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Create a Competency Model

How to create a competency model that links individual needs to business goals

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I get asked this question, about how to create a competency model that links individual needs to business goals quite often.

Imagine you’re a CEO of a company who has decided the business goal is to develop a flying car.

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Everyone in the company would have an intermediary goal that if accomplished, would lead to the accomplishment of the business goal.  As the goals get translated lower and lower, they become more specialized, until they get to a specific person performing a specific role, for example, an R&D engineer.  To ensure that each R&D engineer can help the company, the company has to define what tasks and skills this person must be able to do really well.  And this is the competency model for this job. 

I like to use the description that a competency model describes what it looks like to be great in a role.

Not everything a person does in a role should be part of the competency model.  For example, any engineer must be able to perform engineering design functions, but a great engineer can work with other R&D engineers to troubleshoot design issues before they reach manufacturing.  What gets included in the competency model should change with strategy.  For the flying car, knowledge of aerodynamics and new propulsion systems may take precedence over other competencies previously in the model.

Now, an R&D engineer assessing their own skills may identify skill gaps relative to the current business goals, so their personalized learning plan focuses on development that helps them achieve their part of the business goal.

That is what the competency model does for you.The competency model identifies what someone in a role needs to do to accomplish organizational strategy.So, if you follow this approach, each individual’s self-directed learning will be perfectly aligned with organizational goals.

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How to create a competency model people actually use

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A critical success factor in competency model/capability model development is the ability to have the model written in the language of those who will be using it.  It should NOT be in HR/Learning terms. 

1)      Take a step back and look at the model from a holistic approach.  Is it easy to consume?  By that I mean, do you have to read it, then re-read it to know what it means?  Or is it in “easy to read” language – the language of the people using it so they can know what great looks like?  Often we see a good capability model written in a way that is very academic.  The person who is writing it looks very smart, but the capability model itself cannot easily be consumed by the end user.  It should read as people in that role speak.  It should state clearly what someone should be able to do. 

2)      Look at the model from a volume check.  We used to see models between 25 and 40 skills.  Now they trend toward 15-25. 

  • That translates into about 15-25 minutes to perform an assessment. 

  • Keep in mind a manager’s participation when considering volume – if they average 10 direct reports and they are assessing team members, do the math. 

  • A competency model should describe what “great” looks like – what is critical to success in the role – not be a complete task analysis of everything they do. 

3)      Look at the model as a professional in that role.  Are there things in it that are extraneous?  For example, do they include tasks that people may do, but are not critical to success in that role or may not be done by some at all?  Sales Transformation and Enablement guru @Mike_Kunkle recommends focusing on what the top 20% do.  Ignore the things they don’t do, which is part of what sets them apart.

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How do you create a competency model that people buy into?

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The answer is that you have to include people in that role in the process of building the competency model.  In this way, it is their model – by them, for their peers.

We actually had this situation recently, where the leaders of a role where a competency model was going to be developed were really pushing back.  They felt like they already had a great job description, detailed procedures, and a rich qualification program that everyone grasped and bought into. 

After a little influencing, high performers were selected for inclusion in the Rapid Job Analysis Workshop (the first step in our competency model development process).  And while you could see from some of the participants’ body language that initially there was some resistance, in less than an hour, the resistance was gone. Participants understood why this process was needed.  This continued through their engagement in refining the required behavioral examples of each task and skill.

The client partner who was leading this process summed it up best – while the technical and functional requirements of the job were known to an extent, they had never been documented to level of granularity.  The new competency model focused on what could be performed with the knowledge acquired, rather than the knowledge itself.  What’s more, while the roles were quite sophisticated technically, what separated good from great were the soft skills/core skills.  

In summary, by including high performers in the process of developing the competency model, and communicating how it was created during the process of making it actionable, you can ensure that those who are in the role will buy in.   You don’t build the model – they do.

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How do we make competency model development less scary?

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How do we make competency model development less scary? By applying an agile methodology to do it.  If you make competency model a 6 month or year-long process, with the speed of change, the model could be outdated before you even release it.  Plus, you’ll have wasted months when you could be using it. 

So here’s a synopsis of how we streamline the process. 

1) We start with a one day workshop (in person or virtual) with 4 - 6 high performers in a particular role.  This is a brainstorming process.  Together we identify those skills and tasks high performers do that are important and critical to success. This step provides us with input for the remaining steps in the process.

2) Next, for each task, we create draft task/behavioral examples, provide them to the high performers for review/editing (about 2 hrs of pre-work), and conduct a virtual workshop (3 hours) to consolidate edits.

These examples provide each person in that role with a road map for how to be great and what "great" looks like. Each example identifies the behaviors that would be exhibited by someone performing that skill or task at various proficiency levels.  Where the task is the “what”, the example is the “how”.  The examples communicate and iterate best practices.  And they ensure consistent and objective assessment and self-awareness can occur. It is through self-awareness that a person becomes intrinsically motivated to change.

3) We define the minimum proficiency required for each skill or task. This is usually performed independently of the high performers, though you may get their validation through a one hour meeting.

Total stakeholder time:  Approximately 10-11 hrs

Total duration of model creation:  Approximately 3 weeks

Can you see how that feels less scary, and really achievable to stakeholders?

Learn more:  https://skilldirector.com/how-to-build-competency-models and https://webcasts.td.org/webinar/2644

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How can I make a long competency model manageable?

Photo by  Matt Artz  on  Unsplash

Photo by Matt Artz on Unsplash

Once you’ve built your competency model, perhaps by using the method we describe in this ATD webinar with these resources, you may discover there are simply too many tasks and competencies for a reasonable competency assessment.  An assessment typically a person 1 minute per task and keeping it less than 30 minutes is a best practice. Too long and you’ll lose the intrinsic motivation you’re trying to create.  There is no hard or fast rule, but most of our customers have between 15 – 30 tasks against which people assess. 

