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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.

2017-07 Brigitte's spotlight.png

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.

News / Events / Blog Posts | SkillDirector

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. 

woman with safety goggles 1.jpg
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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!


News / Events / Blog Posts | SkillDirector

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



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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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How do I create competency models that address needs of different business units with shared development goals?

Think of this process as a many to many relationship.  On the one side, you have an inventory of skills, and on the other side you have an inventory of learning opportunities across the 70-20-10 spectrum.  One skill may be required by multiple roles across different business units.  One learning opportunity may close the gap of many skills across many different roles.  It is the competency model process that identifies which skills best define a job role.  And it is the competency-based learning mapping process which defines which of the learning opportunities are best suited to close a specific skill gap for a job role.


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Does experience = competence?

I hate to answer a question with a question, but do you know anyone who has done something for a long time, like 15 years, and is still not someone you’d call a subject matter expert?  So experience does not equal competence.  And in fact, it’s one of the questions of our time.  Millennials want to come into a company and be able to move up quickly.  They are generally willing to put in the work it takes to learn the skills, assuming they are provided with a competency model for that job that shows them what they are.  So they want competence without much experience.  And I believe they can get it. If you don’t believe me, I’m sure you can talk to Mark Zuckerberg, or one of the other wildly successful entrepreneurs who were barely 21. 

For more on these trends, check out the webinar “Why Employees Taking Charge Of Their Learning Is Good For You.” http://webcasts.td.org/webinar/1808 or read a white paper on that topic:  http://skilldirector.com/employees-take-charge-paper

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How do you address the concern of a competency assessment being used for performance management?

(Question posted by participants in recent webinars)

We strongly recommend that you do not mix a competency assessment for self-directed learning and career planning with TRADITIONAL performance management. 

If your organization is still doing traditional annual performance appraisals, and you try to use competency assessment data against people, you will eliminate all future honesty, and any data you get will be flawed.  There will be no hope for doing this right in the future.  You must keep this process for growth and development – NOT for keeping score. 

Therefore, don’t do a competency assessment right before your annual review.  Do it AFTERWARDS, which enables people to get granular about what their actual skill gaps are and what their first development plan should be… specifically.  Then they will be working their plan, re-assessing, and creating a new plan, iteratively closing their gaps all year long.  By the time they get to the next annual review, they actually WILL be better, because they will have been actively taking charge of their learning throughout the year.

However, if you’ve dumped the annual performance appraisal and your organization’s performance management is based on regular touch points related to coaching and development, then the competency assessment can provide information and structure for those conversations.


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How do I make my competency model more results-oriented? How do I ensure the competency model reflects what the business actually needs and values?

(Question posted by participants in recent webinars)

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.  If your competency model does that, without extraneous detail, then your competency model will be result-oriented, in fact, tied directly to corporate objectives and needs. 

And it should also reflect business values – because you are selecting skills that identify what that individual needs to do to be successful.  If your organization values customer focus above all else, then it is likely that every job in the company will have some skill in their model that reflects customer focus – internal or external.


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Can we get too detailed in a competency model?

(Question posted by participants in recent webinars)

Of course.  It's easy to get too detailed in a competency model.  If you look at a list of soft skills, I’m sure they would apply to almost every job (written communication, problem solving, teamwork, etc.).  A competency model is what best defines success in this role.  That’s why with a standard competency model, you might start with 40 or 50 skills and you select 20 that are appropriate for this role in your organization. 

Remember that the competency model needs to be actionable.  If you have 50 skills in a model and I have 10 skill gaps, where do I focus?  Narrowing to those tasks/skills that are most critical to success ensures that you can help people focus on where it will make the biggest impact on the organization’s strategy and objectives.

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