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The Holy Grail: Using competency models to establish learning program impact

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It’s long been the holy grail in learning to be able to measure its impact.  There are many variables that impact business results and the process often seems daunting.

What if you could break it down into components that would make this easier?  What would that look like?

First, you’d need to know what skills someone needs to be able to perform to be successful.  A competency model describes what each person in their role needs to be able to do, specifically, in order to perform their part of corporate strategy.  So let’s say you have a competency model.

Next, you need a baseline.  This is where employees in a role assess themselves against the competency model the first time. 

To each person, a competency model paints a picture for what it looks like to be great in their role, and provides a roadmap to get there. As a result, it drives intrinsic motivation to mastery, so long as that model is actionable.  That means that each person must be able to easily access and assess themselves against their own model, and be provided with targeted recommendations for action. 

Therefore, the results of the assessment need to drive people to competency-based learning.  Once someone knows they have a gap, they are motivated to close it.  When they are presented with learning options that are specifically targeted to closing that gap, you are creating the best environment for learning transfer and impact to take place.  Each person will embrace the learning opportunity, because they believe it is relevant to them, their role, and their needs.  Sounds like adult learning theory, right?

Once they participate in these development opportunities (which they buy into, because they selected them based on gaps they themselves identified), they will re-assess against the competency model.  In a perfect world, this is quarterly, so that they are always thinking about their own development.

When you look at the assessment data over time, and you correlate that data with business metrics, you can measure improvement in both skills and results over time.  What’s more, you’ll know which skills are drivers of business results.  That is, if skills improve, but results do not, you may want to alter your competency model to focus on other skills that are more important to success.

This blueprint for measuring learning program impact may sound simplistic, but simplicity is what we as learning professionals need.  This will make it easy to both justify the business value of what we do, and also identify what changes we should make to our programs that aren’t producing the results we expect.

Learn how 3 different organizations, including ATD, applied this blueprint to learning programs and the resulting learning impact they established.  Join us in San Diego at ATD ICE on Sunday, May 6, at 11:45am EDT for the session called “7 Steps to Measure the Impact of Learning With a Competency Model”. 

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How do you manage competency models for roles that cut across a variety of functions?

In a recent webinar, I was asked, “How do you manage roles that cut across a variety of functions where some skills should be reflective in models cutting across different functions?  (e.g., Analyst in Finance and Analyst in HR)”

We actually just did something really similar about 6 months ago – 3 analyst roles.  We did each of the 3 roles independently using the normal process.  When we polished output from the first Task Workshop, we realized we had some skills (e.g., Use data visualization tools), that would span all roles.  When we got to workshop 2 and 3, we could ask, “Do you do these things too?” and leverage the first group’s work, while asking group 2 and then group 3 for specifics and what they believe separates good from great.  Then we synthesized the examples into one shared task.

 

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Using role language to create relevance

In a recent webinar, I was asked, "If everyone is using their own language to make the model relevant to a role, how do you create categories / competencies that transcend roles?"

If you’re building multiple models at one time (e.g., we sometimes do 6-8 models over a 4-5 wk period), you can leverage aggregated data sets to tweak categories before finalizing them.  But honestly, at the end of the day, your competency model should never be done.  If one group comes up with Administration and Reporting, and another group later comes up with Administration and Systems, then you likely recommend changing the Category to “Administration/Reporting/Systems” so it is consistent, and there is no impact to the users of the models. 

What’s important is communicating to users that they will always be evolving over time.

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4 Steps to increase usage of a capability/competency model

1)      Make it consumable.  By that I mean, do you have to read it, then re-read it to know what it means?  Or is it easy to read and in the language of the people using it so they can know what great looks like?  Often, we see a model that’s too academic.  It should read as people in the role speak.  It should state clearly what someone should be able to do.  When high performers are involved in building it, this happens naturally.  If not, this is when you need to bring them in for revisions.

