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The increasing scope of training and development competency

Zane BergeMarie de VerneilNancy BergeLinda DavisDonna SmithBenchmarking. Bradford: 2002. Vol. 9, Iss. 1;  pg. 43, 19 pgs

Abstract (Article Summary)

Organizations find it increasingly difficult to stay competitive in today's global economy. Leaders in the workplace are using benchmarking, competency, competency models, and competency studies to help make human resource decisions, such as hiring, training and promotions. In training and development (T&D), it is helpful for competencies to focus on knowledge, skills and/or abilities. But neither the field of T&D, nor competency within the field, is static. This paper presents a careful review of literature showing the trends in competency over the past 3 decades in the T&D field, and provides some speculation regarding competencies needed in the near future for professionals in T&D. Two of the most apparent changes in T&D are the shift to performance improvement and the use of technology. The skills, knowledge and abilities involving these areas wil continue to become increasingly necessary for T&D professionals.

Full Text (4104   words)

Copyright MCB UP Limited (MCB) 2002


Keywords Competences, Training, Development, Literature, Performance


The field of training and development (T&D) has undergone changes that reflect the dynamic factors in the corporate world overall. T&D's objectives continue to shift from a focus on programmed instruction (and behavioral and task analysis), to performance-system analysis. Learning is now defined as a competitive strategy in the global workplace. Therefore, trainers must engage in defining strategic goals, analyzing organizational processes and providing better systemic performance within the business context.

Increased need for improved performance requires more efficient ways to identify, recruit, measure, and improve the training and education of the workforce. As traditional, hierarchical organizational structures are increasingly transforming to self-directed, cross-functional, process oriented, and knowledge-based models, both organizations and individuals are increasingly faced with new challenges to maximize the organization's competitive edge, and to meet new standards of excellence in performance. Subsequently, many organizations are adopting competency-based models to meet the ever-evolving goals and needs (Clark, 1999). What changes have occurred over the past several decades with respect to competence in the T&D field? Why does competency matter? What are the most important competencies to have now, and what will become more or less valuable in the future? While the answers to these questions may not be easily obtained, it is better to begin with some solid benchmarking. The benchmarks derived in this study are done through a literature review - an atypical methodology perhaps, but a reasonable activity that occasionally needs to be done when exploring standards in the field of T&D.

Defining competency

As the industrial age yields to the information age, the very definition of work is undergoing a fundamental reevaluation (Greengard, 1998). Along with that redefinition has come a shift in the worker competencies necessary to accommodate it. So, the context in which competency models exist fuels change and the transformation of the competency needed in T&D. Such rapid change makes the task of comparing a list of competencies authored in the mid-1980s to one produced today problematic. Any analysis and comparison between the two lists must be based, not only upon what human resources (FiR) professionals were doing and thinking then, but also upon what they could not have anticipated about today and tomorrow. These developments include an explosion in communication and information technology, increased workforce diversity, changes in global competition, and the emergence of democracy as the political system of choice for much of the world (McLagan, 1996). Therefore, this evolution has required a change in the ways worker competencies are viewed and developed.

Different definitions of competency

Providing for a competent workforce has led to the general inquiry about competencies as a basis for a common language. This goes beyond the changing roles and titles found across organizations. There are many definitions of competency - with definitions dependent on how the concept is used. Indeed, early on in the defining of competency, it was believed that clearly defined competencies would systematically insure effective job performance. In fact, many different definitions have been proposed resulting in a wide range of frameworks and definitions in the literature of various fields. Not all these definitions are compatible, and debate continues.

For instance, Mirabile (1997, p. 74) defined a competency as "a knowledge, skill, ability, or characteristic associated with high performance on a job, such as problem solving, analytical thinking, or leadership. Some definitions of a competency include motives, beliefs, and values". Competencies that reflect motives, beliefs, and values can turn into a list made up of personality traits and deeply held values, and imply a selection strategy, not a T&D strategy (Dalton, 1997). Parry (1998) expanded on this by stating that identifying certain traits and characteristics might be helpful to recruiters and interviewers, but it is not the trainer's job to assess or develop them. Additionally, Parry (1996, p. 49) stated "most HR experts believe that training programs, performance appraisals, and wage and salary administration should focus on performance, not personality", and that it is not within the scope of a trainer's job to affect personality, but rather a job for psychotherapy.

Different approaches to competency models

Not only are there many definitions of competency found in the literature, but also there are various approaches used in framing and making sense of competencies. McLagan (1996) identified six approaches to defining and developing models for competency:

(1) job tasks;

(2) results of work efforts;

(3) outputs;

(4) knowledge, skills and attitude (KSA);

(5) qualities of superior performances; and

(6) bundles of attributes.

