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Competences and How to Avoid the Pitfalls

Posted By: eCom USA

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I’ve worked on many competency projects over the years. I first came across competences in the early 1990’s working for a Further Education college. At that time they were a paper based, bureaucratic nightmare that required fully qualified assessors and lever-arch binders as portfolios of evidence. Assessing a number of students required regular visits and lots of space to review the paper based evidence. Yet the process was still beneficial. There was something to measure progress against and review year on year. The competences were the building blocks of the curriculum and enabled students and lecturers across Further Education to understand achievements and have common ground.

The corporate world soon got on the competency band wagon. Companies were compiling competence dictionaries and intending to use them to link their people strategies.  Competence based interviewing took hold in recruitment practices and it became common place for job descriptions to list the competences required for the position. The learning and development and training departments started linking course objectives to competences and the intention was to follow this path through to performance management.

What went wrong? A lot of companies got bogged down developing competency frameworks. Endless competency dictionaries and complex competency frameworks were worked on. The importance of engaging the business in the development of these was clear.  This could not be an HR dominated activity. The business didn’t seem to have the time to help develop what was seen as very complex conceptual frameworks. The possibility of fully integrated people strategies which could be measured using competences was so exciting the initial approach was perhaps too in-depth and detailed. The first competency dictionary I worked on had over 100 competences listed. In fact we couldn’t even agree on how you should spell the plural of competency – competences or competencies? The all-encompassing, belts and braces approach was such a massive undertaking for most organisations it never fully got off the ground. Competences gradually fell out of favour as new people strategy initiatives took over – business partners came in and shorter term business goals and targets became the language of HR.

Interestingly enough this phase asked all the questions which a good competence framework would have helped answer. What is the service level agreement? What are your key performance indicators? What is the return on investment of that project? Our inability to fully answer some of these questions have brought us back round to competences.  In the interim many industry bodies and the further/higher education sectors had been releasing competence profiles for the roles/learning objectives under their purview. These are freely available and a great starting point for anyone just beginning their competency journey. There are many great online guidelines on how to write competences but he key is that they are present tense with an action verb and each action requires an object (usually a noun). Each competency should be measurable and or observable and based on performance preferably written in plain English.

Recent years have seen the come-back of the competency based approach in the corporate world. How can you avoid the pitfalls of the past?

• Keep it simple - Start with key or core competences and get those working before trying to create the entire corporate competency dictionary

• Focus on development - Competences are best introduced as part of a development framework that flows through to the full people strategy in time

• Keep it positive - Competences are there to improve the ability of the workforce

• Bring people with you - Involve the business from the start 

• Keep it live - A competency framework must change with the business and it must be easy to update and edit

• Invest in a competency management system - No more paper and lever arch folders

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