It happens every day. Somebody gets the great idea to develop organizational competencies. A committee is formed of trainers, recruiters, and a sprinkling of consultants. Six months later, worn and haggard, they emerge from seclusion, examine the fruits of their labor, and proclaim, “Forsooth, these are indeed goode competencies! Let us return to the light and share our goode news!” Overcome with emotion and ecstatic about being freed from confinement in a stale motel room, some members mistake the draperies for mantels of wisdom. The weary authors process back to the organization. They arrive with great fanfare, cloaked in dusty robes emblazoned with Holiday Inn Express logos, blowing trumpets made of rams’ horns, and dragging a wooden cart carrying stone tablets inscribed with the “TEN COMPETENCIES.” The executive committee, all of them wise below their years and completely out of touch with the common jobholder, examines the list carefully. Overcome with the d?j? vu of superficial words borrowed from the latest management bestseller, they rightfully confirm, “Yea, verily, these are Goode Competencies! Go forthe among the people and proclaim these Competencies the law of the land!” Two years later, the Holiday Inn damage claims are finally settled, one of the tablets has been lost, the others gather dust in the closet, and rumors circulate about the second coming of consultants who will drive false prophets out of the organization. What went wrong? Everything. Competence and Competencies Competencies are not to be tampered with. For one thing, as if the generally accepted definition of competency is not enough, big organizations tend to invent their own definitions ó a trend that has been known to drive even well intentioned employees into rest homes for the terminally confused. So, before we begin, we’ll reestablish the meaning of “competence.” The word “competence” is derived from the Latin word competere, meaning “suitable.” It entered the English language sometime during the 15th century (I guess our ancestors didn’t know or care about incompetence before that time). Merriam Webster defines competence as, “having requisite or adequate ability or qualities.” The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as, “the ability to do something to a level that is acceptable.” The American Heritage Dictionary defines competence as, “properly or sufficiently qualified; capable.” We’ll use these definitions to define organizational competency as having the ability to successfully perform elements of a specific job. (By the way, whether or not the reader believes a competency can be trained or learned is unimportant. I’m not in the business of defending training programs and am still waiting to see a replicable study that supports the opinion that training makes people smarter, improves their inherent motivation, or significantly changes behavior. So, unless your organization is a non-profit social support enterprise, I’d suggest sticking with the “competency you see is the competency you get” hiring philosophy.) Three Kinds of Competencies One reason why hiring managers tend to reject organization-wide competency definitions is that competencies have three substantially different applications: training, management, and hiring. Trying to use competencies designed for one application in another application leads to confusion and a serious lack of credibility. Let me explain by using a competency I’ll call “analysis,” defined as, “the ability to recognize relationships between seemingly unrelated issues. In the trainer’s lexicon, analysis usually involves some kind of practical application. For example, I once attended an analysis workshop that required teamwork and communication to gather information (Teamwork and Communication), discovering hidden relationships (Analysis), organizing the data in a logical array (Planning and Organizing), using various tools to evaluate recommendations (Analysis and Judgment), and presenting the solution to management (Presentation, Communication, and Persuasiveness). In a training application, “Analysis” became a generic, multifaceted process involving many different competencies. Organizations that try to adapt “sound-good” training competencies quickly discover they are overly broad, very situational, highly complex, and almost impossible to measure. (More about measurement later.) The second application for competencies is to communicate expectations and manage performance. This is how most people think of competencies. Analysis applied to an actual job is highly job-explicit. Sales analysis, for example, might mean analyzing market potential, developing sales penetration strategies, or understanding competitor strengths and weaknesses. Likewise, analysis for engineers or analysis for managers would be entirely different. Performance management competencies take on different meanings because they describe job details required from one period to the next. Trying to develop a competency system based on performance management competencies involves mind-boggling complexity. Users taking this approach quickly see that performance management competencies tend to multiply like rabbits on Viagra. The final application for competencies is in hiring. Hiring competencies are highly focused on raw skills. Unless you are lucky enough to interview a known high performer from an identical company holding an identical job, hiring competencies are the only way to “translate” old applicant performance into new job skills. Anyone experienced in assessment or behavioral interviewing will have already learned there are only a few raw hiring competencies. Some are associated with cognitive ability, others with planning, and a few address specialized interpersonal skills (attitudes, interests, and motivations are technically not competencies. They are the “will do,” not the “can do,” part of performance and are not easy to identify). In Part 2, I’ll discuss how to identify the right competencies for your organization and regain control over employee hiring, training, and performance.
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