With the increased adaptations of competency frameworks in both educational institutions and private sectors organizations, many of the competency models developed during the past three decades at least partially correspond to the six approaches identified, or with combinations of these six.

Which definition(s) and approach(es) are best for T&D

In general, authors of the recent T&D literature have used an approach to competency models that aligns with the business needs of the organization. T&D's primary, traditional role has been to insure that the workforce is provided with the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to perform a given function well. For the purposes of T&D, a competency is a cluster of related knowledge, skills, and attitudes that correlates with effective job performance, can be measured and evaluated, and that can be improved through training and development (McLagan, 1983, 1989a, 1996; Richey et al., 2001). This definition of competency includes only what seems to be trainable and desirable. By trainable we mean competencies in T&D can be affected by training effort, as compared with a trait, that cannot be trained. A trait is a relatively enduring characteristics of an individual's behavior that cannot be easily changed through training. By desirable we mean that it does not seem politically incorrect or as being manipulative, such as it may if an attempt is made to change a group of employees' values using training.

Much was accomplished concerning competencies in the field during the 1980s and early 1990s. Looking back, one can appreciate the tremendous work that was done in designing tools, models and definitions of competencies throughout the workplace in a variety of fields. The competency movement resulted in some profound shifts: from merely listing job title to the notion of work as "outputs" and different roles, thus reflecting the multi-tasking approach that jobs have come to mean in the past ten years. The National Human Resource Development (HRD) Executive Survey on Trends in HRD (ASTD, 1997) suggested the top ten most probable trends as:

(1) Greater need to provide training on computer skills.

(2) Greater need to provide training on teamwork.

(3) Shift from providing training" to improving "performance".

(4) Greater need to provide training on decision making or problem solving.

(5) Increased pressure for rapid development and deployment of HRD services.

(6) Greater need to provide training on systems thinking. Increased pressure to demonstrate outcomes of training.

(8) Increased pressure to measure performance outcomes.

(9) Shift from providing training" to facilitating "learning".

(10) Increased pressure to develop business case for HRD interventions.

From these, it can be seen that HRD is undergoing a shift in purpose - with "training" no longer the primary deliverable of HRD. The emphasis is now on performance and performance outcomes.

Paradigmatic shifts in training and development

In a world characterized by rapid rates of change, what has emerged is quality and custom-driven services and products. The fall of the Berlin wall and the opening of the communist bloc to Western capitalism extended what was already a reality for the Western corporate world: increased globalization. To this new reality, T&D reacted with an increased use of systems approaches in HRD (McLagan, 1996). The search for competencies and desired behavior had led to job environment analysis and performance analysis.

T&D could not anticipate quickly enough the changes that were occurring in the workplace. Gill (1995, p. 26) remarks that:

It's true that the profession is changing. But the gears are shifting very slowly. Most HRD practitioners still spend the bulk of their time in the design and delivery of class-room-based training events . . . Why do trainers find it so difficult to reinvent themselves and adopt a new role? The profession must examine its mental models if it is to reinvent itself and become instrumental in learning organizations.

Looking back at traditional T&D, one realizes that it had been conceived for a much more well-defined and stable workplace. Traditional training focused on the trainer. Gill (1995, p. 26) lists five myths of HRD's old paradigm: the belief that "training makes a difference, training's purpose is to achieve learning objectives, the trainer's purpose is to manage training programs, training is (the) trainer's job, trainees should enjoy the training they receive".

Brinkerhoff and Gill (1995) have analyzed traditional program-driven training (TPDT) and have compared it to what they call highly effective training (HET). For TPDT, the training department conducts the needs analysis and sets the goals which are defined as learning outcomes. For HET, line managers conduct the needs analysis. Goals are defined as business results, are based on performance, and are linked to strategic goals. Training is "just-in-time" and is content appropriate - with just enough content provided on or close to the job (Brinkerhoff and Gill, 1995).

What Brinkerhoff and Gill described is a paradigmatic shift from traditional training to learning, a shift that corresponds to a corporate belief that to be competitive and maintain a technological advantage, new knowledge must be at the heart of competitive strategies (Berge, 2001; DeVito, 1996). As Tobin (1998, p.153) remarked:

Learning focuses on the employee - the person doing the learning - whereas training focuses on the trainer. In the knowledge-enabled organization, only the employee and her manager can determine what is to be learned to improve individual and organizational performance.

