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Competency Model

3 Steps to simplify an existing Competency Model / Capability Framework

If you have a competency model or capability framework, and you’re ready to make it actionable, use these 3 steps to see if it needs to be simplified.  

  1. Is it easy to consume?  Do you have to read then re-read each statement to know what it means?  Or is it easy to read in the language of the people using it?  Too often, competency models are too academic.  It looks impressive, but the model itself cannot easily be consumed by the end user.  It should read as they speak. 

  2. Is it too much?  The most successful capability models have between 15 – 30 tasks, a reasonable number to assess against.  A competency model should describe what “great” looks like focused on what is most critical to success – not be a complete list of everything they do. 

  3. Are they really tasks?  Once you remove those not critical to success, see if you have some tasks that are really behavioral examples of other tasks.  If you can’t come up with behavioral examples (what it looks like to do that task at various levels of proficiency), then it’s a behavioral example of something else. (E.g., you don’t attend meetings well, rather actively participating in meetings might be an example of “Collaborate within and across functional teams”).  That is, tasks should list WHAT you do, and the examples describe HOW you do it.

Follow these simplification steps and you’ll maximum use and adoption of your competency model.

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How can we use competency models to develop a competency-based training program for supervisors?

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This question has 2 parts.  First relates to how to develop supervisor’s own skills, and the other is how to coach more effectively.  I’m breaking this into 2 parts.

1) How To Develop Supervisor’s Own Skills

Like any other role, a competency model for supervisors will focus on those tasks they need to perform to achieve their part of corporate strategy.  This likely includes a combination of people management and technical/functional tasks/skills.  Competency-based learning is where you map learning activities to the entire competency model.  You want to do this including activities across the 70-20-10 model (experiential-collaborative-formal).  Your Training Program will contain elements of these activities, but should enable people to consume ONLY the activities they need to close their skill gaps.  For example, if you build a traditional training program, maybe a 1-2 week formal course, and someone is capable in 80% of the tasks/skills being taught, that’s a huge waste of time and money, not to mention the supervisor’s own frustration of being stuck.  But if you create a training program across the 70-20-10 model that is sufficiently granular, so that people can do only the activities they NEED (to close their skill gaps), you will create not only the best training program, but you’ll make it very MANAGEABLE – you can update any element more easily over time without re-doing the entire program.

2) How To Coach More Effectively

If you are using competency models with the people that the supervisors are supervising, then through active participation in their team’s competency assessment, supervisors will see exactly what skill gaps each team member has.  This makes their job SO much easier.  No guesswork!  They know exactly where (the skill gap) and how to coach (the behaviors in the model).  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 supervisor 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.”  Rather, it reinforces a culture of learning, and creates an environment that makes it easy to execute.

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How do we keep the competency models current and in use by the organization?

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To keep competency models current, have a rhythm for periodically re-examining the model for changes.  Maybe 2x/year, or after a merger or acquisition, or product launch.  Much like the process for customizing behaviors in your model, we recommend sending out the model 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.

To keep competency models in use by the organization, you must make your models actionable.  That means getting each 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”.  Further, ensure whatever competency assessment and competency-based learning tool you choose supports making changes easily.  If it’s too difficult, it won’t happen, and then your competency model will be out of sync with strategy.

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How do you deal with “one-off” competency models?

Someone told me that they are about to begin competency modeling, but have a number of “one-off” roles – those with only one person in the role – and wanted to know how to handle them?

Well, people in those roles need competency models too.  There are 2 approaches we recommend.

If this role is fairly common, (e.g., an Accounts Receivable Specialist) it is easiest to use a standard competency model.  A good standard competency model will cover the tasks well, provide you with applicable behavioral examples, and a target level of proficiency.  While you may require a different level in your organization, or even slightly altered behaviors, it’s easy to make those small modifications.  We provide the model (tasks/skills, behavioral examples, target level) to customers in a template, and the individual and their manager spend about 1-2 hours reviewing and tailoring the model.  Their completed model then gets uploaded into the competency assessment system.  The cool part about this process is that if you have a bunch of one-off roles, all the reviewing and tailoring can be done concurrently without you.  So if you have 2 one-off roles or 20 one-off roles, it takes the same number of calendar days.

If this role is not common, then you need to determine if it’s worth building a model from scratch, using the process described in the ATD webinar and materials (here, participants include only that individual and their manager), OR you may find that there are tasks they do that are in other models, and you can piece together a new model from other models.  This is a similar approach that you’d do if it were a new role and there are no high performers.  That is, you determine what a role SHOULD be doing, and see if you have those tasks (with behaviors) in your competency inventory.  Then, similar to the standard model process, the individual and their manager would pick the target level of proficiency.

