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Why Competencies Are the Future of HR

To move forward as a profession, we must understand what success looks like.

A woman in a business suit smiling in front of a window.
​Alexis A. Fink

It’s a shift our profession has been talking about for at least two decades now: HR needs to be more strategic. Back in 1996, author and professor David Ulrich argued in his book Human Resource Champions (Harvard Business Review Press) that HR professionals must move in this direction to add value to their organizations, and other thought leaders have been echoing and expanding on this argument ever since. 

I believe we’re rising to the occasion. Increasingly,  we are using advanced tools and delivering insightful analyses that contribute to business success in new ways. In fact, that was a primary goal behind the creation of the SHRM Competency Model. As a result, the universe of HR technology is exploding and talent analytics teams are emerging everywhere.  We are also identifying ineffective HR activities that we have “always done” and creating thoughtful replacements. Witness, for example, the trend toward revamping performance reviews to become nimble, ratings-less systems that are more aligned with the speed of business today. We are also taking advantage of the scale and efficiency of outsourced solutions for tactical activities so that we can focus more on the big picture.  

Talent and HR practices can mean the difference between failure and success. For example, a study of more than 300 organizations published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in 2014 showed that the firms that invested effectively in training and staffing were much better able to recover from the 2008 economic downturn, independent of their prior profitability. In other words, good HR practices helped companies be more productive and profitable. 

That’s not surprising given that HR plays a key role throughout the employee life cycle, including crafting how a company structures its jobs; sourcing, selecting and onboarding the right talent; engaging and developing the workforce; moving people through talent pipelines; and exiting employees from the organization. 

A Daunting Challenge

But designing and sustaining the elements of such a complex system are not easy. Add to that the competing priorities that HR often faces—for example, trying to find efficiencies at the enterprise level while simultaneously serving the needs of an entire workforce. 

As a profession, we largely leave individuals and organizations to sort out these problems for themselves. Of course, part of the fun of HR work is being able to tackle new challenges and divine solutions unique to the situation at hand. But we do ourselves no favors by leaving so much white space in our definition of success. When we aren’t sure how to add the most value to our organizations, bad things can happen. Rock stars leave, time and resources are wasted, initiatives fail, and careers are damaged—including those of HR professionals and the clients we serve. 

HR, today, is a pivotal role. Variances in individual performance can have a significant impact on outcomes. When it’s good, it’s great. But when it’s off the mark ... not so good. What we need is a road map, a way to raise the floor of performance with consistent, clearly defined expectations. Behavioral competencies—a set of specific skills that can be linked to success—serve as the rising tide that lifts all boats. 

Defining Success

So what sets the behavioral approach apart? Consider this example: One weekend, on a family ski trip, my youngest son expressed frustration with his turns. It’s something he had been frustrated with since he started skiing seven years ago, and YouTube videos weren’t helping. 

We stopped midway down the run, and I showed him how to move his knees and hips together as he was making the turn. Soon he was whooshing down the slope! After one minute of specific, behavioral coaching, he was able to put the idea into practice consistently. And by the end of the afternoon, he was much happier with his speed and control—not to mention safer on the slopes. 

I gave to my son what behavioral competencies can provide to HR: a clearly articulated, observable framework for what success looks like. Well-designed and coherently applied competencies ensure that HR professionals have the right skills and capabilities to do their jobs now and in the future. When proficiency levels are included, competencies also serve as career development tools, illuminating areas for growth, learning objectives for training, and priorities for high-potential programs and talent pipelines.

Perhaps most important for HR, well-designed behavioral competencies can add clarity to coaching conversations between managers and employees, as well as to contracting conversations with clients. As the practice of HR transforms, it will be more important to articulate expectations to our teams and clients clearly and consistently.

Getting Clear

Telling professionals to embody such abstract buzzwords as “is strategic” is not terribly useful. A much clearer expectation shows what that means in context: “Applies own expert knowledge of firm’s business priorities and challenges when identifying and delivering HR programs and services; aligns HR offerings to highest business priorities; etc.” 

As we add such competency-based standards to our jobs, we will not only increase our effectiveness as a profession but also that of the organizations we support. 

A robust, relevant behavioral competency model forms the core of an integrated system for talent management. Far too often, the criteria used to recruit people into a job bears little resemblance to those used to evaluate their performance once they come on board. This leads to frustration, disappointment and demotivation. 

Good competency models are grounded in solid research that demonstrates scientifically that specific behaviors contribute to better on-the-job performance and add efficiency to processes across the employee life cycle. (For an overview of best practices in competency modeling, read Campion et al.’s 2011 overview in the journal Personnel Psychology.)

Focusing on a consistent, proven, clearly articulated set of priorities helps create excellence within organizations, removes conflicting information, and improves the performance of the organization and the individuals who work there. Within that context, it seems almost foolish to build talent management systems on any other foundation.  

Alexis A. Fink is general manager, talent intelligence and analytics, at Intel Corp.

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