Using Competency Models Effectively

Competency models are seemingly everywhere in HR processes. Organizations use competency models as the foundation for many different uses or processes such as performance management, 360 feedback, training, succession planning, career paths, and selection/promotion processes. Yet the quality of these competency models can vary dramatically, which impacts how effective or useful they actually are. As those who have worked with competency models know, competency model development is both an art and a science. So, what makes a competency model effective and useful? Here are some key considerations:

Solicit Stakeholder Input. As with most human resources processes, buy-in is critical. When individuals are asked to use yet another tool or process, they are likely to feel negatively about the process if they were not involved in the development or had input into the process. This can lead to resentment or resistance to their use. Employees need to feel that their voice was heard and that they played a role in its creation. Input can be solicited by including employees in focus groups to brainstorm content, or to provide ratings or review of a draft version of a competency model. Bottom line: Individuals who are impacted by the competency model should be able to clearly see their role reflected within the model.

Find your magic number. Many times, organizations want to throw everything in a competency model to make sure that it fully describes all of the elements of the position or positions to which it applies. While well-intended, this can result in unwieldy models. While there’s no perfect number – this varies from organization to organization – the goal is to have enough to capture the critical and core aspects of the positions to which the model applies, but not so many that providing feedback or ratings would be cumbersome. Think about which competencies are most critical to the job, and to your organization’s strategic priorities. A good target is usually around 8-12 competencies.

Use language that reflects your organization. Oftentimes, organizations use “standard” or off-the-shelf competency models without ensuring that they are relevant and meaningful to their specific purpose. These out-of-the-box or off-the-shelf competency models tend to be quite generic and do not reflect the language of the organization. This does not mean that “core competencies” that apply across a wide range of jobs shouldn’t be included. In fact, these competencies are often quite critical to a variety of jobs (e.g., teamwork, communication). However, it may be useful to think of these “standard” competencies as a starting point. They can be tailored to fit your organization, ensuring that the wording is relevant and speaks the language that is familiar with your culture.

Be flexible in your descriptions. At the other end of the spectrum, some competency models are so specific or include too much technical jargon that they quickly become outdated as new methods, processes, or technology are integrated into the roles.

Make them observable. You want your competencies to be used effectively and fairly in downstream processes, so you need to make sure they reflect qualities that can be observed and aren’t just based on assumptions or impressions. In instances where a personal characteristic may be important for a job (e.g., passion for the job, willingness to learn), it may be useful to identify the ways in which this quality is actually expressed at work and incorporate these examples.

Consider the future. Don’t just create competencies that reflect the work done today. Consider what competencies lead to the most successful performance. What competencies are most critical to the strategic vision of your organization? What competencies will be needed in the future? And finally, what competencies are needed to set you apart from the competition?

While by no means an exhaustive list, the above suggestions can provide some guidance on issues to consider when developing a competency model. It is important to keep in mind that each organization is unique and therefore, the model or models created should also be unique and reflect what it is that sets the organization apart.

Susy Kamin, PhD, is a consultant at OrgVitality. With over 10 years of experience, Susy applies the science of Industrial/Organizational psychology to help organizations identify and work through their workplaces issues and drive organizational success. Throughout her years of experience, Susy has worked closely with a wide range of clients from a variety of industries. She develops an easy rapport while maintaining a great focus on the strategic purpose of the project. Susy prides herself on understanding the needs of her clients, being able to ask the right questions, and helping them to identify the most pressing and impactful issues. Susy’s areas of expertise include employee surveys, assessment, performance management, competency modeling, and training and development.

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