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Re-assessing competency frameworks

Re-assessing competency frameworks

“I don't understand this competency model. It is not aligned with my needs.” This was a senior business stakeholder’s statement that I remember encountering approximately nine years ago. I have heard several versions of this statement since, in multiple contexts.


Competency models are frameworks used to define specific behaviors that are expected from employees to succeed at the workplace. Organizations typically invest large sums of money to create and deploy such competency models to help employees build their skillset. One would assume helping employees build skill sets with the help of competency models would positively impact business outcomes. However, that’s where the inherent fallacy of the idea lies. 


Let me explain what I mean.


Competency modeling uses language taken from a competency library that cuts across organizations, businesses, industries, geographies, demographics, etc. There simply does not exist a universal model that can capture all the nuances listed above and still deliver pertinent skilling and business value.  


Much of the research in the competency modeling and frameworks space happened between the 1970s and late 1990s, before the business world started experiencing tech-driven mass disruption and transformation. 


Competency models might have their usefulness in linear business models but are these models still relevant today? Conventionally, competency frameworks served the individual and organization well when there was more predictability. Today, we see the need to shift such approaches to embrace and navigate massive change and unrelenting ambiguity. I delve into that and more in this blog.

While competencies address how talent can grow and deliver greater value to the business, the exercise of building a competency model rarely involves the business or function leadership. Conventionally, it is a three way exchange between an external partner, the HR or People Leadership teams alongside the resident Learning and Development or Organizational Development teams. 


However, for organizations to ensure business value from such a process, they will need to first be aware of the challenges coming their way. Here is a quick overview of those challenges: 


  • Competency frameworks can very quickly end up becoming too unwieldy to deliver any real tangible results. There are functional competencies, foundational competencies, leadership competencies and more to consider. Additionally, one has to account for the maturity level of each competency (beginner, intermediate, advanced etc.) and a very complicated picture begins to emerge. Today, when agility determines survival, something to evaluate is do such structures truly enable organizations?


  • Competency frameworks, due to their generic nature and roots in a common library, can also serve up vague definitions. This makes it increasingly difficult to align learning and assess ROI. For instance, there is a world of difference in how an HR professional and a finance professional define the competency; ‘managing risk.’ Such unclear definitions lead to unclear learning and growth paths that deliver suboptimal returns on talent investments.


  • Time estimates on how long it takes to master a skill vary from 200 hours to 10,000 hours depending on pieces of literature and research. It becomes difficult for ‘active learners’ to follow through on such intensive learning schedules while delivering on core responsibilities.


  • Many organizations have been re-tooling their systems and processes to reflect new ways of hiring. A core tenet at the center of this movement is – employees deciding and dictating their own learning and growth journeys. This helps build an ecosystem focused on career paths that enables vertical, horizontal and diagonal shifts in career trajectories. However, the conventional competency model (which organizations usually define themselves) does not fit with this shift because it only works well with a (vertical) career trajectory – not empowering talent to achieve their truest potential.


  • Competency frameworks are expected to lend a common language to the organization. But, where organizations are composed of several units of differing maturity with distinct charters and goals to deliver, a singular definition of competencies simply won’t suffice. The aforementioned common language should be the organizational values – a set of stories, symbols and rituals that employees believe in and that binds them together. It is important to recognize that skills and competencies are dynamic.


Crafting and implementing new-age approaches


A recommendation would be to move away from a ‘one size fits all’ approach to a leaner, function-specific model of learning. A good starter-question to ask a business leader is, “In the next twelve months, what are the two or three competencies or skillsets that will help you deliver maximum value?”


This level of involvement from business leaders in the competency model building exercise usually elicits interesting findings such as “the model being too cumbersome for the organization to fully understand” or “not being able to see the direct link between competencies and the value they are meant to deliver.” Such findings traditionally depend on multiple factors including legacy, people maturity, context and more. And, the inputs while insightful can help define hyper personalized learning offerings with a clear focus on ROI and business impact.


We recommend seeking answers for questions listed below:


  • What skillsets are driving maximum value for the organization?

  • What adjacent skill sets can we build to continue to deliver value?

  • What will the talent proposition be to employees, functions, business units and the organization at large?

  • How will the talent proposition dovetail into our buy - build - borrow plans in the next three to five year horizon (as talent acquisition is expected to become more difficult)?


We recommend using the ‘SIP’ construct as a guide to develop the competency model based on the findings:


  • Simple: is it simple enough for me to explain (as a people enabler) to the employee. Is it simple enough for the business to understand?

  • Impactful: does it drive measurable impact in upskilling the talent quotient? How does it lead to driving business outcomes at large?

  • Personal: does it encompass the hopes, aspirations and dreams of employees and enable them to bring the fullest version of themselves to the workplace? Is the competency model tailored to the way employees want to learn versus how the organization wants them to learn? 


Our guidance to organizations going digital and wanting to create talent strategies that meet goals centered on sustainable growth and unlocking revenue is to focus on hiring, developing, retaining digital talent - the entire gamut. This should ideally happen while the organization is also reducing revenue at risk and accelerating realization of digital ambitions.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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