Competency Modeling Meets Talent Management

By Eric Krell Sep 8, 2011
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When HR professionals turn their attention to competency modeling, what they see can be as misleading as the external employment market.

Outside the organization, high unemployment rates mask a troubling global skills gap that has prevented U.S. organizations from filling 3 million positions because qualified applicants are scarce. Inside, a long-standing emphasis on job descriptions often can obscure a focus on the underlying skills, knowledge and abilities (SKAs) that enable individuals to thrive within those jobs.

Just as long-term-minded leadership teams are addressing a troubling skills gap so, too, are savvy human resource professionals employing competency models to strengthen nearly every facet of talent management—from recruiting and performance management, to training and development, to succession planning and more.

“We have worked with clients who want to develop competencies for recruitment,” reported Lisa Gabel, a senior manager who specializes in organization development and other HR areas for consulting firm ICF International. “And then they want to develop different competencies for performance management. And then they want to develop other competencies for performance management. And we will say, ‘Well, all of these competencies should be the same.’ ”

Competencies Defined

Other experts also emphasize the importance of an integrated approach to competency modeling. Speaking during a recent Intelladon webcast, “Competencies: Why They Matter to Your Talent Management Strategy,” First Order Consulting Partner John Gillis Jr., describes job descriptions as the “predecessor” to competencies.

“Many organizations say they have job competencies,” Gillis noted, “but these competencies often look like something someone threw together after a single meeting.” Hastily written job descriptions may be the root cause of incomplete competencies: responding to the question of whether their organizations have well-defined job descriptions, 67 percent of webcast attendees indicated that their job descriptions are in need of improvement.

Strengthening job descriptions so that competencies can be developed offers tangible business benefits, Intelladon Vice President T.J. Coyle noted, by improving recruiting, learning and development, performance management, compensation, organizational development and workforce planning processes.

Competency modeling is not new. A 2000 Personnel Psychology article—the product of a two-year investigation into practices conducted by a 10-person task force of business executives and academics—sought to “explain a trend that has caused a great deal of confusion among HR researchers, practitioners, and consumers of HR related services: competency modeling.”

Fortunately some progress has been made in the past 11 years. Most experts would agree with viaPeople Inc. Senior Consultant Amanda Seidler’s definition that a competency captures the SKAs, attitudes and behaviors that “contribute to the successful accomplishment of desired job results” while a competency model“is a set of competencies that describe what it takes to be successful in a specific job role” or an organization.

There are different types of models (see “Model Variations” sidebar) and most experts agree that competencies and competency models must be customized to unique industries, companies and even businesses within larger corporations.

Model Variations

Towers Watson talent management consultants Tracy Shamas and Renée Smith identify four different types of competency models that can be developed:

  • Organizationwide models include competencies that are important for all employees, regardless of position or level.
  • Function-based competencies apply to a single business function (e.g., finance) or line of business.
  • Role-based models include competencies specific to a role or level of the organization such as a people manager or executive. These models are created to differentiate behavioral expectations and requirements at different levels.
  • Job-based models are developed for a particular job, such as a call center representative or an account manager.

"In plain language, competency models provide clear direction,” Seidler added. “An individual’s performance goals define what the individual is expected to achieve. Competency models define how and why goals should be achieved.”

For example, Lominger International, a Korn/Ferry company, has developed some of the best-known leadership competencies. “Strategic Skills” represents one of its roughly half-dozen leadership competency “factors” (or groupings); within this grouping, the specific leadership competencies include “dealing with ambiguity,” “creativity,” “innovation management,” “perspective” and “strategic agility.”

Assembling a Model

Developing competency models, particularly those involving behaviors (like leadership) as opposed to skills (like selling), can be extremely difficult, noted Gabel, who noted that it is crucial for HR professionals identifying competencies to ensure they are based on “critical incidents,” agreed-upon practices that can be pointed to and described.

That description figured prominently in the work Starr Group Owner Shirley Gross did for a sales and marketing division of Kodak in the mid-1990s. To develop a competency model, Gross interviewed the function’s leaders, developed behavioral interview questions, interviewed the best and worst performers, reviewed the interview data (tracking and coding how frequently key words and descriptions were repeated, selected the SKAs that demonstrated best performance and named the competencies.

“This is actually a research project,” Gross explained, and it is “very expensive and time consuming to carry out. If conducted correctly, the product is exacting. It produces a model that everyone can relate to easily. It is also a ton of work!”

Time and expense are two of the most frequently mentioned “cons” mentioned by competency modeling experts. A common pitfall occurs when organizations treat competency modeling as a solution unto itself, Gross added, as opposed to a tool for improving the full gamut of talent management processes. Other stumbling blocks include overly complex and detailed models, and developing models without meaningful input from subject matter experts—supervisors, managers and top performers—who know what SKAs enable someone in a specific position to thrive.

“You’ll know you’ve made a common error,” Seidler noted, “when a position-based competency starts to look a bit too much like the job description … Instead, focus on the behaviorsthat are required for successful performance.”

Identifying these behaviors requires facilitated interviews, stakeholder training sessions and workshops designed to “increase engagement and support for substantial process and mind-set change,” Coyle noted.

Experts said that the steps required to create a competency model include:

  1. Gathering information about job roles.
  2. Interviewing subject matter experts to discover current critical competencies and how they envision their roles changing in the future.
  3. Identifying high-performer behaviors.
  4. Creating, reviewing (or vetting) and delivering the competency model.

The final step involves communicating exactly how the competency model should be used in practice as well as how it supports recruiting, performance management, career development, training and development, succession planning, and other HR and business processes.

That integration is key, Gillis asserted. Especially, he added, if organizations are to set up employee competency modeling as the foundation of a talent management strategy that offers an “alternative to falling victim to a looming skills gap.”

Eric Krell is a business writer based in Austin, Texas, who covers human resource, finance and social marketing issues.

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