Competency Models

Competency Models

A competency model is a written description of the competencies required for fully successful or exemplary performance in a job category, work team, department, division, or organization. Competency identification and modeling can be a beginning point for strategic development plans linked to organizational and individual needs.

As you might expect, organizations express competency models in somewhat different ways. These variations reflect their different constraints, preferences, practices, values, business objectives, and reasons for using competencies. Competency models may also vary by type. Many organizations do not distinguish among competency models that underscore the differences between exemplary and fully successful performers, those that identify minimum requirements for job success, or so-called derailment studies that indicate the likely causes of failure. In general, then, the structure of a competency model, the way in which it is communicated to workers, and the manner of its use reflect the values of the organization's decision makers and leaders.

Research on the characteristics included in competency models is of much interest today. In one study with 300 respondents conducted by Arthur Andersen, Schoonover, and SHRM, the following categories were reported as included in competency models: technical skills, knowledge areas, performance behaviors, personal attributes, metrics/results, and key experiences (Schoonover, Schoonover, Nemerov, & Ehly, 2000, p. 7).

Competency Identification

We often advise clients in our consulting practice to ask for a quick definition from anyone who uses the term competency. There is good reason to do so. Not everyone uses the word in the same way, as you learned earlier in this chapter. Because there is confusion with the terms involved in competency work, establishing clear definitions is an important part of the field.[6] And to complicate matters, not everyone uses the same approach to discovering the competencies linked to job success, a process known as competency identification.

Confronting the Challenges of Competency Identification

Striking a balance between speed and rigor is perhaps the chief challenge of competency identification work. Speed refers to how quickly the competencies for a targeted group can be identified. Rigor refers to the validity and reliability of the competency modeling results. A very rigorous methodology for competency modeling may require such an extended time frame that the results are useless by the time they are delivered to impatient clients. This impatience on the part of clients is often warranted, as their production cycles may be short and must be modified to accommodate revised work methods.

Many other challenges await those who undertake competency identification. An organization may have difficulty matching the resources needed to conduct competency identification with the resources available to carry out the task. Decision makers are not always easily convinced that competency modeling efforts are worth the necessary effort and cost. Yet another challenge involves deciding whether to devote time and resources to producing culture-specific competency models or to find and use models from other sources.

Pickett (1998) mentioned challenges such as difficulty identifying competencies, not enough time allotted for the project, resistance from staff, and lack of management support and commitment. As the reasons for problems, he suggested poor communication, not enough background information made available, and unmet expectations. Cooper (2000) further noted challenges such as less than total commitment throughout the organization, an unawareness of the benefits, and a culture that does not support competency practices.

According to Lucia and Lepsinger (1999), lack of commitment is often caused by failure to clearly articulate the purpose for using a competency model, not enough stakeholders involved, and fear of changes, limited choices, and extra work. They suggested other issues that are critical to identify in the development stage of an action plan, such as conflicts related to time, influence of different individuals and key stakeholders, power and politics, availability of resources, resistance, and skill.

We should comment here, however, that a competency-based approach to HR management provides a method of dealing with each issue. Several research studies on competency-based HR management have addressed the topic of challenges and barriers and provided suggestions for meeting and overcoming them. Here is a brief look at the some of the results.

  • From a survey on competency systems, both their design and use, conducted with 134 people, Green (1999) indicated that the findings suggest five broad categories of challenges: gaining buy-in, involvement, and participation; developing reliable and valid forms of measurement; addressing the challenge of negative feedback through introduction of acceptable and representative performance measurement; ensuring job relevance; and seeking methods of cost effectiveness.

  • More than 130 HR executives were interviewed for a study during late 1999 and early 2000. The results indicated the following barriers to using competencies: no buy-in or visible commitment from top management; organizational unreadiness; lack of time and resources needed to develop and validate credible, useful models that could withstand legal challenge; insufficient time and resources for creating reliable, valid evaluations with which to guide follow-up steps (Rahbar-Daniels, Erickson, & Dalik, 2001).

