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Growing Competence, by Richard Nelson

May 25, 2009 - In Managing Performance - No comments yet

A competency framework provides a common language for all managers and people concerned with effective performance.’ 

The search for the means to develop greater competence in people is an ongoing challenge for managers. Over time, emphasis has been placed on recruitment and selection, succession planning, training and development among other management processes as a means of raising competence. During the last two decades, management experts have undertaken extensive work to provide a common foundation for the application of several people management processes.

In earlier times the fundamental approach was job analysis. This analysed the tasks required to achieve the right results and the skills needed for the tasks to be satisfactorily completed. This approach has advantages for studying the needs of particular jobs, but has disadvantages when developing a common approach for a number of people management processes for use across the organisation.

There are many definitions of ‘competency’. Some focus on desired work outputs, others on the attributes that people need to bring to their work. We have worked in a variety of environments where different definitions have been favoured. However, we recommend that a competency needs to include the knowledge, skills, behaviours and attitudes needed to undertake the relevant job tasks in an exemplary manner. We are definitely of the view that competencies are the talents and ‘inputs’ that people bring to their work.

Competencies and the focus of their development have progressed considerably. Now organisations favour unified competency frameworks, which define approximately 10-15 major competencies that are expected to be demonstrated by all their people across all functions. Clearly, this necessitates the exclusion of some of the specialist skills and know-how required in certain specialist functions. Detailed comprehensiveness, which led to prolific and cumbersome operating manuals, has been sacrificed for clarity and commonality.

Modern competency frameworks generally have each competency defined, and then have various levels of expected application differentiated by specific indicators. This enables different levels of staff and managers to be included. Some frameworks also define contra-indicators to enable greater precision in understanding. Having the main competencies defined means that additional specialist competencies for particular functions can be more easily identified. Typical areas for competency development are: work organisation and planning; problem solving and decision making; building relationships; customer orientation; leadership and influencing; commercial awareness and business focus, among many others.

The principal value of developing and using a competency framework is that it provides a common language for all managers and people concerned with effective performance. Without a competency framework, discussions about what good performance looks like can be subjective and limited. The discussion is likely to focus on how well a job was done. Results are critical, but without a common view of how good results can be achieved, management can be limited in the practical direction and support it has to offer. With practice and use, the competency framework will also deliver another major benefit: namely, better consistency in management decisions about performance and development. Poor decision-making about performance can stimulate much argument among managers and demotivation among the people on the receiving end.

On the other hand, competencies which have been developed with the involvement and commitment of managers and their people provide one of the most productive means of managing and developing performance. Once an individual is clear about the purpose of their role, their tasks and the results they are expected to achieve, they then need to be confident that they have the capability to be successful. A competency framework will provide a manager with the means to communicate how an individual can successfully complete their key tasks to achieve good results. The framework will provide the language and the relevant indicators to help a common understanding develop between the manager and their team member. Good practice in managing performance will include a discussion about the importance of particular competencies in relation to key accountabilities and personal objectives for the forthcoming business year. This sets the individual up for success. A discussion about which competencies an individual fell short on at the time of the year-end performance review, without the earlier discussion, is not likely to be seen as so helpful!

When used by line managers, competencies will enrich the ongoing performance monitoring and communication with their people. The competency framework provides an excellent foundation for managers to coach their people to deliver improved results. Clearly business benefits will be gained from such active management.

For the Human Resource function, a competency framework provides a foundation for the integration of HR strategy and processes. Recruitment and selection will benefit from a better focus on the knowledge, skills, behaviours and attitudes that have been identified for the role. Assessment and development centres can be built around the competency criteria. Learning and development activities can be focused on developing the right capabilities. Career development and succession planning decisions can be made with reliable data.

Executive leadership can also use a competency framework to help shape the culture of the organisation – probably its most important strategic purpose. By ensuring that the framework is developed to be the practical demonstration of the organisation’s values, customers and other stakeholders will be confident that the brand identity and character of the organisation is genuine and robust.

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