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How competency frameworks have lost the plot


Andrew Mayo

In his latest column, Andrew Mayo argues that competency frameworks have lost touch with reality and have become far too ‘narrow’ and far too powerful.

It must be some 25 years ago that I was introduced to the ‘development dimensions’ of DDI and their application in the design of assessment centres. It was the first time that I had seen any systematic analysis of the skills that managers needed, and it was new and refreshing.

But over the years since, what we might now call the ‘competency framework’ has become a powerbase for HR that has, in many cases, lost touch with reality. Let me suggest some of the problems that I perceive.

‘Capabilities’ (if I can use that broader term) form the bridge between any matching of people and roles – and therefore some description of them is a foundation of many HR processes. These include recruitment, selection, appraisal, training planning, succession planning and so on. So a framework for describing them is pretty important.

“The problem is that most of these frameworks created by HR and HR consultancies focus only on what we might call ‘personal behaviours’. Many of these are actually personality or intellectual characteristics, inherent in the individual.”

The problem we have is that most of these frameworks created by HR and HR consultancies focus only on what we might call ‘personal behaviours’. Many of these are actually personality or intellectual characteristics, inherent in the individual.

Who you know, not what you know?

But this is not the whole story. We do not very often recruit or promote people on the basis of personal skills alone. Indeed, if we listen to line managers interviewing, their interest is primarily in experience and professional or technical expertise. Sometimes the focus is even on who you know – what relationships you can bring into the company.

So the first problem is the narrowness of so many frameworks. At best, we find clusters of essential capabilities, which should be separately defined, grouped together into the anodyne ‘business awareness’ or ‘professional knowledge’.

If HR recognised that this was true, and that the part they played was to bring in the personal dimension by way of addition, that would be fine. But the competency framework has been elevated in some organisations to a level of power that is dangerous.

Let’s take recruitment and selection. I recall a young friend of mine who was going for a technical job he had seen advertised. We looked at his CV and the spec and he seemed admirably matched. The inexperienced recruitment consultant, however, grilled him through a ‘competency-based interview’ and he was told he was unsuccessful. They had asked no questions at all about my friend’s knowledge and experience – and this for a technical role. A lot of the furore about junior doctors’ applications last year was (as I understand it) due to a similar problem.

In selection, assessment centres are invariably built around competencies. This is fair enough, since that is what they are designed to do – and there are competencies that are needed at higher levels that may not have been very visible in the job so far. But despite the face validity and robust design of a good centre, it is still artificial and still only an input to a decision. Yet how many people have failed a promotion because of an assessment centre placing over-emphasis on a competency ‘weakness’?

When we look at the industry created around behavioural assessment and coaching, again the focus is on behaviours and the premise that they can be changed and developed. The fact is that many of these areas can only be developed if people are motivated to do so, and even then may be inherent characteristics that will not change.

Smart people find ways to manage around their ‘acceptable flaws’ (as Professor Rob Goffee at London Business School calls them). So much effort is put into this with so little result. I was once a coach for some investment bankers, following up the 360 that they were mandated to undertake. Their only interest in personal development was to get some more professional knowledge and skills to extend their revenue earning opportunities. Of course these skills did not feature in the 360 feedback.

Implied universality

Some organisations have extended their framework into ‘competency-based pay’. This has never made any sense to me. Behavioural competencies are one input to potential performance; they are no guarantee. It is how they are used to produce results that matters.

If we look at the frameworks themselves, there is usually an implied universality – that we have discovered the unique mix that – if applied by an individual – will ensure a high level of performance and ability to progress anywhere in the world.

“Some organisations have extended their framework into ‘competency-based pay’. This has never made any sense to me.”

I have watched in amazement big international companies take their framework developed in the US or the UK and ‘roll it out’ globally around the world, as if there was no evidence at all that Japanese or Arab or Finnish managers achieve outstanding results through quite different behaviour mixes.

Worst of all, is the implication that men and women can also be ‘standardised’ in this way. Furthermore, that ‘universality’ extends to applying all the competences to every role, which is clearly nonsense, even in the leadership group. Each role has its own unique requirements.

All this argues for the concept of a ‘dictionary’ from which you draw those six to eight which are most appropriate for the role and culture. Indeed, in DDI’s original set, there were about 40 and this is what you did.

