Competency models and competency management play an important role in the world of Learning and Development. This is often based on the idea that there is a positive relationship between competencies and organizational results. Part1 of this series of articles is about the value and limitations of a competency model for L&D. These models are intended to describe the ‘what’ of work, which is valuable but also insufficient. The ‘how’ of Learning and Development is also important, and is described in a methodology. Part 2 focuses on the methods used in work, and part 3 on the 70:20:10 methodology.
Competency Models For Learning And Development In Organizations
Many organizations make widespread use of competencies. Managers, Learning and Development professionals, and other employees use competency management, dictionaries, measurement and assessment, and competency-based development. Many organizations base their HR policy, and often also their HR development, assessment and throughput cycles, on competencies.
The success of this approach is based on the assumption that there is a clear connection between personal competencies, managed individual development, and the organization’s performance. However, this connection now appears to be tenuous or nonexistent. Caldwell (2008) examines the application of competency models by business partners, and concludes: ‘The survey and interview evidence reviewed indicates that competency models for business partners are not as effective as generally assumed, and they are particularly weak in predicting performance in business partnering roles.’
Questions About Competency Models
Kamperman (2009), Stevens (2012), and Stone et al. (2013) also question the use of competency models in organizations, not least because different authors define competency in different ways (Kamperman, 2009). Measuring competency is ambiguous and problematic (Kamperman, 2009; Stone, 2013). Also, competency models and dictionaries are always managed by HR rather than management (Brockbank, Ulrich, 2013). The side effect of this is that people have to work out for themselves how to apply the competency dictionary to their own jobs – and not everyone is able to do this (Caldwell, 2008).
Take the competency of organizational sensitivity. In preparation for my annual review, I looked in the competency dictionary. This states that organizational sensitivity means ‘the ability to assess the consequences of the tasks you carry out, and the decisions you take, on your colleagues, your department, and other parts of the organization.’ To be honest, I don’t have a clear idea of how this specifically translates to my work. I don’t understand the explanation of this abstract concept. This is what it says:
- ‘Recognizes clients’ and colleagues’ implicit expectations.
- Is able to adapt to the organizational culture.
- Anticipates formal and informal communication within the organization.
- Shows empathy in communication with clients, colleagues and others’.
I don’t have a clear idea of how to implement this in terms of how I do my job. I’m supposed to rate myself, and ask colleagues to do it as well, in preparation for my annual review. Fortunately, I’m not the only one…
Despite their shortcomings, competency models do have a function in individual professional development, and in defining the knowledge required to do the job (Campion, 2011; Stevens, 2012).
This also applies to L&D.
Competency Models For Learning And Development
Competency models describe the knowledge, skills, and attitudes required to do a job. They also apply to L&D, as the following two examples show.
The ATD Model
The best-known example is the ATD competency model (ATD, 2014), consisting of generic competencies, and the following job-specific ones:
- Managing learning programs.
- Integrated talent management.
- Knowledge management.
- Change management.
- Performance improvement.
- Instructional design.
- Training sessions.
- Learning technology.
- Learning impact evaluation.
Each section specifies what to do, but not how to do it. In the case of performance improvement, this includes identifying the client, carrying out performance, cause and system analysis, collecting data, and other tasks.
The Skills Journey
Shepherd (2017) introduces a skills-based development model for L&D professionals, and explains that a skill has physical, social and cognitive dimensions. There is a great deal of confusion between skills and competencies because their definitions overlap (Kamperman, 2009).
Shepherd’s model consists of three domains, each defining four roles. The skills to be developed for each role are as follows:
- Interaction with stakeholders as architect, analyst, manager, and evaluator.
- Interaction with learners as instructor, facilitator, coach, and expert.
- Interaction with media as curator, producer, designer, and journalist.
Shepherd also defines each role in operational terms. For example, the content curator ‘draws upon the wealth of information and people that could be valuable to their learners, and suggests where they should start’ (Shepherd, 2017).
Development-Oriented Competency Models
The ATD competency model and the skills journey are two examples of development-oriented models that describe the what. What do you need to know and do in order to work as an L&D professional? This creates a common language and a shared body of knowledge for the profession, as well as legitimizing professional action.
Providing we take account of the drawbacks mentioned in the previous section, an L&D competency model serves a valuable function, and in terms of the practicality of working, a generic model is not enough. At the very least, it must answer the ‘how’ question. How does it work in practice, and how should I do things like content curation and cause and performance analysis? If we are to provide a professional answer to this question, we must use a methodology developed for Learning and Development.
- ATD Press (2014) ATD competency model. (Accessed 11 June 2017)
- Caldwell, R. (2008). HR business partner competency models: Recontextualising effectiveness. Human Resource Management Journal, vol. 18, no 3, 275–294.
- Campion et al. (2011). Doing competencies well: Best practices in competency modeling. Personnel Psychology, 64,225-262.
- Kamperman et al. (2009). Het onverklaarbare succes van competentie management. Tijdschriftvoor HRM,September, no. 3, 5-24.
- Shepherd, C. (2017). (Accessed 5 June 2017)
- Stevens, G. W. (2012). A critical review of the science and practice of competency modeling. Human Resource Development Review, 12(1), 86-107.