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Competencies: The next generation

Patricia A McLaganTraining & Development. Alexandria: May 1997. Vol. 51, Iss. 5;  pg. 40, 8 pgs


Abstract (Article Summary)

Competencies include: 1. task competencies, 2. result competencies, 3. output competencies, 4. knowledge, skills, and attitude competencies, 5. super-performer differentiators, and 5. attribute bundles. The most common types of competency in use are the task competency and the superior-performance differentiator. The most common uses for competency models in the US are assessment, selection, promotion, and training and development.

Full Text (4314   words)

Copyright American Society for Training and Development May 1997



It's a new world of work no more jobs and new competency systems that link work, people, and strategy.




All of a sudden, it seems, there is a surge of interest in competencies-a global surge. In the United States, the emphasis is on leadership competencies-driven, perhaps, by concems about losing world-class status.

Other countries in the global race are experiencing gaps created by isolation, totalitarianism, and legal constraints on growth and the use of resources-for example, the constraints of apartheid in South Africa. In such countries, the interest is less in leadership competence (although they have major needs in that area) and more in developing the essential technical skills to compete.

It makes sense that organizations are beginning to care about their "human competence base" and how it's developing. Their market value relies increasingly on intangibles: knowledge, loyal customers, and other expressions of human capital. Until now, most organizations have focused on how they acquired monetary capital and how their hard assets were deployed. Now, the wealth of businesses, and nations, depends on the knowledge and skills of their people.

Where we are and where we've been

As a concept, competencies have been around for centuries. We can trace them to the medieval guilds, in which apprentices learned skills by working with a master. More recently, educators have created reams of knowledge and skills to guide curriculum development. For years, people have been building and revising taxonomies of objectives for the cognitive, behavioral, and affective domain- knowledge, skills, and attitudes (KSAs). However, there are many different definitions and approaches. To make an appropriate choice among them, organizations and the people in them responsible for guiding the definition, acquisition, deployment, development, and endurance of human competence must be aware of the differences-and the advantages and disadvantages-of each approach.

Several key questions can help sort it all out.

*What does competency mean?

*I How are competencies organized?

* How detailed are competency definitions?

* How are competencies selected with or without models?

* Who does the work of competency identification and model development?

* How long does that take?

* What are competencies used for?

* What is the source of validity?

What is a competency?

In the job world, competency has many meanings. Some definitions relate to the work-tasks, results, and outputs. Others describe the characteristics of the people doing the work-knowledge, skills, and attitudes (also values, orientations, and commitments). A hybrid often mixes those two kinds of definitions into what I call, "an attribute bundle."

Task competencies. For some people, a job's tasks and activities are competencies. Many job descriptions and approaches are task-oriented, even when the tasks aren't called competencies. The task view is a result of many years of breaking work down into manageable activities and procedures in order to lessen the amount of thinking needed, to eliminate performance variability, and to spread best practices.

Result competencies. This type of competency is rarer than task competencies. Adding the words ability to to a result (such as, the ability to produce profits) creates what some people call a competency.

Output competencies. An output is something that a person or team produces, provides, or delivers. Adding ability to to an output makes it a competency in some people's view.

Knowledge, skills, and attitude competencies. In this case, subject matter (such as, engineering knowledge); process abilities (such as, listening skills); and attitudes, values, orientations, and commitments (such as, integrity and achievement) are called competencies.

Superior-performer differentiators.

These are competencies that superior performers have and other workers don't. These competencies usually focus on people's abilities with roots in intelligence and personality. Differentiators are popular in the competency world because many companies are interested in using competency models in selection and succession. So, they search for characteristics that distinguish qualified from unqualified candidates. Some training applications also take this stance.

Attribute bundles. A bundle of attributes or attribute bundle is a label for a collection of knowledge, skills, and attitudes-or tasks, outputs, and results. This hybrid form of competency typically uses such terms as leadership, problem solving, and decision making. Those areas contain several elements.

For example, problem solving is made up of some knowledge (such as, technical know-how and problemsolving techniques); some skills (such as, analysis skills and lateral thinking); and some attitudes, values, orientations, and commitments (such as, achievement and integrity). In other words, problem solving is a competency bundle whose knowledge and skills (and other attributes) could appear in many other bundles.