2)      Right size it.  The most successful capability models have between 15 – 30 tasks. A capability model should describe what “great” looks like in the role – it’s not a complete task analysis of everything they do.  If your model includes tasks that are not critical to success in that role, eliminate them.

3)      Make it actionable.  That means getting the model off the PowerPoint, out of the spreadsheets and into people’s hands.  A competency model that isn’t easily accessible by those during the development process, and isn’t assessable such that one can measure their capabilities against it to identify and close gaps with competency-based learning is pretty worthless.  One of my customers calls this “operationalizing the blueprint”.

4)      Communicate the WIIFM!  Ensure learners and their managers understand what’s in it for them.  We provide our customers with toolkits containing messaging for change management.  They span getting started with the model, driving a culture of learning and continuous development, tips for maximum use, recognition messages, and competition drivers between teams.  Managers need to understand that NOT developing people is a risk. If people aren’t given the opportunity to grow, they’ll go somewhere they can.  So give your audience tools and templates that make it easy for them to learn a new routine. 

Follow these steps and you’ll increase both the usage and value of your capability model.

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How do you use competency models to motivate employees that may not be motivated by the organization’s mission?

A competency model defines what each person in their role needs to be able to do, specifically, in order to perform their part of corporate strategy.

But it also defines what it looks like to be great in that role.  If you look at the research, for example, Dan Pink’s research in DRIVE, it is a human characteristic to be motivated to mastery.  It’s why we work on our golf game or learn musical instruments for fun.  It’s why open source software and Wikipedia exist.

How you use competency models to motivate employees that may not be motivated by the organization’s mission is that you make the competency model accessible, and assessable.  Once someone sees what they “should” be able to do (in the competency model), and they assess themselves against it and become aware of any gaps, they want to fix it.  It is a totally different dynamic when you want to fix something, versus when someone else wants you to do it.  Intrinsic motivation is the most effective and creates the best environment for learning transfer to occur. 

If you motivate someone to be great in their job, and the competency model defines what they need to be able to do in order to perform their part of corporate strategy, then by default, using competency models will drive the organization’s mission, even if they are not motivated by the mission itself.

 

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Leverage the neuroscience of self-directed learning to clone your top performers

This article on the Neuroscience of Self-Directed Learning describes why we build competency models the way we do - the science behind it.   The idea is that you reverse engineer your best performers, so you can sort of, well, clone them.  They pursue the purpose, which is the corporate strategy… translated into what the organization needs them to do in their role.

During our Rapid JTA Workshop, once we identify the skills that should part of the model, we ask top performers the important question, "what did you do to learn how to do this?"  to identify their most valuable learning experiences. Once they are captured, our customers have the recipe to create similar experiences so non-top performers can try them.

 

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What process and tools are most effective at keeping competency-based learning sustainable?

For competency-based learning to be sustainable, the competency model must be agile.  Competency models describe what someone in a particular role should be able to do to perform their part of corporate strategy.  If your strategy is changing regularly (and I believe that for your organization to continue to survive, it will), then your competency model has to change/adapt as well.

Have a rhythm for periodically re-examining the model for changes.  Maybe 2x/year, or after a transformation, merger or acquisition, or product launch.  We recommend sending out the tasks and behavioral examples and targets in a Word document (track changes on) to 4 - 6 high performers, and a manager of people in that role.  Give them a few days to review and edit.  Consolidate edits and conduct a 1-2 hour virtual workshop to discuss and finalize updates.  Then make the updates within the competency assessment tool immediately.

Once you know that your competency model is current, look at the mapped learning opportunities for a particular task or competency that was updated and identify if changes are required.  The behavioral examples for a task map to the learning objectives of an activity.  If the former changes, there’s a good change that the latter will also need to change.  The good news is that if you have a tool where this mapping lives, and all the data is in one place, you can probably do this in one quick report.  Run it, selecting only the tasks that were updated, and compare the behaviors in the target proficiency level for each task with the learning objectives of those activities.  Any mismatch in learning objectives will tell you exactly what changes need to be made. 