This paradigmatic shift and focus on the learner has great implications for training. Learning is no longer the transfer of information but the creation of knowledge as it is visibly expressed by improvement in business results and innovations. Underlying this shift is the recognition that well-designed instruction does not guarantee performance, and that instruction is one of many solutions to performance improvement The employee's empowerment and the evaluation of performance in terms of business results has forced T&D to redefine itself. If managers conduct need analysis and learning encompasses all aspects of the workplace, the traditional academic model based on well-- defined methodologies and transfer of information has become obsolete. Training and development practitioners must forgo their reactive function and become new business partners, facilitating learning in the new workplace environment.

Competency framework

The list of 52 T&D competencies in Table I was developed based on an examination of the 35 references listed in the table. Broad clusters of skills, knowledge, and attitudes were grouped together. Competencies that pertain specifically to T&D are included in the "Technical" competencies cluster in the table and competencies applicable to all professions are included in the "Business, Interpersonal, and Intellectual" competencies clusters in the table.

This list of competencies, while comprehensive, is not meant to be definitive. Persons wishing to use this as a competency model would probably need to make adjustments for their context and organization. The main point of Table I is to show the comparison of competencies across time in the T&D field.

T&D competencies have actually remained quite stable during the last two decades. A minimal number of new competencies are now expected of the T&D professional, and a minimal number seem to also be fading from the training and development professional's repertoire. What is important to note is that the skills, knowledge, attitudes, and abilities that comprise each cluster have increased in scope. Competencies encompass more skills and knowledge than ever before, and today's T&D professional is expected to know more than his or her counterpart a decade or two ago. The similarities between competency-- profiling and benchmarking become obvious. By comparing the desired with the existing, both at the individual level and the organizational level, the organization can focus on bridging any existing or anticipated gaps (Chowdhury, 1999).

Future competency

The current and future success of an organization depends on the effectiveness of management's leadership competencies combined with the competencies of the organization's workforce (Picket, 1998). Management and workforce competencies should reflect an organization's current and future needs (Prahalad and Hamel, 1990). This makes the identification of the competencies that will enable organizations to meet the demands of the future of vital importance (Picket, 1998). Essentially, there are two areas in which T&D professionals will need to continue increasing their competence: using technology and aligning performance goals with the business needs of the organization.

The trainer as performance technologist

According to Rosenberg (1996, p. 370), human performance technology (HPT) is a "practice that helps link business strategy and goals and the capability of the workforce to achieve them, with a wide array of human resource interactions which include but are certainly not limited to education and training". HPT significantly addresses the paradigmatic shift that has taken place in the workplace. It establishes a relationship between performance improvement and business results; empowers the workforce; and acknowledges that learning is not limited to education and training. The iterative nature of the HPT process should be stressed:


Human performance technology is not about machines; it is about people and how to improve and maintain their productivity and competitiveness. It is an iterative process in which each successful application results in positive changes to the competence and abilities of the workforce. As new organizational challenges are addressed, the performance technology process is the key to ensuring that the workforce is ready to meet them head on (((ISPI, 1998, p. 1).

Using technology

Another change that has occurred involves the technology explosion. Computers, faxes, the Internet, e-mail, cell phones, work stations at home, and networks are only a few of the technological changes that have dramatically altered the look of today's workplace (McLagan and Nel, 1995). Managers will have to focus more on productivity and less on tracking employees and their tasks (Greengard, 1998). Skill requirements will continue to increase and change as the technology revolution proceeds on its course (Bassi et al., 1996).


Clearly, as technology evolves, it is redefining how, why and when training takes place. It is evident that in the near future, knowledge of computer-based technologies for training should be a standard rather than an innovation.

The new paradigm integrates all business functions and sees everything in the organization as part of a process that can continuously be improved. Problems will have to be addressed systemically with a long-range perspective encompassing all employees. It is becoming less likely that any one person will be expert in all the competencies in the training and development field (Rothwell, 1996). The use of a systems approach for performance improvement in all business functions naturally leads to HPT - a systematic approach to achieve improved performance.

This leads to the main goal of an organization: to effectively manage performance. A performance management process is created by integrating systems in the human resources areas, such as selection, development, and succession planning (Robinson and Robinson, 1995a, b, p. 10). In order to accomplish this, the organization must have a common language. Competencies provide the common language and concepts, and draw attention to many of the critical business needs of the organization.

If we learned anything through the process used here, it is that this cannot be the only benchmarking used for an organization's competency modeling. Next steps might include a review of different job functions in training and development, and then setting different standards for novice practitioners versus experts for each of those jobs. Still, by occasionally benchmarking overall training and development competencies in the manner we did, organizations ensure that they remain open to new ideas, changing trends, and evolving technology (Bogan and English, 1996).