 During the model development process, we recommend that you ask the high performers to identify which of those things they do really separate good from great.  That’s the easiest way to identify the critical few.  However, there is another aspect that goes beyond what the high performers provide.  This has to do with strategic workforce planning and identifying those skills that the organization believes will differentiate it in the future, or those skills which are changing or becoming more critical.   

  • For example, there may be a particular technology that will drive competitive advantage, and 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”). 

  • Then there are the fourth industrial revolution (future of work) skills which are proving so important today.  Things like data analysis, critical thinking, dealing with ambiguity and change, learning agility, influencing, and collaboration.  You want to be sure that these are considered when creating the model, and that those identified as relevant remain a focus.

  • Consider that if there are things in the model that would have precluded them from getting them hired for this role, if they didn’t have that capability, perhaps they could be excluded.  Or frame what remains together with future of work skills.

 A hybrid approach works 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 (typically annually or biannually) 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 competencies for that point in time.

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How do I quickly create competency models using rapid job analysis for roles that exist across multiple business units?

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When the roles you are defining are similar across business units, (e.g., sales, engineers, finance, risk analysts), there are 2 ways you can choose to build the model. You could include people across business units in the workshops where you create the competency models. Or you could create the model with one business unit, and then validate it with the other business units, providing them with the opportunity to customize the tasks and/or behavioral examples. We’ve done it both ways.

If time is of the essence, the build and validate approach may be faster and easier. If the company culture has business units at odds, then being more inclusive at the front end is the way to go.  A middle ground is to have the other business units validate the output of the Rapid Job Analysis workshop, and then participate in the Task Example editing and workshop.

 

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How to create a competency model for those who are not employees

What if the group you are developing competencies for are not employees but rather a large group of stakeholders? Are there any modifications needed to the competency development process?

Let’s assume the stakeholders are business partners – perhaps channel partners or part of the supply chain.  The process to develop the competency model will be the same, but identifying who to participate (who is a high performer) could be more difficult.  The other complexity, which we also experience when building models for associations, is that not everyone does things the same way or uses the same system.  So while the tasks people need to be able to do to be competent are likely the same, when writing behavioral examples, you’ll want to take care to not be too specific to one stakeholder’s environment.  For example, use “ERP system” instead of the specific brand name of an ERP provider. 

 When letting people assess against that model, consider making the tasks all optional, so that those who don’t have to do that task in their organization can skip it or select N/A.

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What’s the difference between a Competency Model and Competency-Based Learning for a job role and job family?

If you create a model for a job family, or several similar roles, including entry level individual contributor (IC) to director, they might share tasks but require different levels of proficiency.   

  • As an example, if you built a sales model, an Account Executive might have to develop winning proposals at a level 3 – do it well and independently. 

  • A Pre-Sales person may have to be a level 2, as they are in a supporting role and participate in the process but don’t need to do it independently.

  • A Sales Manager needs to be able to coach and mentor those building it, so they need to be a level 4.

  • And the Sales VP needs to be able to innovate the proposal process or define the proposal strategy, so they need to be at a level 5.

Some tasks may be unique, for example, only those who manage others will have people mgmt tasks.  And because a competency model shouldn’t contain everything someone should do, but rather focus on “what is critical to success in that role”, the people management tasks may displace some IC tasks for managers/directors.

Whether a role has its own model or is part of a shared model varies by organization.  If you have multiple levels that do the same thing but with different scope (e.g., one role manages a site, one a region, one a country), it is likely a job family, or even one role (with behavioral examples written to accommodate variations in scope). 

When it comes to competency-based learning, you will likely recommend learning that will get someone to their target level (meaning the learning objectives help them perform the behaviors in that level).  Using the previous example, you’d recommend an activity that would get a Pre-Sales person to a level 2 or even a level 3.  But for the Sales VP, you’d recommend a different activity to get them to a level 5.

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What sequence of activities occur during the creation of a competency model?

During the competency model development process, you start by identifying the categories or big buckets of things that someone in a job role does, and then you unpack each category to identify the tasks within it.   This is “WHAT” someone in that role needs to do.  Once you have the tasks, you identify what it looks like to perform that task at various levels of proficiency.  This is “HOW” someone would do it.  Writing the behavioral examples is the longest part of the process.

Lastly, you identify the target level of proficiency, which is how you know whether a skill gap exists.  

If you are performing the process for a job family, you may have some jobs that don't perform a particular task at all, and others that overlap with varying levels of proficiency.

For example, a senior software developer and an entry level developer may share the need to “program in some language”.  However, the entry level person needs to be a Level 3 and the senior person needs to be a Level 4. Additionally, the senior software developer may have some team management responsibilities that an entry level person wouldn't have.

Here's a link to a free ATD webinar next month (October 18) with all the detail on that process.

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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 tie learning to competencies for different job roles?

Question from Competency-Based Learning webinar:  How do you tie learning to competencies within every level of your organization (e.g. Asst. PM, PM, Sr. PM, Program Mgr, Director, etc.)

Answer: Follow the procedure in the Competency-Based Learning webinar and materials for each job role. 

Remember that you are mapping the learning objective of an activity to the target level of proficiency for a task in the job role’s competency model.  If I need to do level 3 behaviors, give me an activity that enables me to be able to do them.  If I need to do level 4 behaviors, give me an activity that will get me there.

For shared tasks, the mapped content may be the same, or they may be different.  If a Project Manager needs to be a level 3 in some task, and a Program Manager needs to be a level 4 in that task, you may wish to only recommend learning that will get each to their target proficiency.  Or, it may be that one activity can get someone as high as a level 4, and therefore you can recommend that same competency-based learning to people in both roles. 

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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 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 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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