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 firstname.lastname@example.org
or Jimmie O'Connor at email@example.com.
As always, if you have any ideas for future columns or would like to propose
authoring a column, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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
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
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,
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
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
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
- 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?
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
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,
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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