The most common types of competency in use are the task competency and the superior-performer differentiator. The most common focus for competency analysis is a job. Typically, the goal is to produce the ideal profile for a salesperson, supervisor, or some other type of employee.

But several questions arise. Is a task-focused competency best? Should we be developing models for the future based on superior performers of the past? Is a job the best basis for a work analysis and model? Let's table those questions until we plow through a bit more of the current state of practice.

How detailed?

For the moment, let's assume that any of the previous competency definitions is acceptable. Then, how detailed should the definitions be? To answer that, it's necessary to address how we further define each competency.

Competency as tasks. We can divide a competency into subtasks and provide a range of situations in which the task will be done. For example, in the task, sweeping a floor, a subtask could be choosing the appropriate broom. A sub-subtask could be rating the benefits of broom X and broom Y, and choosing which broom has the most benefits for the application.

Another subtask could be sweeping in the direction of the air current. A sub-subtask could be testing the air current. And so on.

Competencies as results. These kinds of competencies can be broken into subcomponents, cascaded so that the total contribution to subresults equals the desired grand result.

For example, the grand result could be to deliver a 15 percent profit (up from 10 percent). The subresults could be to increase the margin on product X from 60 to 80 percent, to increase staff and line productivity ratios from 1/200 to 1/300, and to implement an empowerment program to achieve 10 percent greater productivity per person in the manufacturing operation.

Competencies as outputs. To arrive at these competencies, it's necessary to identify which customers (internal and external) receive the outputs and either divide the outputs into subcomponents or create quality requirements and standards to define them further. An output could be a product design. The suboutputs could be the engineering blueprint, the customer requirements, and a visual replica of the product.

The quality requirements for a product design could be meets customer requirements * ensures long-term profits

* uses state-of-theart technology.

The situations could range from complex (such as, a multicomponent product sensitive to environmental conditions that will be used in dangerous situations) to simple (such as, a single-component product with no safety or environmental implications).

Competencies as knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Knowledgeable people infer from behavior or strategic requirements what human capabilities underlie high performance. For these competencies, it's necessary to identify the knowledge, skills, and attitudes (also values, orientations, and commitments) for success and give sample behaviors or tests as evidence they exist.

A commitment could be "achievement." Sample behaviors could include

* setting stretch, but achievable, goals

* finding ways to deal with seemingly insurmountable problems in order to achieve a goal

* using goals to prioritize daily work.

A test could be a ring toss to see how realistic the target goal is-setting the spindle just beyond sure success, but not as far as probable failure.

Competencies as attribute bundles. The process for knowledge, skill, and attitude competencies also applies here. However, the examples are more difficult to pinpoint to a single knowledge, skill, or attitude.






For example, a behavior for leadership might be "motivates the people that must implement actions." That's evidence that leadership exists, but what is the underlying cause of the effect of that behavior? Listening skills? Empathy? Self-awareness? Business knowledge? Public speaking? Integrity? Some combination? Generally, attribute bundles create more problems than they solve, even though their labels can be comforting. People like to say, "I need leadership skills," but that doesn't really tell us what is required.

Selecting competencies There is an endless list of competencies and other ways to describe people at work. So, on what basis are items selected to include in a model?

There are several approaches. A work analysis. In this approach, we focus on high performers, watch them work, and record their results and what they do to achieve them. The resulting competency model will document all of the tasks; outputs; or knowledge, skills, and attitudes those performers demonstrate.

A critical-incident interview. We can ask current performers what situations and challenges they've faced. We can ask what they thought, did, felt, and caused to happen. Then, we can describe the tasks and outputs or infer the knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Remember: KSAs can't be observed directly.

Sets of critical-incident interviews. We can talk to the current average and superior performers, list their competencies, and eliminate any that both kinds of performers have. What's left are the differentiators of current superior performance, which many experts say should be the focus of employee interviews, development, and promotions.