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ATD Spotlight Member Brigitte Hyler Richerson on Competency Modeling and the SDLE

This is a reprint from the SEWI ATD Member Spotlight

Authored by ATD SEWI.

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Tell us a little about yourself.
I’m a Milwaukee native and I have 3 dogs, 2 daughters and 1 husband. The dogs are Mr. Coconut, Oreo and Butchy. My eldest daughter just graduated Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia and my youngest daughter will be entering 8th grade. I love Zumba and simply enjoying life. I like to spend as much time as I can with my family and very close friends. I have a natural thirst for learning and helping others be their best.

What is your hidden talent?
Being a consultant my hidden talent has to be the ability to make people comfortable and build trust. Another hidden talent, which sometimes works for me and other times it gets me in trouble, is being intuitive and strategic; being the person that’s always thinking ahead and looking down the road, rather than the person who is in the day-to-day. It can be a pro or con, but definitely a talent.

What attracted you to the field of Talent Development?
I was always the person, even at age 16 working at McDonald’s, who had the patience to train others, and also the one who could take complex information and make it easy to understand. Maybe because of that trust factor, people just liked learning from me. So I never went into it thinking I wanted to be in talent development. Originally I thought I was going to be an elementary classroom teacher. I’ve always had a passion for teaching, but then I found it was more at the adult level in a work setting, rather than pure academia, where I can help others succeed. I think as a consultant it’s my job to help everyone else look good. In the perfect world, I’m invisible - you don’t even know I’m there. I’m there to help my business partners and clients look great and reach their goals.

What is your favorite theory, tool, or process?
Right now, I’m in love with competency modeling. I developed this passion about a couple of years ago, when we were investing in new technology. I started to research working with business partners, trying to figure out where the skill deficits and skill gaps are, to make sure we are securing the best learning solutions. Technology training is extremely expensive, so you want to make sure you are getting the return on your investment. And that original concern has really turned into so much more now. We have been partnering with the company Skill Director, leveraging their tool, “The Self-directed Learning Engine”. Partnering with Skill Director allows me to take our learning strategies and build them around competency modeling. There are assessments for individuals, leaders, and peers. From these assessments they can see their skill gaps and create the right learning path to help them fill them. They have choices. They only take what they want to; they take what they need when they need it. I have seen positive results from it. I’ve actually seen the improvement. That has been what I’ve really been honing in on. What we are investing in and learning is supporting our overall corporate strategy.

How did you first learn about SEWI-ATD?
I’ve been a member since college as a student member at Alverno. It is one of those things I always stay close to. Even if I’m not necessarily engaged and going to meetings, I am still periodically checking out the website. I’m also a national member. In fact, I just bought a book, Learning for the Long Run. ATD is sort of the Holy Grail of learning and development. I’m impressed with how they stay current with how learning is changing. They do a very good job of looking at how the learning is reaching the various generations, how that looks, and learning more innovatively.

Just for fun, what are your top 3 most played songs on your iPod / iPhone?
Prince – “1999”, Bruno Mars – “24K Magic” and anything Zumba (I’m also a Zumba instructor)

Is there a question you wished you were asked during this interview?
If I could do it all over again and do something other than training, would I? And the answer is…No, I absolutely wouldn’t. I truly, truly love the space and love what I’m doing. It does take a while to get to a point in your career where you’re doing higher level work. It’s one of those jobs you gotta kiss a lot of frogs, but it’s so rewarding. It doesn’t feel like work for me, I absolutely love it. I think for anyone who really wants to get into this space, that’s the kind of passion you have to have.

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Does the application of competency models change based on industry?

Competency models describe what someone in a particular role should be able to do to perform their part of corporate strategy.  The application of competency models is how you make them actionable, and how you operationalize them. 