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How do you incorporate soft skills into a competency model that revolves around hard skills?

Remember that the competency model describes what people need to do in the job to execute their part of corporate strategy.  Usually that’s the hard skills.  But it’s the soft skills that determine how WELL you do the hard skills.

Therefore, we generally use the soft skills to differentiate levels of proficiency for a hard skill. 

For example, instead of having 3 skills in the model on analyzing and reporting out data, tailoring communication, and influencing, we have one skill “Analyze data and report findings”, where the behavioral examples are:

  • Level 3: Analyze data and generate a report

  • Level 4: Tailor communication of the analysis to the needs of the stakeholder to whom you’re presenting

  • Level 5: Make a recommendation based on the analysis and successfully influence leaders to adopt it

And these higher level examples might be reflected in many hard skills, perhaps without much change, since these are what separate good from great. 

A person could be able to influence others related to one hard skill, but struggle with influencing others related to a different hard skill.  This is not because they have a problem with influencing per se, (though it could) but rather because they don’t have the same credibility in that hard skill.

For more on how to do build these levels of behavior, see the free ATD webinar on creating a competency model in weeks.

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How can we keep the number of tasks to assess in our competency assessment manageable?

Once you’ve built your model, you may discover there are simply too many tasks for a reasonable assessment.  E.g. if you’ve identified more than 40 tasks, the assessment will simply take too long, and you’ll lose the intrinsic motivation you’re trying to create.  There is no hard or fast rule, 20 – 25 tasks is the max.

Think about it logically.  If it takes about 1 - 1.5 minutes to review behavioral examples and select a value (in a meaningful and thoughtful way), and you have 50 competencies, that’s 50-75 minutes.  Can you say “survey fatigue”?  On the other hand, if you select the 20-25 most critical, it should take ~30 minutes… a much more realistic request.  Plus, who can focus on that many skills and potential gaps?! 

During the model development process, we recommend the high performers identify which tasks are most critical to success to narrow the list.  But there’s also the aspect of strategic workforce planning – identifying skills the organization believes will differentiate it in the future… for example, some technology that will drive competitive advantage.  You want to be sure to call out that technology separately, so you can easily identify organizational experts.  Or you know that many people with a particular expertise are retiring, and you need to know which experts remain, so you can leverage them to create new experts (“nexperts”).  So a hybrid approach is best.

Then you iterate.  Launch the competency assessment, but remember, it’s always in beta.  Your competency models are not fixed in stone.  You put it out there, you get feedback, you get data, and you continue to iterate it to capture changes in strategy, in tools, in technology, and in the environment in which you operate, so you can always focus on the critical tasks and skills for that point in time.  It may be that your assessment includes 20 now, and next year, you remove 8 and add 10 new ones.

For more on creating a competency model quickly, see the free ATD webinar.

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How to differentiate between a job description and a competency model

There seems to be accelerated activity around redefining job descriptions and aligning job families, which is great.  The reason for this accelerated activity is that jobs have changed.  A job defined in the HR system 10 years ago probably doesn’t describe the job very well today.  So this seems to be a good opportunity to differentiate between job descriptions and role-based competency models.

  • A typical job description lists responsibilities, educational and experience requirements, as well as a list of the knowledge they should have, and which important interpersonal and technical skills they need. In other words, it is more of a responsibility narrative and a skills list.

  • A competency model focuses on what tasks/skills are critical to success in the role, what it looks like to be great at those tasks/skills, and what people should be able to DO with the knowledge acquired. In other words, it helps someone become self-aware and be able to DO their job.

  • A job description helps you screen resumes. A competency model helps you hire the right person.

  • A job description provides new employees with a general guideline on the things they will do. A competency model shows them how to be GREAT at the things they will do, and where they are now.

  • A job description helps create salary ranges and compare roles across organizations. A competency model describes what each person in their role needs to be able to do, specifically, in order to perform their part of YOUR corporate strategy.

You can pretty easily create a job description from a competency model, but it’s quite difficult to create a competency model from most job descriptions because they lack the granularity required. 

While your organization needs both, if you don’t have a role-based competency model, how can you motivate them to be great at the things you need them to do and upskill them when they can’t do it?

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Why changes in performance management benefit competency models

If you haven’t noticed, there is a major shift away from traditional performance management (looking back) to new growth mindset approaches for looking forward.  And the elimination of the performance appraisal is the best thing that ever happened to competency models! Why? Because now they can be used for professional development without implication.

