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Devil's Advocate: Competencies in Selection, Appraisal and Development

This is the second section of a two-part article. The first reviewed some of the purposes for which competency frameworks are used (see November Newsletter) This second article discusses how competency frameworks are developed.
Classic approaches and their limitations
The classic approach to developing competencies is to select a sample of outstanding performers in a given role and a comparison group of average or mediocre performers. Each individual is interviewed in depth using the Behavioural Event interview (BEI) and statistically meaningful differences between the two groups shape the competency model. Because the competencies are researched with some rigour, they can claim to have predictive validity - that is they will help identify those who will perform well in the target role.
Using this methodology, the development of a profile can take months, especially where it must be validated across country or organisational boundaries. In a stable environment this can be worthwhile as the profile remains valid over time, but in situations of rapid change and shifting job boundaries, profiles can be out of date even before they are published. Nor are traditional methodologies well adapted to analysing future organisational requirements. Organisations typically have a need to prepare their people to manage future uncertainty, not simply to replicate past excellence.

The Digital experience
Digital Equipment Corporation, where I worked for eleven years, was a pioneer in the 1980s in using competencies to integrate its Human Resource Development Processes. Before long, though, the need to select and develop people for future requirements, and to constantly revisit existing competency models in the light of rapid change, forced a review of the methodology.
In particular there was a need to accelerate the development of profiles and to flex generic profiles to meet the specific needs of different groups which each configured jobs slightly differently.
The first innovation was to link the competencies, not to jobs, but to areas of activity e.g. managing people, managing customer relationships. This helped in several ways:

  • Firstly it became much easier to adapt the profile more specifically to different roles. For example, whilst all Account Managers managed customer relationships, only some of them managed people. By linking the competency requirements to each area of activity it was easy to see how the profile might be adapted to different situations.
  • Secondly, by documenting what the role involved, it became easier to track when changes to the work made a review of the competencies necessary. Far too many organisational practices outlive their relevance simply because the underpinning rationale has been lost from view.
  • A bonus was to find that managers who had been somewhat alienated by the 'HR speak' of competencies, could make much more sense (and use) of them once they could see the link between the competencies and task.
    The other major change was to use a workshop format to gather and map the data. Not only did this help gather a lot of data quickly, it provided a forum for discussing and reconciling different views. The involvement of those who will be using the profile is key to building consensus, understanding and ownership. In this respect the process of developing a profile is almost as important as the end product.
    Balancing rigour with pragmatism
    Of course, not every competency profile currently in use has been developed using BEI. Some companies have based their competencies on the company's values, for example. Also, because competency models may look quite similar from company to company, some have simply adapted a generic model.
    In a way this takes us back to where we started - before competencies became commonplace, it was often a few HR people sitting round a table who decided what the 'person profile' should be for a given job, or what criteria should be included on an appraisal form. If BEI proves impractical, this does not dispense with the need to gather the best available data. After all, the decisions about who to hire, who to promote and what development to invest in are important ones.

    What is needed then is a methodology that:

  • Develops 'future-proofed' competency models for today's fluid and flexible organisations
  • HR departments can learn to use, to create and update profiles, without ongoing dependence on an outside consultant
  • Creates profiles that are understood and owned by those who will use them
  • Makes explicit the link between performance of key work activities and behavioural competencies
  • Acknowledges that competencies are not the whole picture (see November's article), and so integrates relevant skill, knowledge and experience.

    If you are embarking upon a competency development project in your organisation and want to discuss how HBC's fast and flexible approach can meet your needs please contact us HBC is based in Reading, UK.

    Coming Soon
    Watch out next month for news of two exciting Web-based Executive Development tools.

    Published on HBC Web-site 01/2000

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