I’m a Mechanical Engineer.  I assess myself against the competency model for my job and identify a few skill gaps.  From my personalized learning plan (PLP), I identify what development actions I propose to take first.  My manager assesses me too – we discuss any perceptual differences and determine what I should focus on.  We review my proposed short term development plan and make any alterations.  My manager may identify a task-based mentor with whom I can work.  I start to execute the plan and my manager asks me about my progress regularly, referencing the behavioral examples in the competency model.  When I complete the items on my development plan, I re-assess myself to see what gaps remain.  And I repeat the continuous improvement process, together with my manager.

I’m a Retail Store Manager.  I assess myself against the competency model for my job and identify a few skill gaps.  The development actions (that is, the competency-based learning) in my PLP will be different than those proposed for the Mechanical Engineer, but the application is the same.

I’m a Radiology Technician.  I assess myself against the competency model for my job and identify a few skill gaps…

Well, you get the point.  The tactics may be different, the competency model will certainly be different, the environment in which people work may be different, but the application is the same. 

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How can competency models be used in higher education institutions?

There are a number of ways in which competency models can be used in higher education institutions. 

The first is by creating and using them to increase the skill proficiency for those who work in higher education:  development roles, purchasing, operations, and for professors. 

The second is for students participating in the education.  In this area, there is a tremendous opportunity to help better prepare students for post-education job roles.  One of the biggest criticisms of higher education is the perceived gap in readiness between graduates and the needs of business.  Imagine how that could change if students could assess their skills against the business role(s) they seek post-graduation.  They could then identify any skill gaps, and take steps to take classes or engage in activities to close those gaps while they are in school.  At the same time, the institution could view aggregated skill gaps and use them to (1) offer non-traditional activities designed to close gaps, (2) add activities to existing courses that close gaps, (3) identify demand for new classes (then develop and deliver them). 

The measure of success for an institution of higher education is the number of people they can put into jobs post-graduation. Using competency models tied to post-graduation roles to drive a successful person-job match can significantly improve success and close the gap in preparedness.

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What do you recommend about developing and using competency models in an association/non-profit/membership organization?

We've seen accelerated activity among associations over the last few years.

A competency model describes what it looks like to be great in your role. Part of the value proposition of industry associations is to help people get to “great”.  In addition to having in depth knowledge about what people need to be able to do in that industry now, associations also have significant insight about how the industry is changing and the skills that will be required in the future.  This puts associations in the perfect position to develop competency models.

In addition to having unique insight, associations typically provide development resources, which enable members to close identified gaps with competency-based learning.  Having a competency model enables the association to better organize and direct members to the best resources and make their competency model actionable.

When building a competency model for an association, because members span different companies with different job titles, you need to describe job roles more generally.  For example, the Association for Talent Development (ATD) has different tracks, such as Learning Management or Instructional Design.  Other associations, like the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC) use years of experience in the role to delineate between different models and target levels of proficiency. So it’s important to identify how many different roles you need to support, and if they need multiple models or only one model with different target levels of proficiency.

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What key factors need to be considered when creating or revising a sales competency model?

When you’re talking about a sales/commercial competency model, you need to consider whether the items in your model are truly the required skills.  Often people get hung up on including too much, and sales people, with their short attention spans, won’t be able to focus on everything.  So pick what is most important now, keeping in mind that your competency model should not be fixed/forever. It will evolve over time. 

If the most important business priority is getting new business, then have your competency model focus on the skills required to get new business (hunting).  If it is to focus on ensuring you are perceived as the most technically proficient provider, then be sure it includes making sure your sales team is technically proficient. 

Look for the 20 or so things that someone needs to be able to do well now, and then re-visit it once a year to make changes as your business strategy changes.

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What is the right number of competencies for roles?

