Do competency approaches really improve performance?

I’m doing some research on Competency Modeling for a project and I have the same nagging question I had when competency based approaches became the rage in the 90’s.  Do competency based approaches really improve performance?

Competency based talent management (training, development, performance management, selection etc.) is now firmly entrenched in corporate HR culture.  The approach is so commonplace that it’s an expected feature in any Talent or Learning Management System worth its salt.  Some even come with pre-defined competency libraries taking away the need for any of that nasty and time consuming internal competency analysis.

Originally,  the approach struck me as a reliable way to define performance “standards” for jobs, roles, and even entire organizations.  They could be used to measure current performance against the “standard” to identify gaps which could be then be used for performance management, training, career development, and selection.  It fit with the performance consulting notion that training needs should be based on the difference between desired and actual performance.  The problem is, with some competency approaches, you’re not really measuring performance at all.

There are (at least) three different competency philosophies at work.  The first originated in the 50’s with Dr. David McClelland at Harvard.  It’s the approach that informs how most HR units use competencies.  This approach is based on identifying the critical traits or personality factors associated with high performers. They are “fairly deep and enduring part of a person’s personality and can predict behavior in a wide variety of situations and job tasks” (from Competence at Work: Models for Superior Performance“).   We’ve all seen statements and behavioural descriptors for competencies like “achievement orientation” or “interpersonal understanding”.  These are pure trait theory type competencies.

Another approach is more akin to traditional task analysis approaches where an analyst breaks down a job or role into key results areas, tasks and then knowledge and skill required produce the results.  The link to performance requirements is much more direct but its application is much more narrow and restricted to specific jobs.  A little old school in today’s knowledge oriented economy.

The third and I believe most useful for defining and managing modern knowledge work involves developing a menu of performance outputs and associated behavioral practices that can be assigned to jobs and roles as they change with an organization. It identifies both the job performance requirements (outputs) and the individual capabilities need to produce the outputs of a job or role. This approach might more accurately be called a performance model vs. a competency model.  Performance models are more aligned with approaches of Patricia McLagan,  Robinson and Robinson, and Geary Rummler.

Many companies mix and match these approaches and end up with unwieldy lists of competency statements, behavioral descriptions, task statements, and results lists that cause most employees and managers to wonder yet again what the hell is going on in HR.

Experience tells me that personality type competencies are more useful for selection and placement purposes than for training.  However, a well researched “performance model” that identifies the key results of top performers and the skills and practices used to achieve those results is far more useful for identifying performance gaps, supportive training and other measures that can have a real impact on business performance.


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