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Making Competency Work

Newsletter • volume 1 • number 13

The first annual Competency and Performance Conference in Boston revealed the growing interest in competency-based tools by private and public sector organizations in America and internationally. Related issues in the use of these tools were also highlighted at this meeting.

Key conference speakers included David McClelland, known for his work on achievement and competency, and Michael Hammer, the "father" of reengineering.

Their message, reflected throughout the conference, states that because jobs are changing rapidly or becoming obsolete, organizations need to focus on the competencies of the successful worker rather than the work itself.

Through analysis of top performers, an organization can develop a "menu" of competencies which then becomes a common language for an individual or team to draw on to describe their work no matter how that work changes.

For two days of the conference, I served as a Learning Application Team Facilitator on selection. This gave me an insider's perspective on competency issues related to selection and staffing. As the conference evolved, many approaches and issues surfaced around the application of competency-based tools.

To make competency work, the following issues need to be addressed:

1. Competencies need to be well defined in behavioral terms to avoid simple generic statements like "integrity" or "faith in the future."

2. Shorter and less costly ways than a Behavioral Event Interview need to be developed to assess large numbers of applicants and reduce the cycle time in hiring.

3. A menu of competencies becomes more powerful when organizations word them in their own language to gain acceptance. For example, "drive for results" in one company can become "achievement orientation" in another.

4. A common language from the competency menu should be used for selection, training, development, and compensation. Otherwise, the company may be at cross-purposes in using their human resources.

5. Current competencies may not predict future success. For example, skill at managing a diverse workforce will be increasingly important in the future, but may not show up today as a required competency.

6. As today's busy managers are expected to do more with less, any new focus on competencies must be relatively easy to master and apply in the selection process.

Overall, we applaud tools that improve employee performance and promote competitive organizations. We think, however, it is important to use such tools wisely, and to keep asking questions so we can be certain the tool is serving the organization, not vice versa.