Knowledge of competencies and competency modeling is increasingly
important for workplace learning professionals tasked with learning
results. Most front-line learning and performance professionals and
their managers have encountered competencies or competency modeling
in their careers, but few of these professionals have had any
formal training on these topics. Our goal is to address this
deficiency so that you can put these powerful,
productivity-enhancing tools to work in your organization.
Why Competencies Are Important to Organizations
Research suggests that some individuals may be 20 times more
productive than others. Clearly, any CEO would welcome as many of
these individuals into an organization as could be mass produced.
Matching individual competencies with job competency models puts
individuals in positions where they can contribute most. Competency
learning cannot promise a 20-fold increase in productivity, but it
will move people in the right direction.
If developing talent is critical to the future success of
organizations, then understanding and using competencies to create
a more talented workforce is key to maintaining a competitive edge.
Learning and performance professionals have an important role to
play in this future success through the use of competencies.
Competencies in Organizations
Competencies are not about duties, they are about people. In that
respect, they are different from job analysis (a process) and its
traditional output (a job description). Theoretically, all HR
efforts should be based on job descriptions. Unfortunately, job
descriptions focus on the work, not on the unique characteristics
of people who are successful doing the work. As a result, job
descriptions often fail to address measurable results; and since
job descriptions are based on activities or duties, they may change
quickly as organizations recognize work assignments or change how
the work is done.
As an example, consider the job description of an executive
assistant. A typical work activity on a job description might read,
"types letters, reports, travel vouchers, and other documents." But
that description of an activity does not indicate how many letters,
reports, travel vouchers, or other documents are actually produced,
how much of the work involves typing, how critical typing is to
overall job success, and what measures are used to determine
success in that activity.
Competencies are more enduring than job tasks. Competencies focus
on the characteristics of people who are successful performing the
work. Competencies are part of people, not the work they do.
Competencies do better in pinpointing the unique characteristics of
people that lead to success. This has been overlooked or poorly
identified in most traditional job descriptions, which typically
have a brief list of knowledge, skills, and abilities that may not
be specific to the job and may only cover technical skills.
As a simple example, a job description for a janitor might indicate
that a successful applicant would possess a high school diploma. It
might further indicate that job incumbents should "know how to
operate floor polishing machines, use a broom and a mop." It might
go further and indicate that "the janitor is willing to take
initiative." But of course, these requirements provide little
information about what is really needed to perform this job
successfully. For instance, what competencies can we assume are
present in a high school graduate and how many are really necessary
to do this job?
Organizations that understand the characteristics of those who get
the best results develop a competitive advantage. They are better
positioned to recruit, select, develop, reward, and promote the
most successful people. Hence, competencies are an important tool,
much like a compass, to find direction in attracting, developing,
retaining, and positioning the best, most productive and promotable
people. In this regard, competencies are the "glue" that holds
talent management programs together.
For example, ABC Corporation manages a chain of fast food
restaurants. Several years ago, ABC developed competency models for
all positions in the restaurant, such as cooks, counter personnel,
and people at various levels of supervision and management. Now
when hiring, they use the competency models to guide their
behavioral interviews. Competency gaps identified during the hiring
process help to determine appropriate individual development plans.
Staff who are motivated to move up in their jobs work to develop
competencies required by more advanced, higher-paying positions.
Competencies support organizational capabilities.
Successful organizations possess capabilities that differentiate
them from the competition and help them achieve strategic
objectives. For example, organizations can excel at innovation,
reliability, efficiency and low cost, or speedy delivery of
services. These organizational capabilities must be supported by
the right collective mix of competencies. Strategic objectives
imply that some competencies will be needed more than others to
achieve results. Organizational leaders can operationalize strategy
by clarifying what competencies are needed to achieve future
strategic objectives. For example, XYZ Corporation manages homes
for senior citizens. XYZ has identified core competencies and
values that are key to its growth strategy and are required of all
associates. These include compassion, communication, and customer
Why Learning Professionals Should Use Competencies
Whether the goal is to narrow a performance or developmental gap or
to leverage a performance or developmental strength, competencies
can be useful to learning and performance professionals for several
- Competencies pinpoint what is important. By studying those who
get good results and what makes them able to get those results,
learning professionals can focus training or even create a
developmental strategy. If it is true that most development occurs
on the job, then training is only one way to build competencies.
Other ways to build competencies include receiving coaching from
one's supervisor, networking with peers, watching strong
performers, accessing a knowledge database that provides standard
operating procedures or information on how similar issues have been
handled successfully in the past, participating in a
problem-solving group, joining a community of practice, or using
more traditional approaches such as reading books and articles or
watching DVDs or online videos.
- Some organizational leaders believe that developing people
requires attention to a 70 - 20 - 10 percent rule. According to
that view, 70 percent of all competencies should be developed
through real-time, on-the-job experiences that are intended to
build the competency; 20 percent of competencies should be
developed through networking with associates in person or online
(such as communities of practice or using Web 2.0 technology); and
only 10 percent of competencies should be developed through planned
training. For example, suppose a manager wishes to develop an
individual's competencies in budgeting skills. Training is only one
way to do that. A more effective way might be for the manager to
assign the person to work on a current department budget with the
coaching of the manager. The manager may identify others in the
organization who do a good job in budgeting and ask the person who
is being developed to approach those people for advice either
through face-to-face meetings or by virtual interaction.
- Competencies can tie training to other HR efforts. As common
denominators, competencies help describe what abilities the
organization needs and how to acquire them. Competencies can be
part of employee hiring, on-boarding, performance appraisal,
compensation, and succession planning.
- Competencies can make it easier to communicate with workers
about the qualifications needed to be considered for future work in
the organization. With competency models, individuals are given
ways to assess themselves - or involve others in providing valuable
feedback. Multi-rater, 360-degree feedback assessments are
frequently used for this purpose, particularly for soft skills, but
increasingly for feedback on technical performance or skills.
Individuals gain information that can be used to compare their own
competencies to those required for other positions within the
organization. Individuals receive valuable feedback for improving
their readiness for more advanced positions and thus furthering
Competencies provide a means to discuss career paths and articulate
specific ways to develop oneself or leverage one's strengths.
This is an excerpt from Competency-Based Training
Basics, an ASTD Press publication. It can be purchased here.
William J. Rothwell is professor of learning
and performance in the Workforce Education and Development program,
Department of Learning and Performance Systems, at The Pennsylvania
State University, University Park campus. Before arriving at Penn
State in 1993, he worked 20 years as a training director in
government and in business. He has also worked as a consultant for
more than 40 multinational corporations - including Motorola,
General Motors, Ford, and many others.
James Graber, organizational psychologist, is
managing director of Business Decisions, Inc., Chicago, Illinois, a
company he founded in 1981. During his 30 years of consulting, he
has worked for more than 100 domestic and international clients,
including organizations such as McDonalds, United Airlines,
Panasonic, General Motors, Abbott Labs, the U.S. Navy, the City of
Chicago, and for numerous clients in Australia, Europe, South
America, Asia, and the Middle East.