  • The Society for Human Resource Management sponsored a study in late 1999 and early 2000 that involved 300 organizations. The results suggested that barriers to success include lack of expertise, insufficient staff and financial resources, limited support, and conflicting priorities (Schoonover et al., 2000). Identifying realistic outcomes, determining resources needs and time requirements, and consistently using best practices were noted as contributors to positive outcomes (Schoonover et al., 2000).

  • In 1998, researchers Cook and Bernthal Development Dimensions International conducted a study of 292 members of the HR Benchmark Group. The survey included a number of different questions about competencies and their use in organizations. One of the topics was barriers to the effective use of competencies. The findings suggested difficulties in the following areas: making resources available for job analyses, developing strategies for using competencies, linking competencies to organizational strategy, securing management support, identifying competencies, adapting to changing jobs and roles, assigning responsibility for competency identification, and providing clear, accurate definitions (Cook & Bernthal, 1998).

Professionals who work with competencies often have very good suggestions for addressing problems associated with competency projects. A few of these suggestions are briefly described here.

Representatives of organizations with competency-based HR management practices offered a number of approaches that include applying a consistent method of competency identification and using the same language across the organization, communicating and teaching competencies more effectively; obtaining involvement of the HR staff who need to apply competencies at the beginning and throughout the process, devoting sufficient time to implementation, and maintaining alignment of competencies with corporate strategy (Dewey, 1997). Lucia and Lepsinger (1999) had these suggestions for increasing the likelihood of positive outcomes with competency projects: establish ongoing communication, do not develop competency models in isolation, but rather in keeping with the business needs and job environment, and remain focused on original objectives.

Some organizations continuously seek ways of facilitating competency projects. For example, the Public Service Commission of Canada, collaborating with the Treasury Board Secretariat, conducted a survey that involved 57 organizations of the federal Public Service to ascertain interest in the use of competency-based human resource management. Members of the project team reported a number of practices that worked well in introducing the concept of competency-based HR management, including identifying a champion for a pilot of the competency project; creating a committee in some organizations for HR disciplines in order to establish a connection between competencies and the potential applications; inviting internal and external clients to participate in validating and assessing employee competency profiles; inviting unions to participate in the identification and validation of competency profiles; developing self-assessment guides with development tools; designing a manager's guide for facilitating the use of competency profiles; developing an information kit for distribution to all employees; using consultants to develop some expertise among personnel; and establishing a competency assessment center for employees (Competencies in the Public Service, 1998).

Yet, many HR practitioners who undertake competency identification efforts find themselves between the figurative rock and the hard place: they are expected to perform rigorous studies without the time and resources they need to do so. Under those circumstances, rigor is often sacrificed to expediency, and the competencies identified are neither valid nor reliable. Consequently, the identified competency model has no credibility with decision makers, who then become unenthusiastic about future competency modeling efforts. It is therefore very important that those who plan to pursue competency identification and modeling are clear about the time and other resources required to produce high-quality results. Decision makers should be informed about the relationship between resource availability or unavailability and the quality of the results they will receive.[7]

Competency Identification Methods

Competency identification is a means of clarifying key requirements for a job category or department and should be completed only after the dimensions of the work (for example, activities, tasks, setting, and tools) are identified. While it is not possible here to provide detailed descriptions of all competency identification methods, the following summary of common approaches will help those who are unfamiliar with the key methods.[8] Each approach has it costs, limitations, and strengths. It is essential to remember, however, that the selection of an appropriate competency identification method is a strategic decision.

The Job Competence Assessment Method (JCAM)

JCAM was one of the first competency identification methods created to provide information on workers and the work they perform, and it can lead to the development of a highly valid and reliable competency model when the model is carefully applied. Harvard psychologist David McClelland originated the process, which is generally used to identify the abstract, or less obvious, competencies with which workers achieve exemplary and fully successful performance.[9]

The method relies on the collection and analysis of data obtained through a process called behavior event interviewing. The behavioral event interview (BEI) is a technique developed by McClelland and Charles Dailey (1973). It combines Flanagan's (1954) critical incident technique with other data based on more than 30 years of McClelland's (1985) studies on motivation, called the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). In the BEI, the interviewer asks a series of detailed questions about actions performed in the work setting that workers perceive to be successful or unsuccessful and the thoughts, feelings, and outcomes that accompanied them (Spencer, McClelland, & Spencer, 1994). Isolating the characteristics unique to exemplary performers is a common goal of this approach.

