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Opinion: Competencies overdone

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FIMC Chartered Management Consultant John Pope explains why competencies are an ineffective and reductive way of judging success; and offers his solution for an alternative system to equip companies for global business challenges.


Once upon a time, long ago, when there were personnel managers, employers recruited craftsmen on the basis that they had a proper relevant apprenticeship, clerks if they had a school certificate and seemed bright and keen and managers on the basis of their previous experience in managing people, and especially their attitude and character.

Then along came the National Institute of Industrial Psychology, with sensible views on interviewing and on the need to think clearly about the job which wanted filling. This soon led to the position where we were told to produce job specifications, personal profiles – often called man-specs.

Later still came the concept of distinguishing competencies, the few distinctive abilities which distinguished excellent managers from mere time-servers. Later this was extended to detailed descriptions of all the competences required of any manager, with some extra ones specific to particular roles, and often in several grades, all capable of being assessed, if not measured. Many of the attempts to define competencies throughout an organisation have been unsuccessful – the organisation has changed too much in the process.

Many attempts to introduce competency frameworks have been over-complicated and diverted too much management attention from getting results. Management consultants have made small fortunes in peddling such schemes.

The other day I read an announcement of an assessment tool for measuring accurately 16 key competencies for a manager. I have known many managers in well over 40 years in business; some have been outstanding and household names. None have had 16 key competencies; most got by with half a dozen, some with fewer.

We all knew that job descriptions, analyses of roles and organisation charts started to become out of date as soon as they were written. We now know that they go out of date before they are even published.

We are now told that to survive and thrive we must embrace change, we must at all levels, be prepared to learn new skills, work in new ways, infect our subordinates with our enthusiasm.

What do we really need? Not complex structures of competencies derived from detailed analyses of jobs. We should be selecting on the basis of character, willingness to learn, readiness to adapt, as evidenced by people’s previous approach to work, achievements and character as demonstrated or assessed. And on the same lines, we should be developing and promoting managers on the basis of how they have made new things happen, and their continued determination to keep making new and better things happen.

These are evidences of character which those personnel managers of the 1950s and ’60s understood well, but then many of them had seen service in World War II and had not had time to spare on sophisticated systems.

The present fixation with competencies has been overdone, it slows us down and in many cases has become an end in itself. It is high time to return to a simpler common-sense approach. Only then will we fit our organisations for this challenging and fast-changing world.

One Response

  1. Competencies Overdone
    How refreshing !!!!!!
    Brings to mind the old adage ‘if it aint broke, why fix it?’ The problem you are faced with are the hourdes of advisers experts consultants and especially bureaucrats out there, a large number of whom have not managed people, reliant on promoting some new and wonderful ‘take’ on a very successful model from years back. That is how they justify their existence. In New Zealand bureaucrats outnumber all others at least 10 fold.

    The TWI scheme which came out of the US just after WW2 and was extremely well modified by folk in the UK, produced fantastic results. It became unfashionable mainly because it was so simple front line managers could take the principles and implement them……..same as the CEO. And most of what Mr Deming had to say produces results way ahead of all this latest ‘fad’ stuff. By all means let’s try to do things better. That is our duty. But better has never translated to complicated. Well done. Keep at it!!

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