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Informed Decisions:
Research-Based Practice Notes

Steven G. Rogelberg
Bowling Green State University

For this month's column, I asked two BGSU graduate students, Maggie Laber and Jimmie O'Connor, to gather and synthesize the empirical literature on competency modeling methods and practice. To no great surprise, the resulting document could fit snugly into the backpack of a relatively small ant. Despite the abundance of competency modeling practice, there is a dearth of competency modeling research. Maggie and Jimmie then changed gears, and instead of combing the academic literature for competency modeling articles, they interviewed practitioners and searched the trade literature. What follows is a nice, and hopefully useful, synthesis of their findings. If you have any comments/questions concerning this column, please contact Maggie Laber at mlaber@bgnet.bgsu.edu or Jimmie O'Connor at jallan@bgnet.bgsu.edu. As always, if you have any ideas for future columns or would like to propose authoring a column, please contact me at rogelbe@bgnet.bgsu.edu.

Competency Modeling:
Ready, Set, Research

Margaret E. Laber and Jimmie K. O'Connor1
Bowling Green State University

1 The first two authors contributed equally to this column.

Competency modeling is a popular topic in organizations today, yet there is a definite shortage of research on competency modeling in traditional academic journals. Even in practitioner journals, the information available about competency modeling is less than definitive. In fact, it appears that the treatment and definition of competency modeling differs depending on where you look and with whom you speak. This column will focus on the research-practice gap in relation to competency modeling as well as on the absence of a clear and common treatment of competency modeling. We hope to address these issues by integrating information obtained from trade journals with information obtained from practitioners.

We would like to thank Jenifer Kihm (PDI), Dalene Masi (IBM), Rick Pollack (Thomson Publishers' Legal and Regulatory Group, Thomson University), and Rob Schmieder (Getty Images, Inc.) for sharing their thoughts on the following basic questions:

  • How would you describe competency modeling?
  • How is competency modeling being used in organizations today?
  • Do you think competency modeling is a useful tool?
  • How is competency modeling different than traditional job analysis?
  • What type of research on competency modeling is needed to make it a more useful tool?

In the following sections, we address the processes for performing competency modeling, the ways that competency models are used, the ways in which competency modeling enhances communication, and we discuss ideas for future research.

Competency Modeling 101

There is no common definition of competency modeling, although the idea that certain competencies are at the core of job performance is central to the concept. Modeling competencies, then, could be defined as determining specific competencies related to organizational goals or an attempt to determine the capabilities characteristic of high performance and success in a given job. Competency modeling can be used for various reasons, and it can take many forms.

In general, construction of a competency model requires, first, a list of competencies. This task may sometimes be daunting because there is no one global definition of "competency." Most definitions seem to include the knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics (KSAOs) that are the basis of many job analysis techniques. There does seem to be consensus, however, that the essence of competencies includes more than simply KSAOs. Competencies seem to differ from KSAOs by often including some or all of the following: traits, motivations, attitudes, self-esteem, personality characteristics, or even values that may be required in a job (e.g. Dalton, 1997; "Focus Shifts," 1997; McLagan, 1997; Mirabile, 1997). Furthermore, competencies are meant to capture many more attributes, on both the individual and group levels, than are KSAOs. "Competencies represent who an individual is and what an individual knows and does" (Brockbank, Ulrich, & Beatty, 1999, p. 111).

As previously stated, the determination of competencies is crucial to the process of competency modeling. Competency models are based on the assumption that employees who possess certain competencies should facilitate the attainment of organizational goals and objectives. There are a number of tools that can be used to determine these competencies.

Job analyses and job descriptions can be useful for determining the base KSAOs that are linked to success in a given job. Interviews can also provide useful information. Interviews with employees can be utilized to determine motivations and values that are commonly associated with success on the job. Interviews with executives involved with strategic planning will help organizations create a model directly linking competencies to organizational goals and objectives. This last tool is particularly important, as one of the most significant aspects of competency modeling is the linking of competencies with success in achieving organizational goals and strategic objectives (Harris; 1998; McLagan, 1997).

Once competencies have been selected, they can be used in various ways to construct the competency model. An explanation of the way competency models actually look would help facilitate understanding of the process of competency modeling; however, competency models can take many different forms and vary on many dimensions, including, but not limited to, the amount of detail included in the model and the types of methods used to produce the competency model (McLagan, 1997; Mirabile, 1997). One common denominator across models is that the stated purpose of the model should drive how the model is created as well as the format of the model. Namely, the model's purpose dictates both the amount and sources of information that are necessary to construct the model. Generally, including more detail requires more money, more time, and produces less generalizable results; however, more detail also allows for more differentiation among employees across and within work units. There does not appear to be consensus regarding whether subjective or objective methods of collecting competency information should be used in the competency modeling process. Different constituencies often prefer different methods of collecting competency modeling information. For example, one of the practitioners we interviewed suggested that managers often prefer qualitative methods of information collection because they are most concerned that the competencies make sense for their organization.

How Are Competency Models Used?

Competency models are used for a wide variety of functions. Similar to job analysis, competency models can be used for many human resource functions, such as selection, placement, succession planning, promotion, and appraisals; however, competency models are also very good in other areas such as training and development. Instead of trying to give an example of all of the different types of competency models for each different purpose, we chose to present an example of how competency modeling could be used for training and development in an organization. First, though, we attempt to differentiate between the process of job analysis and that of competency modeling.