Through the use of BEIs, exemplary and fully successful workers are first identified and then interviewed about critical events in their work experience. The interviewer asks participants to provide detailed descriptions of both successful and unsuccessful work experiences. Respondents are prompted to fully describe their thoughts and feelings, the actions they took, and the circumstances surrounding or influencing each work event. After obtaining permission from the person being interviewed, the session is taped, and the researcher later has a verbatim, written transcript prepared. In most cases, researchers require at least 6 to 12 individual interviews for each job they are modeling. Once the interviews have been collected and the transcripts prepared, interviewers work together to identify the characteristics (which are potential competencies) that were revealed during the interviews. Key themes from the transcripts are subjected to coding with appropriate qualitative data analytical methods (Miles & Huberman, 1994). The persons doing the coding, usually the interviewers, do not know whether the transcript represents an interview with an exemplary or a fully successful worker.

The data are tabulated and subjected to rigorous statistical analyses. Three sets of characteristics are identified: those used by only the exemplary performers, those used by both exemplary and fully successful performers, and those cited by the fully successful but not the exemplary performers. The worker competencies that distinguish performance are represented by the first of the preceding sets; the minimum worker competencies are represented by the second set; and the characteristics of the third set are discarded, as they are not used by the exemplary performers even to achieve at least fully successful performance. Consequently, the characteristics, or traits, in this third group are not competencies. A trait emerges as a competency only when it is shown to be required for fully successful or exemplary work performance.

Although BEIs produce rich and comprehensive work-related data, they do have limitations. First, they cannot be used to identify competencies for future work. After all, the interviews rely on the experiences of the respondents. Second, BEIs require skilled interviewers and statistical support services. For that reason, an organization might need to contract with outside sources to complete many of the tasks required for this approach. Third, key employees must be available for interviews, which does result in lost work time. It is easy to see why conducting BEIs can be a costly and time-consuming process. (For a further review of behavioral event interviewing, including the advantages and challenges, see Spencer & Spencer, 1993, pp. 97–99.)

The Competency Menu Method

The competency menu method is becoming increasingly popular as a means of identifying competencies. It relies on competency lists obtained from sources in the private and public domains. Practitioners create menus from the lists and then use the menus to identify the competencies necessary for a work role or traditional job in an organization. Many vendors have made competency menus available; they can also be found through a quick search of the World-Wide Web.

As a starting point for developing an organization-specific competency model, competency menus tend to be less costly than the Job Competence Assessment Method we described earlier. But there is a trade-off. Competency menus from external sources may be of questionable value to an organization, although menus of high quality have been devised from credible research conducted by professional associations or government agencies. The real question is this: How did a vendor create the competency menu?

To be both useful and defensible, a competency menu must be comprehensive for the work it embraces. It must also represent the current state of the art and state of the practice for its work area. These factors affect the validity and reliability of the competency models derived from a menu. Validity refers to the measurement of the competencies needed to bring about desired business results, and reliability refers to the means of measurement that accurately reflects the actual competency levels of employees (Cooper, 2000). Accordingly, practitioners should carefully examine the origins of the competency menus they have found.

Competency models built from competency menus can be organized in a variety of ways, depending on the needs or preferences of the user. Competencies can be organized around work roles, traditional jobs, or work outputs or results. Flexibility is one of the key selling points for competency menus, especially in organizations that must accommodate frequent change.

A competency menu must be modified—a process that some call "tailoring"—to meet the needs of a unique corporate culture. Modifications may be accomplished in several ways, such as by using card sorts, focus groups, surveys, or a combination of the three. Each approach has its advantages and challenges.

A card sort activity is easy to design. Competency statements (taken verbatim or edited from a menu) are placed on index cards. A respondent group is identified, and group members meet to sort the cards. Members may be instructed, for example, to sort the cards to identify not more than 15 competencies that they believe job incumbents must be able to demonstrate in order to perform their jobs successfully. The objectives of the activity will dictate the procedures that are used. The resulting list may be further refined if desired.