Those approaches draw on learnings from past behavior. Because the business environment and strategies are changing rapidly, there's a danger that what worked in the past will be insufficient-and maybe detrimental-in the future. That leads to several other approaches.

Create assumptions about the future. To make some assumptions about the future of work and the work environment, we can draw from trend information, industry forecasts, and the strategies of our businesses. We can ask knowledgeable people to infer from those assumptions what work and competency requirements will be. Then, we can create models that combine those requirements and current best practices.

Create work-planning processes. These processes should not require a prescribed model, but should guide individuals and teams to think through the implications of changes in strategy and the work environment for their own work and competencies.

Who, what, and how long? Job analysis and its more recent derivative, competency analysis, has usually been done by third parties-human resource staff and consultants. Managers and other employees might participate, mainly to give input that is later analyzed and turned into models by someone else.

Typically, that occurs in a job-byjob fashion, with occasional studies on job families. Most job-modeling efforts require hours of focus groups, expert analysis, validation, communication, and selling. An organization-wide job reevaluation or competency analysis can take months or years and cost millions of dollars. That's for the analysis phase only, excluding application.

The most common uses for competency models in the United States are assessment, selection, promotion, and training and development. With the exception of training and development, those applications are usually win-lose: We want the best people for a job, and only one person can be the best. In win-lose situations, average, but required, characteristics cancel each other out.

Countries that are struggling to compete by reaching technical parity favor the task approach. They need a broad base of technical and literacy competence. Individual superiority isn't relevant when the national baseline is an issue.

In 30 years of competency work, the approach people have taken has depended largely on their career orientation. Industrial psychologists tended to emphasize attribute bundles and selected knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Educators focused on knowledge and skills. Traditionally trained HRD staff used task-based systems.







Past emphasis has also been on a job or job group, and a subset of applications-for example, training and selection.


Something is valid when it actually relates to what we say it relates to. When we say a behavior relates to or expresses a competency, we are making a construct validity statement. When we say that a competency is needed in the real world of work, we are making a content validity statement.

When we say that a competency used at a point in time is associated with superior performance, we are making a concurrent validity statement. When we say that a competency that someone has currently will make him or her effective in future work, we are making a predictive validity statement.

When we define work and the competencies required to do it, we want the definitions to be valid. Business success and fairness both depend on that. The generally accepted way to ensure validity is to have job experts pool their expertise to define work and competencies. In the past, we ensured that by observing or asking what superior performers do; by creating models of their performance; by assessing people and predicting their likelihood of success; and, in a few heroic cases, tracking the hit-rate of our predictions.

Identifying competencies

Creating wealth is increasingly a matter of competency. It's the primary reason that competencies have line and human resource people flocking to competency conferences and traveling the world to benchmark best practices.

But there are other reasons the competency field is burgeoning and recreating itself. One, organizations are searching for new ways to integrate their "people practices" because they realize that past practices in such areas as selection, development, evaluation, work design, pay systems, and performance management often delivered conflicting messages about the desired performance and values.

It's not unusual for some work processes to be open and others closed, for some to involve customers and others to be internally driven, and for some to tout quality while others allow and even encourage minimum standards. For instance, think about appraisal systems that reward people that exceed standards, and thus promote low goals.

Work processes should deliver the same messages and reinforce the same values. They should also use a common language about work that applies across all processes. Competencies can provide that language. But if the competencies are to be a mechanism for integrating processes, they have to include work descriptors and person descriptors because some people practices-such as, evaluation, multiskilling, work design, and performance management-should focus primarily on the work. Otherssuch as, career development, learning, and selection-require us to specify KSA requirements. All people practices can benefit from both approaches; it's a matter of emphasis.

Organizations are also seeking ways to quickly link their people requirements to their business strategies, which continue to outpace our ability to achieve them. HRD plans, workforce plans, and succession plans are the usual responses. The trouble is that HRD processes are often mired in bureaucracy and tied to outdated models. Because only a few people have access to them, they often can't respond quickly and pervasively enough to strategic shifts. Integrating a competency review and projections into strategic planning can help address those issues and speed the alignment of people requirements to strategic goals.