In October of 1998, Michael Harris's column, entitled "Competency Modeling: Viagraized Job Analysis Or Impotent Imposter?" appeared in TIP. In this column, Harris interviewed a number of practitioners. Harris found two factions in the argument about whether or not competency modeling is separate and distinct from job analysis. We did not find such a distinct separation in our sample of practitioners. None of the people we interviewed believed that competency modeling and job analysis were essentially the same. Generally, the practitioners we spoke with saw competency modeling as more closely related to the strategic goals and objectives of organizations, as opposed to job analysis, which is seen as more narrow and focused on the individual.

There may be several reasons for the discrepancy between our responses and some of Harris's. One possibility is that there may have been enough progress in further defining the process of competency modeling since Harris's column, that a distinction between the two is now more apparent. Alternatively, as Harris (1998) stated, it may all depend on how you use competency modeling. There may be practitioners who use competency modeling in the same way and towards the same outcomes as they use job analysis; we just may not have sampled anyone in this camp.

Job analysis typically focuses on the individual tasks that must be performed for an employee to be viewed as successful in his/her job type. The point of focus, then, is the present. That is, we concentrate on the KSAOs that are needed to perform successfully in a jobas the job was when the job analysis was performed.

Competency modeling, on the other hand, can focus on either current concerns or anticipated future demands, or, in some cases, both. Competency models can account for changing jobs by allowing business leaders to select competencies consistent with anticipated future concerns. Competency modeling can also be used to anticipate and prepare for the future by identifying competencies that should be included in the training and development plans of current employees.

Alternatively, competency models can be used for training and development without an intensive analysis of future concerns of the organization. To this end, one of the practitioners we interviewed pointed out that some companies use competency models as a way of determining the attributes that separate employees who are performing exceptionally well from those whose performance is acceptable, but not exemplary. Identified differences in competencies between these two groups are then used as the cornerstone of training and development programs for current employees (e.g., leadership and/or executive development).

Communicating With Competencies

One of the concepts that emerged in our interviews with practitioners was the idea of utilizing competency models as a tool for communication facilitation. Several of the practitioners we interviewed, as well as McLagan (1997), view competency models as an effective way of increasing and improving communication. In creating competency models, organizations define certain behaviors and attributes. This helps to increase communication about goals and expectations, thereby reducing confusion both within and across departments.

As an illustration, imagine that a company creates a competency model that includes some basic competencies currently required across almost all jobs. Employees at all levels are then made aware of these competencies, as well as those competencies that the company deems important for success in the future. In this way, employees have been made aware of the expectations placed on them for current performance, in addition to future development. This also helps employees not only to see more clearly the relevance of training programs but also to understand exactly what is expected of them.

In addition, competency models provide supervisors in different departments and different locations with the same language that can be used to discuss the performance of employees. For example, when employees transfer to different locations, their new supervisors can be made aware of their strengths and growth areas with a list of common competencies. Taken together, competencies provide a common language that can be understood and used by all members of an organization (McLagan, 1997). Without this common language, there may some confusion because competency names are often highly charged with information, and they may have many different connotations. For example, "communicates effectively" may have very different meanings to different people.

The Research-Practice Gap in Competency Modeling

The dearth of literature on the effectiveness of competency modeling in the academic journals is not reflective of the prevalence of competency modeling in organizations. In addition, the articles we were able to find on competency modeling in the practitioner journals are largely examples of its use and editorial comments on its effectiveness. This leaves practitioners with limited evidence of the effectiveness of this technique.

To address this issue, we asked the practitioners we interviewed to tell us what kinds of competency modeling research they would like to see. Some examples of the issues practitioners mentioned, as well as several ideas the authors added, follow:

  • Are competencies truly different from KSAOs?
  • Using factor and content analytic techniques, can a taxonomy of competencies be created?
  • Which methodological approaches to creating competency models are most useful and appropriate?
  • Is there overlap between competencies and organizational citizenship behaviors? What effect does this potential overlap have on the use of competency models and/or the study of organizational citizenship behaviors?
  • Can competency models be validated?
  • Are there certain attributes that should not be included in the definition of competencies because of ethical/legal concerns?
  • What are employees' perceptions of competency models (e.g., face valid)?
  • Are there certain critical core competencies that apply to jobs both across and within industries?
  • How does an organization's use of competency modeling actually impact individual, team, and organizational behavior and development?
  • Is there more transfer of training for training programs that are closely linked to desired competencies?

Conclusion

Most of the columns that have appeared in Informed Decisions: Research Based Practice Notes have focused on applying new discoveries in research to the workplace. Conversely, we focus on the lack of research in an area that seems to be of significant interest to practitioners. Competency modeling has received a great deal of qualitative and anecdotal support, but there is virtually no empirical research on its effectiveness. This column sought to bring to light the research-practice gap associated with this topic, as well as to clarify some of the ambiguities of competency modeling as it is set forth today.

References

Brockbank, W., Ulrich, D., & Beatty, R. W. (1999). HR professional development: Creating the future creators at the University of Michigan Business School. Human Resource Management, 38, 111-117.

Dalton, M. (1997). Are competency models a waste? Training & Development, 51, 46-49.

Focus shifts to behaviors. (1995). Supervisory Management, 40, 1,6.

Harris, M. (1998). Practice Network: Competency modeling: Viagraized job analysis or impotent imposter? The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 36, 37-41.

McLagan, P. A. (1997). Competencies: The next generation. Training & Development, 51, 40-47.

Mirabile, R. J. (1997). Everything you wanted to know about competency modeling. Training & Development, 51, 73-77.

 


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