Focus groups also can be used to identify competencies from a menu. With focus groups, researchers must take care to avoid groupthink and grandstanding. Groupthink refers to a situation in which a majority of participants have the same ideas or opinions and dissenters are reluctant to speak their minds. As a result, the group becomes focused on one train of thought. Grandstanding occurs when dominant personalities in a focus group exercise too much influence. Traditional focus groups alone, used without comprehensive competency menus available to them at the time of competency identification, are predicted to identify only about 40% of the key competencies for a targeted job category.

Printed surveys are composed of a competency menu (or elements of one) and a scale with which respondents rate the importance of each competency. This method can be problematic for several reasons. First, long questionnaires may produce a response set in which participants rate all the competencies as having the same importance or value. Second, managers may delegate completion of the questionnaires to less informed subordinates.

In summary, the way in which a competency menu is used dramatically influences the quality of the results obtained.[10]

The Modified DACUM Method

The modified DACUM method is based on the "Developing A CurriculUM" (DACUM) method (Norton, 1997). DACUM is a popular job analysis process that relies on a disciplined, focus group approach for information collection, analysis, and presentation of results. Dubois and Rothwell (2000) extended the DACUM process to include the identification of abstract competencies (for example, patience) that are frequently difficult to identify and verify.

The modified DACUM method begins by assembling work experts. These experts may be exemplary performers, managers, supervisors, team leaders, and possibly customers if they are highly informed about the work to be profiled. The experts are asked to describe the work activities people perform daily to achieve the necessary results. These work activities become the basis for discovering the underlying competencies essential to achieving work outputs or results.

Application of the modified DACUM method increases understanding in the following areas: organizational business needs and the effects of project outcomes on meeting those needs; work outputs, activities, and tasks; and the nontask or abstract competencies required for successful performance of the work.

Other Aspects of Competency Identification

Competency identification also requires consideration of other factors.


Regardless of the method, data about competencies are dependent on sources, whether internal, external, or both. Practices regarding the types and number of sources vary from one organization to another.

The Job/Role Competency Practices study conducted by researchers Cook and Bernthal (1998) received responses from 292 members of the HR Benchmark Group, Development Dimensions International. One of the topics in the survey was sources of data used in competency identification practices. Results of the group surveyed showed that 85% or more of the organizations responding depend on information from managers and job incumbents in defining job and role competencies. Input from HR staff, while not as extensive, was nevertheless common. Other, less frequently used sources were "senior leaders, incumbents in similar positions, external consultants, direct reports, outside publications, and external customers" (p. 7). Another finding of this study on the subject of sources indicated that 86% of organizations collect job and role competency data from three to seven sources and that consulting additional sources "gains buy-in from various groups and helps make the competency selection and definition process more accurate and comprehensive" (p. 7).


Research indicates that the use of competencies in HR management practices is enhanced with experience. Schoonover et al. (2000) pointed out that "more experienced and sophisticated end users developed richer and more encompassing competency frameworks" (p. 7).

[6]See, for example, Byham and Moyer (1996); Dubois (1993); Dubois and Rothwell (2000); and Green (1999).

[7]For further review on the validity of competency models, see Block and Rebell (1980); Byham (1996); Byham and Moyer (1996); Cooper (2000); Dubois (1993); Dubois and Rothwell (2000); Harlan, Klemp, and Schaalman (1980); Huff, Klemp, Spencer, and Williamson (1980); Lucia and Lepsinger (1999); Pottinger, Wiesfeld, Tochen, Cohen, and Schaalman (1980); and Spencer and Spencer (1993).

[8]For more extensive discussions on competency identification methods, see Dubois (1993) and Dubois and Rothwell (2000).

[9]Details of the JCAM process can be found in Dubois (1993); Spencer, McClelland, and Spencer (1994); and Spencer and Spencer (1993).

[10]For an in-depth description of the competency menu method, see Dubois and Rothwell (2000).