If you are assessing yourself against a competency model in a performance management system, like it or no, it can be "used against you" for keeping score. Therefore, it is human nature to inflate your assessment given that the data is co-mingled in a system used for pay and promotion, resulting in a development plan that is not representative of what you need, and won't help you close your gaps.

When performance appraisals are replaced with regular real-time coaching and feedback, competency models can be used in a safe environment, without bias, to accurately assess skills and identify competency-based learning for closing any gaps.  They make it easier for managers to coach.  They drive agility – change in strategy and priorities can be quickly communicated and supported.  The more regularly competency models are used, the greater the likelihood that there are clear expectations, and regular progress being made for skill development and career planning.

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How can I use competency models/capability frameworks?

There are so many places you can use competency models within the organization and throughout the employee lifecycle.

For example:

  • Job descriptions
  • Recruiting/interviewing - ensure you’re recruiting the right skills
  • Onboarding (for setting expectations & communicating culture) - help each person on day one in a role know exactly what is expected of them, how they compare, and what they should begin focusing on; the behaviors in the model can communicate corporate culture, especially for those new to the company or business unit, highlighting what’s important
  • In-role development – closing skill gaps and developing toward both proficiency and mastery
  • Career planning - helping people prepare for the job they want next
  • Opportunities for development and growth is both one of the top 3 reasons people take a job, and it’s the also in the top 3 reasons why people leave… when they don’t exist.
  • Mentoring (creating task-based mentors) - build bench strength more quickly
  • Coaching - ensure that managers can coach without guesswork
  • Learning opportunity development – identify what you need that you don’t have
  • Strategic workforce planning – Compare the skills people have today with what you need tomorrow, and upskill or hire to close the gaps
  • Real needs assessment - develop the optimal L&D action plan

Here's an article that digs into more detail.

Want even more? Click here for all the detail in a white paper.

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How does knowledge fit into a competency model?

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A competency model focuses on what tasks/skills are critical to success in the role, what it looks like to be great at those tasks/skills, and what people should be able to DO with the required knowledge.  While a skill could be “Demonstrate knowledge of [something]”, it’s even better to describe the purpose of demonstrating that knowledge.

Here are some examples:

You don’t have knowledge of export control. Rather, the skill is "Apply proper export control procedures to shipments", which requires knowledge of expert control procedures, regulations and documentation.

You don’t have knowledge of solution components.  Rather, the skill is "Serve as a customer’s solution consultant in order to maximize solution impact", which requires you demonstrate knowledge of the solution components.  Your level of proficiency is determined by your level of knowledge, along with other behaviors, such as the ability to communicate at the appropriate level.

You don’t have knowledge of a technology.  Rather, you “Write software code with [that technology]”, which requires you apply knowledge of that technology.  And the level of proficiency with which you write code depends on that knowledge – coding simple functions, writing complex functions, or troubleshooting the code of others.

You don’t have product knowledge.  Rather, you have “Knowledge of Product XYZ such that I can perform the appropriate sales activities”.  You can do that by properly articulating product configuration options, detailed business case development, proper competitive positioning, and explaining how the product will help customers adjust to future trends.

So in summary, knowledge is an enabler of skill in a competency model.  It’s not the knowledge itself that is important, it’s what you can do DO with that knowledge that counts.

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How can competency models be used to drive innovation?

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So the CEO says that the next 2 years are all about innovation.  Great!  How can you get the organization to change?  You add a skill to every role’s competency model that demonstrates what innovation looks like to them.  That is, you need to identify, specifically, what someone should do to be innovative in their role – whether they are in product development, engineering, marketing, or finance.  You might also update other skills in their competency model with behaviors that demonstrative innovation as one moves from good to great.

Translating strategy to every person in every level of the business so it can be executed is hard when it’s abstract.  But imagine how much more tangible it could be. 

  • Develop disruptive technologies that meet unmet/unknown market needs (product development)
  • Develop financial models that support disruptive product ideas while minimizing risk (finance)
  • Identify new product applications/market opportunities for our existing solutions (marketing)

Remember that for each person, a competency model describes what it looks like to be great in their role.  For the organization, a competency model describes what each person in their role needs to do to execute their part of corporate strategy.  Therefore, to get the employee to embrace innovation as corporate strategy, show them specifically what it looks like to them.  Let them assess themselves against it, and develop toward it.  Give managers the ability to easily assess and coach their team members against it.  And the organization will change.

