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A fresh look at competencies: transforming Individuals' skills and experience into organisationally relevant results

A fresh look at competencies: transforming Individuals' skills and experience into organisationally relevant results

By Lynn Summers who can be contacted at www.performaworks.com

1. Introduction

We place so much importance today on competencies -- clusters of behaviors, knowledge, and motivations -- because it is the competencies of individual members of an organization that enable the organization to execute its strategy. Ernest Shackleton's failed Antarctic expedition almost 90 years ago offers an example of how competencies can work. His use of competencies to ensure the safe return of his crew was strictly implicit; companies today explicitly use competencies to translate the skills and experience that individuals bring with them into organizationally meaningful results.

In August 1914, Ernest Shackleton sailed from London on the Endurance with a crew of 27 men. His goal was to be the first to cross the Antarctic continent on foot, from one side to the other via the South Pole. The Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, had already reached the pole a couple years earlier. But no one had ever undertaken the audacious feat of walking entirely across the continent.


The story is well known. Shackleton's ship became trapped in an ice floe and eventually was crushed. He and his crew trekked across the ice and used a couple longboats salvaged from the Endeavor to row and sail first to desolate Elephant Island off the Antarctic coast and finally to a whaling station on rugged South Georgia Island. All told, they spent 15 months in the most inhospitable place on earth. Shackleton is famous today, not for achieving his initial goal, which he never did, but for leading his expedition to safety under the most harrowing of conditions imaginable, without the loss of a single person.

When you look at a photograph of an expedition team heading out across the ice on a polar trek, at first you see a group of people -- usually well bundled, but people nonetheless. When you think about what it takes to successfully traverse treacherous terrain under impossible conditions, you begin to see, not only a collection of people, but also a collection of skills and experience. There had better be an expert navigator, someone who can set a broken leg, a skilled mechanic, people who are familiar with the terrain and the weather to be encountered, and so on.

This was certainly the case with Shackleton's group. The captain of the Endeavor was a skilled navigator. The expedition's photographer had remarkable mechanical aptitude and could rig very useful devices using very limited resources. The ship's carpenter's skills would be put to good use in refitting the longboats for their harrowing voyages across the open sea. Each man had one or more vitally important skills that could potentially be used by the expedition to help achieve its goal of returning safely to civilization.

But, in any endeavor, it is never a given that all the skills and experience brought to the team by its members will be successfully applied. There is another essential ingredient, another set of attributes that each member needs to possess and apply in varying degrees, depending on his or her role, in order for the team to achieve its ultimate goal. This other essential ingredient is what we would today call competencies.

Although in 1914, no one spoke of competencies or used them in the systematic way we do today, the idea of competencies was alive and well in the way Shackleton implicitly assessed each of his men. As I mentioned, the Endeavor's captain was a remarkable navigator (a skill). But Shackleton's assessment was that he was not an effective "leader of men," having scant ability to persuade or inspire (competencies). One team member was an accomplished skier and expert gas-engine mechanic (specific skills), but was not so good at teamwork (a competency). He was a loner, acted aloof, and quickly became the brunt of practical jokes. Another team member was small in stature (a specific attribute) but had a high level of motivation and was extraordinarily resilient (competencies). A number of the men had been on prior Antarctic expeditions (an experience factor that would seem to be a positive) but one in particular was very effective at problem solving (a competency) while another lacked perseverance over the long haul (another needed competency).

Probably the most dramatic example of competencies implicitly at work was Shackleton himself. He had been on prior expeditions, so he had the benefit of experience. But most important to the survival of the team were his single-mindedness, his loyalty to his men, and his domineering personality. Today we would call these by their competency names: leadership and tenacity. Most historians agree, without Shackleton's leadership, the expedition would not have made it.

2. Competencies defined from three perspectives

Competencies are a staple of modern human resource management. What exactly are they? Definitions are plentiful, but I think it is most helpful to zero in on three different, but complimentary, perspectives.

A. Clusters of behavior -- Competencies are most often defined as clusters of behaviors, knowledge, and motivations that are related to success or failure in job performance. That is, they represent what is needed to effectively perform the job. If we restrict ourselves to this definition, then we could see a wide variety of attributes as competencies -- from leadership to skill at repairing gas engines. Indeed, some organizations today have developed competency models that include not only the high-level competencies but also the narrower and more job-specific skills. Granted, both competencies and skills are needed to achieve success, but efforts to be all-inclusive in defining the competencies and skills needed by an organization can produce a complex and unwieldy competency model.

B. Reflections of corporate values -- Competencies also express what is needed to be successful within the organization's culture -- that is, to do the job the XYZ Company's way. They are reflections of the vision and values of the organization. For example, if "We work together as a team" is an espoused value of the organization, then this value will find its way into the competency model. Consider some other commonly expressed corporate values: "We bend over backwards for our customers" or "We will be the quality leader." You can see how these values could easily be reflected in one or more competencies to set clear behavioral expectations for employees.

C. Catalysts that transform skills and experience into meaningful results -- Most importantly, competencies express what is needed to translate the technical or job-specific skills and experience of individuals into organizationally relevant results. Without effective leadership, problem solving, tenacity, and teamwork, employees' technical skills and experience could not be capitalized on - and Shackleton's team members' skills and experience would have sat on the ice and contributed little to the expedition's survival.

3. Competencies and the logic of performance management

Consider the logic of performance management. Competencies are an integral part of that logic. The logic goes something like this: An organization defines its strategy and values. Individual employees set their goals, ensuring that their goals are aligned to corporate strategy and that the results they will produce will contribute to the organization's execution of its strategy and achievement of its high-level goals.

To produce these organizationally meaningful results, employees put into certain play competencies that they possess -- competencies that are both needed for successful performance of their jobs and consistent with the organization's values. Those employees who have the requisite competencies in abundance are more effective at producing results than those who possess them in less abundance.

Organizations, through a variety of means, strive to make sure the right competencies are in the right places and are being applied appropriately. Like the polar expedition, the organization is, from a perspective in which results are the key to survival, a collection of skills, experience, and the competencies that enable these skills and experiences to be transformed into results.

You can think of competencies as levers that organizations can adjust in their efforts to execute strategy and achieve their high-level goals. They try to acquire the right competencies as well as skills and experience (through effective employee selection), put competencies in the right places (placement of employees in the right roles), manage how competencies get applied to achieve important results (performance management), and further strengthen the competencies that already are represented within the organization (development).

Much of this is what Shackleton did implicitly, with grand results. It is also what organizations do explicitly today through the use of competency models and performance management systems in an effort to produce results of comparable grandeur.

* Reprinted by permission


Gary Watkins

Gary Watkins

Managing Director


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T: +27 11 462 0982

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