Competency framework – are we using it blindly?

Several organizations use competency framework as an anchor for hiring, managing performance, developing and managing talent. Are we using it blindly? Indeed it’s a million dollar question, and by asking this, I am probably stirring up a hornets’ nest.

Before going any further, let me acknowledge that I am not against competency framework. I have been part of teams that created competency frameworks for organizations. However, unlike in the past, I have started looking at it critically instead of taking it as given! Here’s why?

Take a look at the competency frameworks of three different organizations (names concealed) from different industries.

Organization 1 – Building & managing relationship, stakeholder focus, communicating & influencing, strategic thinking, problems solving, decision making, managing performance, planning & organizing,

Organization 2 – Business acumen, interpersonal and communication skills, building & leveraging relationships, strategic thinking, problem solving and innovation

Organization 3 – Analytical ability, team building, innovation, result orientation, thinking big / intrapreneurship, business & environmental perspective, execution & collaboration

80% of the competencies between these organizations from different industries are common. I bet quite a few competencies listed here sound familiar to many of us. This is not a coincidence. If we map this over multiple companies, there will be a significant overlap.

If organizations are different and are operating in different industries with different constraints – how can there be such huge overlap of competencies? Especially when these competencies are supposed to be essential for its employees to be successful (which in turn should result in success of the organization). One may say that the headings are same, but what goes inside each competency; the behavioral descriptors are different and unique to the organization. They are not! There is a good overlap in behavioral descriptors as well.

What does it mean? Different companies (including competitors) are hiring, developing and managing employees more or less based on similar competencies – and hoping to create a competitive edge through their people. Does it sound logical? Are we focusing on right areas?

Are the competencies moving towards isomorphism because of over-generalization?

Is this happening because we are trying to club too many diverse roles across levels under the same umbrella?

Is this leading to the competencies being too far removed from the business mandates and goals? And the business environment unique to the company?

Let me explain the challenge through one example of developing people. Suppose I develop a set of employees on interpersonal skills and ability to build relationships (an important competency for the organization). Let’s assume that the intervention is well-designed and facilitates good transfer of learning. And the employees actually improve their interpersonal skills and are able to build good relationships. So what? How will it impact the business? How can I establish the link between people development and business results? Though not impossible, it surely is not a cake walk!

Contrast this with developing negotiation skills of key account managers for an upcoming biotech company. How hard or easy will it be to establish the link between improved skills of people and better deal formation (business results)? Fairly easy, isn’t it?

This brings me to the question – are the competencies in their current form – too removed from the business? Is this the reason for their isomorphism?

What can be done to reduce it, if not eliminate it?

Should we adopt a narrow role-based view instead of a broad brush approach for all roles? Incidentally, I have seen it being adopted for a set of specific roles, and the results in hiring were very good.

Should we look at functional competencies combined with few intrinsics?

What can we do to define the competencies in such a way that they deliver desired results?

At this time, I have more questions than answers. Look forward to views and an engaging discsusion.

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