Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Get the Most from Your Competency Models: Understand All Competency Models Are Not the Same

Since their inception 40 years ago, competency models have progressed through distinct stages, in sync with changes in organizations. As a result, there are many types of competency models, each appropriate for a specific task. But we treat them as if they are the same. 

To get the most value from this valuable tool, we need to understand and recognize the differences in the meaning of “competency.” In the last blog post I described the roots of competencies.  In this post I will describe how they have evolved, and the best use of the various competency modeling methods.

Proliferation of Competency Modeling Methods: Moving from Clarity To Confusion

Corporations have wanted competency models since about 1990. Since they can genuinely drive business results and shape culture, organizations were willing to pay for competency models. As a result, consultants got in the competency modeling business in a big way.  

Initially, competency models were only developed for high-leverage jobs such as sales executives and leaders. A $250,000 competency research project carried out over two months was a good investment because individuals in these jobs drive organizational results.  Further, interpersonal (e.g., teamwork) and intrapersonal (e.g., multi-tasking) savvy are very important in these sorts of jobs and the behavioral event interview (BEI) method was exceptionally good at capturing these capabilities. 

Competency models soon began to trickle down to other job-families. Different methods of developing competency models also proliferated. Consultants argued that their methods were unique and better. 

Many consultants used executive interviews to understand competencies.  Often, the interviews started with organizational strategy and then inquired about the human capability needed to achieve the strategy. These capabilities became the organization’s competency model.

Some used focus groups to quickly capture ideas about competencies from leaders or incumbents. Often the focus groups learned about competency models and then generated examples of behaviors that achieved exceptional results.  Synthesis of these behaviors led to a competency model.

Other methods were clearly cheaper.  An organization could purchase a standard dictionary, or a card deck, of possible competencies. By thinking about the target job, it was just a matter of picking the right cards.  Using this tool, a professional could build model in an hour.

Competency models were also published and compared. Some noticed that leadership models from different organizations were quite similar. Would you go to the trouble of building a model if 80% of  competencies are the same in all organizations? 

Standardized competency models were developed. These models were built by integrating many competency models (research) or using on someone’s ideas of what it takes to be a successful employee or leader (theory). These standard models describe good management and leadership, but note how far we have moved from research to unlock the unconscious secrets to high performance! Many of the competency models were simply theories described in behavioral terms.

Ultimately, confusion reigned.  Everyone was talking about competency models, but in fact they were talking about different things.  There was (and still is) no agreement on the meaning of “competency.” 

Some large organizations (e.g., AT&T) had hundreds of unrelated competency models built with different methods and with different underlying assumptions! Many organizations became overwhelmed.  Some went so far as to ban competency models, at least temporarily.

Where We Are Now:  Many Methods to Address Multiple Challenges

Was this a fad or something else? Three things have happened:
  • We learned a lot about the inter- and intra- personal capabilities required for key positions; many leadership competencies are better understood. For example, nearly everyone in business now talks about “emotional intelligence.”  Daniel Goleman, who coined the term, trained under McClelland at Harvard, and notes that this inter-and intra-personal intelligence was influenced by competency research
  • The idea of a competency changed and became vague.  Whereas competency was defined as “a pattern of thought or behavior that differentiated average from superior performance,” now it more generally means behavioral performance expectations. Beyond that, there is little agreement about the definition of competency
  • We went too far.  We started to think that competencies are the only human capabilities that matter. This is clearly a mistake. Many professional jobs do not rely heavily on inter- and intra- personal capabilities  If you are hiring, developing, promoting or rewarding an engineer, use skills or tasks! 
Competencies are clearly not a fad.  After 40 years, i am confident that competencies are a key and useful tool for Talent Management. 

With the benefit of hindsight, we should have a more sophisticated understanding of competency models and what they can do for your organization’s performance. We should recognize that competency models built using different methods have different sweet spots. As a starting point, here is summary of the various modeling methods and situations when they are best used. I welcome your thoughts and additions.

I welcome your thoughts and additions.

Charley Morrow

1 comment:

Jessica Colin said...

I have to do a report for our school magazine on this topic, and your blog has been beneficial. Can you please add more reference to this point, thanks

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