One further problem is the idea that personal behaviours change hierarchically; in other words that they all become more demanding with increasing responsibility. It is true that several new skills come into play as one rises, and a higher level of thinking maturity is needed. But forcing behaviours into artificial ‘ladders’ of competence just does not work.

When these are used as guides to promotion, we mislead people. The HR department of one large bank put such criteria on their intranet as a guide to ‘career planning’. Employees soon found that future roles required a lot more than prescribed levels of behaviour and ceased to use the system. We had to develop something more holistic – and realistic – for them.

Defining and analysing capabilities is certainly a core tool in people management processes. But HR cannot claim to be partners with the business if it cannot think like line managers and understand what matters to them. I submit that competency frameworks (in their most well known form) need a re-assessment of their contribution to these processes.

Andrew Mayo is president of the HR Society. He is also a director of Mayo Learning International and he can be contacted at [email protected]

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5 Responses

  1. Common problems with competency frameworks
    Andrew Mayo has highlighted some of the most common frustrations found when using competency frameworks for recruitment and promotion. But competencies do not stand alone. To make them effective at all, competencies must be integrated right through the talent management process; from recruitment to performance management and development.

    But more than this, when recruiting or selecting for new roles and development, competency frameworks are just one of the tools available. Organisations also need to be able to measure the knowledge and experience of candidates, as well as their motivation and skills. Competencies alone cannot do this.

    All too often HR works in isolation from the rest of the business. It is vital that when competencies are developed and integrated they match the overall business strategy and are framed in the language line managers need.

  2. I think it depends…
    on the nature of the organisation, what they’re trying to do, etc, etc.

    I certainly advise keeping competency frameworks short and to the point, but then I have also worked with organisations that have very extensive frameworks (including some flexibility to help them work on a broad basis) which have worked very well. These tend to be fairly technologicaly sophisticated organisations to cope with the complexity in doing this.

    They key to me, is tailoring the framework to the circumstances. And this is why, as I see it, many frameworks implementations don’t work (or stop working as business circumstances change and frameworks are not updated).

    By the way, Andrew, one way that I’ve helped organisations keep their frameworks quite broad is to use the combination of capability, potential, contribution and values alignment that you introduced in the human capital monitor (in ‘The Human Value of the Enterprise’). I don’t think this is the best tool for measuring human capital, but I do think it provides a very effective basis for extending on competency frameworks.

  3. Competencies
    Andrew clearly has a lot of valuable experience in this field, and obviously some unhappy stories to tell. And no doubt, competency frameworks are sometimes used quite inappropriately and unprofessionally.

    More broadly however, for those readers wondering, I do not think competencies as such need to be ‘thrown out’ in either recruiting or developing people, especially if two points are born in mind? (And I am sure Andrew will agree!)

    First, there is a world of difference between a ‘competence’ – what people need to know to do a job acceptably, and a ‘competency’ – the skills and personal qualities to be able to perform that job outstandingly well. The first of these may be seen as a minimum standard required to do the given job at all – just for example, as in an NVQ? The second, well constructed, should surely confirm how really excellent people might do that job brilliantly, in their organisation’s culture, not just to guide others now but even to help define ’emerging competencies’ (ie the personal skills and qualities that may be required in the future as that job, role or organisation may develop).

    Secondly, many a ‘competency’ *is* indeed ‘behavioural’. {As is regularly said, people are often hired for what they know – and fired for how they behave !) Moreover, such desired behavioural competencies are also therefore almost always organisationally specific. What works well and is admired in one culture may be quite inappropriate in another. (And buying ready-made competency-frameworks ‘off the shelf’, which I know some organisations are tempted to do, is surely going to be self-defeating?)

    I hope this may be helpful? As Andrew hints, maybe the real problem is that not many senior line-managers understand this, and ‘HR’ doesn’t always have their ear to help them do so?

    Kind regards


  4. Absolutely right – competencies are overdone
    Great to have your support. I have been making similar points in HR Zone for two years. The idea of ‘distinguishing competencies’,those which really make a big difference,was fine,but the whole thing has ben overdone. Most of the really effective managers I have met seem to get their results by having only three or four competencies but to a high degree. As with most management fads, a good idea has got out of control. We should go back to thinking more about character and attitude.

  5. Competency frameworks have some value
    Andrew Mayo’s piece is a refreshing look at competency frameworks, and I agree that used sensibly they can be a really useful tool. However they do need to be used sensibly, and we need to recognise that people bring a whole range

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