the gravy train once again.

Some organisations take a purist line, in the vein of Boyatzis, and define competencies as qualities of a person which enable him or her to produce a superior performance. In this case, competencies are treated almost as psychological traits and would include things like "achievement drive", "people sensitivity", "initiative".

Other organisations are treating the notion of competence as a technical requirement of the job. They describe the competences (note the missing letter "i") in terms of standards or performance specifications. The MCI standards, as the main foundation for a competency framework, would be a good example of this approach.

These are not, as some people have gone to print saying, alternative approaches to the same concept, however. They are different concepts. The first describes the qualities required of a person, the second describes the functional requirements of the job. They are both useful tools for driving behaviour. Unfortunately, people are getting them mixed up, or even worse, ignoring one or other of the concepts.

Furthermore, many people are seeing competency frameworks as the focal point for all their HRM and HRD processes. This is dangerous. You cannot take one of these approaches and use it to drive all your HRM and HRD processes. Let us explain.

2. Experienced users are feeling there is something missing

We develop sets of competencies for our clients. They provide a very useful tool for looking at people and their behaviours, and for aligning individuals with the organisation. However, we are finding that, increasingly, clients are starting to question the value of looking solely at competencies as the main performance driver.

They understand that other things are going on too. They know that competencies don't replace targets and objectives, and that usually, competencies are generic and don't apply to specific jobs. Furthermore, competencies describe how things are done and not the technical activities involved. So there appears to be something missing.

On the other hand, experienced users of standards are finding that they can't embed the standards at the centre of their HRM and HRD practices and expect people to be able to use them for everything. Standards are useful for some applications such as performance management, but they don't work so well for personal development. They don't talk about the individual, for example, which is why MCI have evolved a model of personal competence. But even in the latest version of the MCI model, there has been little other than a token attempt to relate the two together. And no mention is made at all of the role of targets, objectives, key results in also driving performance.

3. A comprehensive model of competence

Because of these dilemmas, we are being asked by our clients to help them evolve a model of competency and how it could be used to manage performance better. Our model is simple, yet comprehensive, and it includes the 4 necessary components to provide the capability to perform, and to drive performance.

3.1 They are the personal qualities which people have and develop. They determine the ways in which we behave, and are particularly helpful when trying to understand why people are as they are, what their potential might be to develop further, and how they should deal with customers, colleagues and the day to day challenges of working (and personal) life. They are very effective tools for assessing potential in recruitment, discussing personal style and approach in appraisal, and career development. They are less useful when considering reward, or releasing someone from the organisation.


3.2 Skills, knowledge and understanding are the substrate on which the competencies can work. For example, if you understand the way in which corporation tax works, and you have the necessary competencies to see how it can affect your business plans for the future, you are more likely to perform well when engaged in business planning. Skills, knowledge and understanding are all part of the learning that is needed to be effective, so specifying the skills, knowledge and understanding is useful for recruitment, training and development purposes, but less useful if what you really want to do is pay someone for achievements.

3.3 Technical standards reflect the commodity of the organisation. They are the minimum, but still very high standard of competence that should be achieved by people in their jobs. They are particularly useful when people are learning a new job, or want to understand their next job. They are very effective tools to use when recruiting someone on the basis of their track record, when reviewing performance, when designing induction and other training programmes, and for rewarding people on the basis of their performance. They are less useful when talking about career development.

3.4 The final part of the picture, targets and objectives, are far more individual. They describe what a particular person is going to achieve. They are normally stretching, business-focused and outcome-based. Achieving such targets should result in major business benefits. As a tool, they are very useful for managing performance, for motivating and rewarding individual achievement. They can also be helpful in making decisions about release from the organisation. But don't try to use them for career development.

4. Using different components of the model

To summarise, you would be unwise to use only standards, or only competencies as the main foundation for your framework of competence. You would also be unwise to ignore the role of skills, knowledge and understanding in making people capable, and the role of targets and objectives in driving people's performance.

When we first started working with standards we thought that they could form the hub of HRM and HRD practices. But knowing what we now know, and having experienced the inappropriateness of trying to drive performance with only parts of the model, we are now fairly sure that each part serves a different purpose.

Using only targets/objective, technical standards or competencies as the preferred tool for all the applications above would be inappropriate, if not at times, dangerous. For example, trying to design a training course for "People Awareness" would be misguided. Trying to dismiss someone for not having enough "People Awareness" would be difficult, unless objective assessment data on standards they had failed to meet was available too. On the other hand, trying to recruit people using only technical standards ignores the importance of personal "fit" and potential.

To benefit from this comprehensive model of competence, people need to understand the 4 different components and how to use them. In particular, if you are developing a framework using only competencies, you would benefit from a fuller understanding of what standards are and how they can help.

5. Developing competencies

If your framework currently consists of only functional standards, such as those specified for NVQ’s/Unit Srandards, you might wish to develop a list of personal qualities which define generic behaviours.

These are more familiar to HR professionals than standards, so I won't list them in full. The following example, which is one of a set we developed for a legal client, is typical of a competency for someone delivering a professional service.

Example: Achievement Drive: an eagerness to face a challenge; a drive to achieve excellence.

Someone with this competency displays high levels of enthusiasm, energy and tenacity in facing challenges focuses on making progress, overcoming obstacles and developing solutions meets or exceed his/her personal goals constantly strives to improve on previous levels of performance.

Someone without this competency gets distracted from the goal easily by irrelevancies runs out of commitment in early stages

tends to dwell on past successes and failures may consistently miss targets concentrates on the difficulties and reasons not to do something.

5.1 Specifying targets and objectives

Organisations with a performance culture, which use objectives, targets and key results to manage and motivate, which measure themselves frequently and objectively are missing a trick if they don't look at other aspects of competence too. For example, if they concentrate entirely on annual targets, they risk harming other aspects of performance or good practice which aren't wrapped up in the targets. The classic example of the salesman who achieves his sales targets but upsets his colleagues on the way, never hands in his paperworks on time, etc, springs to mind. We need to pay attention to the "perenials" in the performance garden, as well as the annuals. This is where standards come in.

Similarly, the highly performance-focussed organisation will miss a trick if it doesn't look at developing people's capability in the longer term, but sees only achivement as a driver. People can burn themselves out very quickly unless they are constantly learning and replenishing their skills. Ignoring the role of competencies in an overall framework of personal development can lead to high turnover.

5.2 Specifying skills, knowledge and understanding

Finally, any organisation which is serious about developing people's capability needs to look further than just listing personal qualities. It needs to help people understand what they need to learn and how they can apply it to their working life. In other words, it needs to specify the input.

Examples are patchy. Some organisations choose to say a little about this in the job description or role requirement. Others ignore it altogether, hoping that people will discover for themselves what their continuing professional development needs are. We belive it is very helpful, particularly for newcomers to a job, to know what they need to know.

6. Summary

We are worried that the HR profession is taking a unidimensional view of competence. To help the profession use the tools available in an effective way, we have suggested that it sees competence as having two main components: capability, which is determined by someone's competencies and skills, knowledge and understanding, and performance which is the result of their capability and which needs to look at both good all round performance and the achievement of specific targets and objectives. Each of these components has a different purpose within HRM and HRD processes and should not be confused. Misuse of competencies or standards in particular will open the profession up to the accusation of beings dilletantes, chasing panaceas, jumping on bandwagons but failing to deliver. If we are to be taken seriously, we need to acquire some sophistication in our approach to competence. After all, finding and keeping competent people is what we are here to do.

Gary Watkins

Gary Watkins

Managing Director


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T: +27 11 462 0982

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