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How can you design a competency model to be open to frequent change?

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A competency model describes what someone in their role needs to be able to do to achieve their part of corporate strategy.  Often the “what” people have to be able to do in the job doesn’t change much, but the “how” people do it successfully does. 

In our competency model process, we identify the big buckets of things people need to be able to do, we unpack what they need to be able to do within them (the “what”), then we get to “how” they do it, and what separates good from great (see http://webcasts.td.org/webinar/2235).

Let’s use a product manager as an example.  Part of their job is identifying products to build/enhance.  That category or competency is the highest level.  It’s unlikely to change very often. 

Within that category, they need to be able to do various tasks or skills, such as identifying customer problems to solve, and then identifying products to create or enhance that solve those problems.  This might change more often than the category, but still not that often.

Now you get down to the “how” people do it at various levels of proficiency.  We call these task examples or behavioral examples.  It is required to show people how to get from good to great, and helps people objectively and consistently see where they are.  The “how”, and the target level of proficiency someone should have in their role to be able to achieve their part of corporate strategy, are the most likely components to change. 

We recommend that at least once a year, or after any major event such as a merger/acquisition, product or system launch, you bring together a group of 4-6 high performers to review the model and the details independently, submit feedback in advance which is aggregated for discussion, then come together for an hour session to discuss proposed changes.  Most likely, the behaviors and the target levels will change.  But it is this competency model design and this process that makes them easy to change over time.

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How many competency models can be completed within a 3 week period?

In the webinar on How To Create A Competency Model In Weeks, we talk about the fact that you can build a competency model in 3 weeks.  Someone asked, "How many positions can be completed within a 3 week period?  Only one?"

While the whole process takes 3 weeks, it is not linear.  If you look at the summary of events, you’ll see that there are days when you’re waiting for feedback that you could be doing other things.  It depends on how long it takes you to do each step, and your preference for work/life balance.  When we need to (and are willing to live with no work/life balance), we’ve done 8 models in 3 weeks.  I wouldn’t recommend anyone just starting with this process to do any more than 1.  Then as you get experience and you know what it will take, you can take on 3 in 3 weeks.

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Restructuring and new expectations relative to the timing of competency model development

Question from recent ATD webinar: If an organization has just gone through a restructure and client delivery expectations are being discovered, what would you recommend in terms of timing for conducting a JTA Workshop and building of a Competency Model?

There is no better time to develop a competency model so you can re-set the expectation of each person in their new role relative to client delivery requirements.  What’s unique is that you need to ensure everyone has foresight into new responsibilities, and you may need a leader of the new area to “oversee” the meeting to ensure the new strategy (for which the restructure took place) is being properly cascaded/interpreted. 

We’ve actually done this several times for customers for this exact purpose.  It’s definitely more often felt as pain by large companies than small.

 

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How often should competency models be reviewed and updated?

In a recent webinar, I was asked, “How often should competency models be reviewed and updated?”

Have a rhythm for periodically re-examining the model for changes.  Maybe 2x/year, or after a merger or acquisition, or product launch.  Much like the process for customizing behaviors in your model, we recommend sending out the model 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.

 

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Can competency models drive organizational agility? YES!

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Organizational agility is one of the hottest topics today.  I’m talking about moving people regularly from team to team, moving people where the work is (as demand changes), and moving people among projects or business units.  Competency models make organizational agility possible. 

In fact, one of my customers is doing something really innovative in the area of organizational agility – they are taking their employees and having them assess their skills “early in their careers” against the competencies for multiple departmental areas so that they can help guide them into the next roles where they can best be successful, or assign them temporarily where they can easily and quickly support increased demand.  Another customer is taking a similar approach from a workforce planning perspective, and identifying how many people could be easily moved from one role to another where they are most needed, and what gaps would have to be closed to do so.

If organizational agility is taking center stage in your company, explore how competency models can support that effort.

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What’s the difference between a low performer and a good performer who is simply not in the right role?

How do you interpret the difference between a low performer and someone who is simply not in the right spot for them.  How many of you have seen a good person in the wrong role?

Imagine if that person, or the organization, could use competency models to identify what skills people have and where they do best fit?  So instead of losing potentially really good people, you simply move them to where their skills and the competencies required best align. 

This is the power of competency models and a competency assessment (because you have to have the honest skills data).  If you know what people have to do to be great in their roles, and you know what skills people have, then you can perform that alignment seamlessly as those openings become available.  Think about how many good people could be saved, the amount of turnover savings you could achieve, and how much more engagement would grow naturally when people are in the right role.

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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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