This is one of the questions I’m asked most often.  The answer is there is no “right” number.  What I can say is that it depends on the nature of the role.  First, it is important to describe that a competency model is designed to identify what is most critical to success in a role.  If your model describes the technical and soft skills required to do that job, you want to be sure you cover it.  But as you can imagine, there are probably a hundred soft skills that could be appropriate.  So it’s important to pick the most important ones.

You also need to keep in mind the typical personality type of the person in that role.  Sales people typically have a shorter attention span than technical people.  So you’d want to have closer to 20 competencies in the Sales model and you could have 35 for a technical role. 

When we create a custom competency model, we right-size the number by ensuring that we capture the key things that a person in the role does to be successful.  And we generally use the soft skills to differentiate levels of proficiency.  For example, instead of having 3 skills on analyzing and reporting out data, tailoring communication, and influencing, we have one skill on analyzing and reporting out data, where level 4 might be the ability to tailor communication to the needs of the individual and level 5 might be making a recommendation and influencing others to it.  For more on how to do this, see the ATD webinar (http://webcasts.td.org/webinar/2235).

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How do you create a competency model for a role that is not clearly defined?

This is the perfect reason to have a competency model.  If it’s not clearly defined, how can the person in the role possibly perform it with any degree of confidence?  How can their manager help them to be successful if they don’t know what that person should be doing?  It’s a sure way to create stress, frustration, and ultimately turnover.

So to create a competency model, either use a custom competency model development process (http://webcasts.td.org/webinar/2235), or start with a standard model or models that reflect the primary functions of that role (http://webcasts.td.org/webinar/1809). The webcasts listed walk you through the process, step by step, and provide you with materials you can download.

 

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Who is most important before, during, and after training resulting from using a competency model?

(Question posted by participants in recent webinars)

There are 2 people who are most important: 

  1. The person who is doing the assessment that identified the need for training
  2. And their manager

By aligning the understanding that a skill gap exists, both the employee and the manager will be bought into the training.  The employee will be motivated to participate, and the manager will be comfortable with the time out of the job to attend.  After the training is over, the employee and the manager will be able to focus on applying the learning to the job, using the behavioral examples for the skills.  And this accelerates learning transfer.

 

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How would you assess compliance with a competency model?

(Question posted by participants in recent webinars)

You assess compliance by providing behavioral examples that help people to identify lack of compliance or lack of knowledge and be motivated to do something about it.  It’s not that different than assessing someone’s product knowledge.

Let’s take personal protective equipment as an example.  If I assess myself against a skill such as “Use personal protective equipment whenever required for my personal safety”, and I see a list of situations in the behavioral examples, I’d be able to select which set of examples best describes my use of PPE.  Not only would I potentially see what I’m not doing (that I should be doing), but I should become intrinsically motivated to close compliance gaps. 

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How do you create real buy-in for development from people managers?

Question: “Managers will often ask for training then become one of the road blocks to ensuring it happens and that training is followed up on. What advice do you have for creating an attitude of real buy-in from managers of people?”

There’s actually a great article from Tim Riesterer called “A skills deficiency of our own making” (http://ow.ly/HfAR306FitX) where he talks about managers becoming the road block.  “Faced with the contradictory pressures to drive the business or take time to hone their team’s skills, the majority of managers are opting to take a pass on the training, according to 56 percent of respondents.”

So you need to help them understand the impact. 

We have a customer toolkit just for managers to help them understand what’s in it for them – if employees are more proficient, then you’ll get greater results… but YOU must help them close those gaps.  They need both an education and tools to help them to change, quickly and easily.  Managers also need to understand that NOT developing people is a risk. If they aren’t given the opportunity to grow, they’ll go somewhere they can. 

Through active participation in their team’s competency assessment, managers will see exactly what gaps each person has.  This makes their job SO much easier.  No guesswork!  Plus, they can identify task-based mentors so team members can work together to build bench strength.  If a personalized learning plan for closing any gaps is automatically generated, it will be hard for a manager to say, “listen, I know you have gaps, and here’s a list of activities you can do to close them, but I’m not going to give you time to do that.”

