A competency is the ability to use a set of relevant knowledge, skills, and abilities to successfully perform “critical work functions” or tasks in a defined work setting.
A competency model (or competency framework) is a set of competencies – a blue print for success. It may apply to ;
- all staff in the organization
- a level of leadership
- a job role
- a business function
- a professional discipline
- a particular job task
There are different kinds of competency.
Many organizations have a set of core values – principles that guide the way they operate. These are translated to values based behaviors that all staff should demonstrate as they go about their work. For example in healthcare ‘compassion’ is a common value.
Core competencies are usually the soft skills that help people work together, and support the organization, such as communication and teamwork.
Leadership competency sets may vary by leadership level.
Functional competencies are directly related to job roles and activities.
Why have a competency model?
The purpose of a competency model is two fold. On the one hand it communicates what is expected of staff, how they should do their job. On the other it is used as a benchmark to ensure people have the skills they need for success.
Competency models are used across all people management practices including;
- recruitment and selection
- on boarding
- performance management
- career development
- talent pool development
- succession planning
- workforce planning
How to structure a competency model
The structure of a competency model will depend on the competency type and purpose. There should be a competency model or framework for each set of competencies. One for the core values, another for core competencies, a leadership competency model and multiple competency models for job specific competencies.
Competency models that address organizational values, core competencies and leadership competencies should have no more than 5-7 competencies.
If there are too many competencies assessment is less accurate because reviewers will lose focus and will not properly consider their responses.
For values based competencies that serve to communicate the required approach the competencies may simply have a description of desired behaviors (indicators or standards) and a rating scale. If more detailed assessment and information is required the competency may list a maximum of 4- 5 behaviors (indicators or standards) with their own rating scale. Core competencies and leadership competencies will normally have separately rated behaviors (indicators or standards).
Depending on the complexity of work within the organization, functional – technical/clinical competencies may have sub headings, each of which has indicators or standards. They may also have levels of competence with different standards for each level, or different achievement requirements per level for competence.
For functional competencies the structure of the competency model or framework will depend on how competency assessments are to be done. The model may have multiple competencies with only a few mapped to a role specific competency requirement profile.
The language in the competency model should match its purpose. For values based, core and leadership competencies the language will be simple using concepts that research shows contribute to organizational effectiveness. For technical or professional role based competencies the language will be specific to the particular processes, tasks, and equipment.
Who should be involved in creating a competency model
It is important that a competency model is validated. For core and leadership competencies a good starting point is those competencies that flow from models of citizenship behaviors and leadership theories that have been shown by independent research to contribute to organizational effectiveness.
The wording must be relevant to staff in their day to day jobs and they should have the opportunity to provide feedback.
For functional competencies the use of subject matter experts is recommended. Senior members of staff who can identify the critical tasks in roles they are familiar with and the knowledge and skills needed for success. They will most likely need some help in writing the competency.
Key steps to define a competency
Wording of competencies must be unambiguous, observable and measurable so that interpretation and assessment bias is minimized.
Step 1 – Decide on the heading for your competency. For example under a Leadership Framework the competency ‘Relationship Building’.
A functional competency framework such as Project Management may have a top level competency ‘Manage Stakeholder Relationships’ with sub headings.
Step 2 – Decide on any subheadings for your competency – mostly applicable to functional competency frameworks. For example sub headings for ‘Manage Stakeholder Relationships’
- Identify and address stakeholder interests
- Manage stakeholder communications
- Manage team performance
- Facilitate external stakeholder participation
Step 3 – Compose a general description about the competency (if no subheading) or the competency subheading.
Example: Relationship Building – The ability and enthusiasm to identify and initiate working relationships, develop and maintain them for mutual benefit to support the organization.
Step 4 – Identify measurable (observable) standards for each competency heading or subheading.
- Identifies internal and external professional working relationships that will support job and organizational goals
- Develops working relationships by proactively ascertaining needs and negotiating mutual benefits
- Puts aside emotive personal opinions that could adversely affect working relationships
- Demonstrates professionalism with logical problem solving and evidence based judgments.
Standards should begin with a verb. They should be actions that can be observed. Thinking and understanding are not observable unless using knowledge test methods.
Avoid ambiguous adjectives such as ‘good’, ‘appropriate’ , ‘effective’ or adverbs such as ‘promptly’. These types of words require interpretation and will be interpreted differently by different people in different situations – so assessment will not be consistent.
Instead spell out what you mean by appropriate or effective or prompt. For example prompt could mean within 1 hour or within 1 business day.
Minimize the number of words. Keep statements clear, simple and unambiguous
How and when should competency models be used?
Competency models for values based behaviors and core competencies are often used as part of performance management systems. These competencies may be assessed annually by staff and their managers. There is a recent trend to include 360 feedback from colleagues – but there are some potential downsides to this.
- Colleagues will not rate accurately when assessments are linked to compensation decisions
- Assessments are likely to reflect the relationship as much as the competency being rated.
- Not all colleagues will be in a position to rate or comment on all the competency standards.
For functional competencies an annual or biannual assessment is the norm. There are a number of ways of achieving this depending on the competency framework;
- Knowledge tests for assessing understanding and knowledge of principles and rules
- Assessment by an expert or several experts
- Self assessment moderated by expert or manager
Assessments can be supported by provision of evidence of competence – case example, image etc.