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Competency Model

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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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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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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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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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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