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You don't know TRACK!

What’s that you say?  You don’t know TRACKs?

The Career Navigator, now known as Skill Tracker, has been an ATD staple for many years.  Not familiar with it?  It’s a tool designed to enable you to assess your skills for the Talent Development role you have now, or for the one you want next.  Simply put, Skill Tracker makes the ATD Competency Model actionable for you personally. 

The reason for the name change was simple:  Skill Tracker is designed to help you track your skills… and grow them.

Originally, the Career Navigator included 3 broad roles (Specialist, Manager and Executive) to enable you to assess your skills across the breadth of the talent development field.  With the evolution to Skill Tracker, ATD created five specialized tracks to allow you to assess your skills against a more focused set of competencies.  The new tracks include:

  • Instructional Designer
  • Training Specialist
  • Learning Manager
  • HR/OD Professional
  • Performance Consultant

The Advanced Practitioner track still allows you to assess your readiness across all areas of expertise.

Each of these TRACKs enables you to self-assess on a very focused set of skills.  Behavioral examples make it easy for you to assess consistently and accurately – this is just for you.

Once you’ve finished your assessment, you can see your skill gaps and strengths.  Most importantly, for each of your gaps, you’ll be presented with a personalized learning plan of targeted ATD learning opportunities to help you close them.  Now you know exactly what you can do to improve your proficiency in your current role.

But don’t stop there!  Hold yourself accountable for your own professional development.  Select which activity or activities you want to pursue first and add them to your Development Plan.  Add other activities across the 70-20-10 spectrum, including those offered by your organization, or others in the public domain.  Then work your plan and re-assess to see what gaps remain – your own continuous improvement process.  Skills are currency – and ATD is helping you get them.  The creation and execution of your Development Plan is actually the most important part.

You can also leverage TRACKs to prepare for your next role.  Use Career Planning to pick the TRACK or TRACKs you might want to pursue next, get a personalized learning plan for that TRACK, and add those activities to your Development Plan.  Now you’ve got a great story to tell if you’re interviewing for that job.

Over time, your Development Plan will be your professional development learning snapshot.  And you’ll have more skills… and more professional currency.

If you want to learn more about Skill Tracker, come to the ATD ICE session on Tuesday, May 23 at 10 am in the Career Center.

But don’t wait!  Check out new ATD Skill Tracker (td.org/skilltracker) because now, you know TRACKs!

 

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How can I use competency models to measure the impact of learning?

It's this Monday at the ATD International Conference in Atlanta!

This year, I’m teaming up with Jennifer Naughton from ATD, Dr. Bill Rothwell and Pat Macko from Penn State to discuss a question I’m asked all the time, “How can I use competency models to measure the impact of my learning programs?”  In this session, we’ll show you how 3 different organizations, including ATD, applied a blueprint to learning programs and the resulting learning impact they established. 

Be sure to come see it:  M314 - The Holy Grail: Using Competency Models to Establish Learning Program Impact.  Mon, May 22 | 4:30 PM - 5:30 PM | B406

http://atd2017.mapyourshow.com/7_0/sessions/session-details.cfm?ScheduleID=240

 

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How do you get people bought into the idea that training is beneficial?

One person in a recent webinar asked, “How do you get people bought into the idea that training is beneficial? Our employees hate training and would rather not participate. “

THIS is exactly what competency-based, self-directed learning is designed to overcome.  Why do you think your employees hate training?  Most likely, it’s because they are told to do it – they are not identifying the need for training themselves.  This is adult learning theory, right?  If it’s not relevant to my job and relevant to my needs, I’m going to tune out. 

How do we make it relevant?  Have them self-assess against the competency model for their job, and recommend activities that are targeted to skill gaps, or areas in which they want to improve aspirationally.  Then, they buy into it.  Then, they will embrace training because they own it.

 

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