Which leads to empowerment. Everyone talks about it, but bringing it into daily practice just isn't happening. The Department of Labor estimates that only about 7 percent of U.S. businesses are implementing practices that would be included in the high-performance-high-involvement category. And that figure isn't growing rapidly.



In the meantime, there's an urgent need to bring accountability and power to everyone in an organization. It takes self-managing people to respond to and anticipate customers' needs, to care about quality, to see opportunities for improvements and breakthroughs, and to protect a company's resources as if they were their own. Now, organizations ask people to do all of those things, often without giving them the appropriate tools and support.

To transfer the people management role from HRD to management and ultimately to people themselves, we need systematically implemented competency menus and models, and the application tools that give them life. Competency systems can and should provide the structure and tools for empowerment.

The changing role of HRD In the past, most HRD people spent their time on such administrative tasks as record keeping and policy enforcement. Or, they spent time doing work that managers and other employees should have been doing: managing conflicts, guiding careers, and picking up the pieces when team members couldn't cooperate.

Now that staff ratios are decreasing and technology is taking over administrative tasks, HRD people no longer do those things. Nor should they. Major strategic challenges such as reorganizations, mergers, technology advances, and globalization require an HRD perspective. There's also a massive culture shift going on as organizations move from hierarchies to networks.

Those are the issues that HRD people should address, but they're constantly being pulled back into the administrative and day-to-day work of the past. Well-constructed competency processes for selection, training, work design, pay systems, and so forth bring the best HRD practices into the hands of managers and other employees. Then, HRD expertise can live in the tools and materials, freeing an HRD staff to do more strategic work and focus on necessary culture changes.

No more jobs

In many organizations, traditional job descriptions are a joke. They're just not flexible enough for the constantly changing world of new strategies, memberships on multiple teams, customer requirements, and competitive maneuvers.

They demand constant change in people's responsibilities. We need processes and languages that enable flexibility. Competency-based approaches are the answer. Competencies can and should be organized into menus that individuals and teams can use to describe their work and conduct people practices.

Reengineering, customer focus, total quality management, learning organizations, mergers, divestitures, outsourcing-every time a new philosophy or initiative hits a business, it changes the competency requirements and roles that people must play for future success. People ask, "Do I have to start all over again?" They want to know whether there are any competencies they can use in the new organization. A "new era" competency system builds in flexibility so that people can adapt quickly and help communicate changing requirements.

No matter which issues people face, they want to know where they fit in, what the work is, and what competencies they need. For organizations, it's a question of having the competencies to thrive. Competencybased approaches that go beyond past models and practices help address those issues. A competency response is a powerful answer to the problems people and organizations face in the next century.

All of the changes in the global and local contexts of work make it more important to use competency approaches and to ensure that they are appropriate for the current needs and work environment.

As we move into the new world of work, our approaches for competency modeling must change, as must our view of the role of competency systems. Here are the main changes that must occur.

A shift in focus from jobs to organizations. Traditionally, we analyzed jobs. It took a lot of time so the job models were often obsolete before they were used. Now, within days, we can identify competencies for an entire organization, using modern processes. Then, we can give individuals and teams the tools for creating valid models of their current work and for adjusting them quickly when conditions, customer requirements, and strategies change. That means we have to create more menus and fewer models. Users can construct the models themselves in real time.

A shift from analysis to application. We need to spend less time on analysis and more time on application. Analysis can be quick, almost just-in-timewhether it focuses on a job, team, unit, or whole company. It should become part of a strategic planning process and enable us to connect people requirements to the business quickly.

Then, the most time, effort, and money can go into the application. That's where the payoff is. Every people practice can be transformed by a modern competency approach. The era of years and millions of dollars of analysis is over, with good riddance. Competency menus and models of the future will be commodities, with the added value in the application.

Less dependence on experts. With the appropriate tools and training, all employees can create models for their own use. If not, their organizations will have to continue to depend on outside experts because models must adapt constantly to changing customer requirements, team configurations, and improvements. Outside experts have a duty to enable organizations to do their own competency work.

The languages of work and people. We don't have to choose whether a menu or model will describe either the work to be done or the requirements to do it. The most valuable menus and models will include both.

