I have a friend who works for a huge company. He has spent the last year of his life working on a “competency” project intended to hire, develop, train, and deploy employees. He’s discouraged. Why? This big company knows all about software and hardware, but it is totally incompetent (i.e., out of its league, clueless, self-opinionated, myopic, ego-centric, and every other blundering adjective one could think of) when it comes to defining a competency-based system. Everyone has an opinion, people have their own vested definitions, and university professors (who never managed a business in their life) queue up to receive projects. It’s an exercise in futility. One might as well give every visitor to an art museum different-colored reading glasses then ask them to judge paintings. Everyone is totally convinced he or she is seeing the same piece of art, but no one ever considers the effect of the glasses. The other day I was watching a program about a Japanese construction project to build the world’s largest, tallest, and heaviest building ó on sand, in a seismic earthquake zone. We won’t debate why anyone would want to build such a project, but it served as a nice metaphor for competency-based people management systems. Unlike the big computer company, everyone working on the building knew exactly what they were supposed to do: some planned, some manufactured components, some assembled parts, and some managed the whole process. Best of all, they all used the same base-10 numbers, engineering principles, and metric system. Big Buildings and Competency-based Systems The Japanese building had three main systems: a static central core that supported the entire structure; separate functional areas for living, shopping, working, and so forth; and dynamic operational areas that would be constantly working, cleaning, supplying, and so forth. Each element had to work together. The core held everything together, but it did not define the facilities. The facilities made it functional, but they did not define the operations that made it work. They had everything, and nothing, in common ó except they must all work together. Managers want complicated competencies that describe and define work. Staffing executives seem to prefer great big global definitions like “miniaturization,” “entrepreneurial” and “hard-driving.” Line managers like operational definitions such as “analytical,” “business savvy,” and “determined.” When managers and executives get together, a competency project starts to look like a laundry-list of every conceivable operational objective known to man or beast. The model becomes a stuffed mammoth in the living room: it fills the room with its presence, it’s totally static, and it’s dead. The mammoth project may be initially impressive, but it is so burdensome and unwieldy, and as a result it fails within a few years. Bottom line: Management wants detailed competencies that define and control all activities. Trainers, in spite of their best intentions, are not behavioral psychologists. They purchase prepared training programs and deliver short workshops and seminars that seldom, if ever, change incompetent people into productive workers. A competency system designed by a trainer is an exercise in every conceivable buzzword ever uttered by a training manual. It is often more general than a manager’s competency list, but is often as global and fuzzy as the definition of “leadership”. Bottom line: trainers want general competency lists that fit pop trends and workshops. Recruiters often find themselves sweeping up after the elephants at the end of the parade. They are usually unfamiliar with good testing practices, have never heard of job analysis, and have never validated a test. They persist in their belief that interviews work. They distrust tests. They work with whatever resources managers will grudgingly give them. Bottom line: Recruiters are often happy to get anything of value, but don’t know how to accurately and reliably measure it. Let’s just say that if these folks were constructing the world’s largest and tallest building, the core would be part Legos, part cardboard, part structural steel, and part tin cans; the functional areas would be cobbled together using bailing twine; and the operational areas would stock the kitchens with toilet paper and the bathrooms with sliced bread. Competency-Based Systems That Work Competency based systems must meet several criteria to survive (i.e. last longer than three years and fulfill management’s objectives):

  • Executives must deliver a clearly articulated business vision and mission.
  • Mid managers must convert the vision and mission into operational business plans.
  • Line managers must convert the operational business plans into managerial objectives.
  • Line managers must go one step further and convert these objectives into human competencies (Note: There must one generally accepted definition of “competency.” I like Merriam-Webster’s definition: “the ability to perform,” or the ability of a specific individual to perform the skills required for a specific job.)
  • The competencies must be redistributed to training, management, and recruiting.

Competencies and Construction Principles Vision, mission, and competencies form the “core” of the building. They support and hold everything in its place. Furthermore, they must be adaptable to depending on application:

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  1. They should carry broad-scope executive imperatives that apply to all positions, such as “innovation,” “teamwork,” and so forth.
  2. Managers, responsible for doing the work must be able to tweak and tune them to each individual situation. This will serve as the basis for decent performance management and appraisal.
  3. Recruiters responsible for staffing must be able to simplify and measure competencies. This allows staffing to acquire the right talent to do the job regardless of prior experience or background.

Now it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee. What happens in the real world?

  • Everyone thinks that, because they are human, they are human relations experts.
  • People are often convinced that their “gut” makes better choices than their head. (Do you suppose that is because some heads are in closer proximity to the business-end of their gut than others?)
  • Managers are generally hired/promoted based on performance as individual contributors.
  • Once promoted, managers immediately become human relations experts and a protected member of the “inner circle.”
  • Trainers attend a few training programs and immediately become incompetent psychologists.
  • Healthcare psychologists market themselves as business experts.
  • Performance appraisal forms are “global” and generally have nothing to do with job performance.
  • Organizations often ask other organizations to share their objectives and competencies (as if everyone had the same objectives).
  • Managers think HBR articles provide a list of “competencies for the next century” (see above).
  • Professors, who can seldom manage a business department, let alone get along with each other, are sought-after business experts. (Anyone spent time at a faculty meeting lately?)
  • Recruiters think their job is sourcing, not qualifying.
  • No one calls it like it is.

Recommendations anyone?