Outputs provide an effective language of work and KSAs (knowledge, skills, and attitudes) provide an effective language of people. Outputs are the language of customers, who want deliverables, not activities and tasks. Outputs are more durable than tasks.

In a quality and continuous-improvement environment, we want tasks to improve and change constantly, maybe even disappear. Products, services, and information that customers receive aren't likely to change, except in quality and features. KSAs are the enabling resources that people bring to workhelping them produce, provide, and deliver outputs. Both outputs and KSAs are useful building blocks for menus and easy for people to use in constructing job models, selection profiles, development and career plans, team designs, and so forth.

Simplifying. Past models tended to be detailed, filled with jargon, and not user-friendly. Still, many were accurate and insightful, though a lot of people refused to use them. It makes one want to ask, "If a model falls in a forest and there's no one there, does it make a sound?"

We can have rigor and validity and still keep things simple. To do that, we have to discipline ourselves to create models and menus that users want to use. We must make application tools simple and short. We must encourage conversation among customers, workers, teams, and managers-all of them the real work experts-as our source of validity. The bonus is mutual clarity about work and stakeholders' commitment to do high-quality work.

Democratizing. In addition to involving a lot of people and all segments of an organization in developing menus, it's important to bring the menus and modeling process to everyone-especially people in the mainstream of the work. They face paying customers. They're where the work that adds value to products and services is done. They're where quality lives and dies.

That doesn't diminish the importance of management and support staff. Done well, their work has vast leverage for current and future performance. But the preoccupation in U.S. businesses with leadership competence is eroding their ability to stay competitive into the next century. Everyone's competence is important. Consequently, the competency process should involve and affect everyone.

We must see the new generation of competency approaches as powerful tools for making everyone in an organization participative and accountable.

Competency approaches are transparent. We are being open about our models when we say, "Here are the outputs and the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that are important in this company." And when we say, "Here are the outputs and the KSA profile for this team or job." Anyone can and should question management's or a team's integrity when it hires people that operate according to a different profile or when it helps create an organization that contradicts its own competency descriptions.

We live and work in a new world of work that is global, fast-paced, customer-driven, expectant of quality, and intolerant of delays and excuses. At the same time, people and their competencies-their very passion for work-are becoming a source of unbeatable advantage. Some people wish that wasn't true.

In the context of all that, many organizations are pursuing several related goals:

* how to simplify and integrate their people practices

*how to translate their strategies into action quickly

* how to create conditions in which people take risks and have the trust to innovate and go the extra mile with customers

* how to free the shrinking cadre of HRD professionals to do more strategic work and less administration and hand-holding

* how to provide structure and guidance in a world where the idea of jobs is disappearing and people practices that depend on jobs seem irrelevant

* how to keep one's sanity in the face of constantly shifting views of what constitutes "world class."

Organizations have been dabbling in competency models and systems for generations. There has been a surge in the past 30 years that has taken unique directions in the United States and other highly developed nations. That surge has moved in other directions in third-world and emerging nations. Most of the competency approaches have been job-focused and concentrated on a few HRD applications, which have been developed and driven by consultants and HRD experts. All of those efforts have helped us make gigantic strides in how to define work and the people that do it. But it's time to leap forward. We can move away from the idea of jobs. We can make work design and competency definition more participative. We can simplify and link many human resource and people practices so that all employees will want to use them and will find them helpful. We can use the next generation of competency systems as a major vehicle for clarifying and implementing business strategy.

To do that, we will draw on what we've learned from the past. We will let go of practices and assumptions that no longer serve us in order to find better ways to connect people to work.

[Author Affiliation]

Patricia McLagan is the author of ASTD's 1983 and 1989 Models for HRD Practice, and the coauthor of The Age of Participation: New Gover




[Author Affiliation]

nance for the Workplace and the World and On-the-Level. McLagan currently lives in South Africa from where she collaborates with Linkage of Boston to help nations, organizations, and people move into the new world of work and competence. She can be reached at 100076.746@compuserve.com; phone 27-11-460-1558; or via Linkage at 617/402-1725.