Competency-Based Employee Training


Through employee training, individuals learn to adjust to the corporate culture of an organization and become or remain productive under changing conditions. This chapter compares traditional and competency-based views of employee training. As we explore those processes, we will address the following questions:

  • What is employee training?
  • How is training traditionally carried out?
  • How can training become competency based?
  • What are the advantages and challenges of a competency-based approach to employee training?
  • When should employee training be competency based, and when should it be handled traditionally?
  • What model can guide competency-based training, and how is implemented?

Employee Training

Rothwell and Sredl (2000) describe training as "a short-term learning intervention. It is intended to build on individual knowledge, skills, and attitudes to meet present or future work requirements" (p. 9). Training should have an immediate and highly specific impact on work performance and should be grounded on the organization's requirements and unique corporate culture. It differs in this respect from education and employee development, which prepare the individual for life and work.

There are various types of training. Remedial training helps people meet the basic screening or entry-level requirements for a job. Orientation training helps to socialize individuals into a corporate culture. Qualifying training assists individuals with meeting basic performance expectations and thus increases their productivity. Second-chance training is provided to those who may be transferred or terminated because they are not meeting organizational work standards. Cross training is for people who are trying to master new jobs or job skills. Retraining provides upgrading to keep skills current as technological or organizational conditions change. Outplacement training prepares individuals for departure from an organization in the wake of retirement, or organizational staffing changes.[1]

Research suggests increased spending on training. In 1998, the amount spent on corporate training was $62.5 billion ("Industry Report," 1999). The American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) annual review reported that overall expenditures for training increased from $677 per employee in 1999 to $704 in 2000. The same study noted that training costs climbed from 1.8% of annual payroll in 1999 to 2.0% in 2000 (Van Buren & Erskine, 2002).

Van Buren and Erskine (2002) reported the results of the Future Search conference, held in June 2001 in conjunction with the ASTD International Conference and Exposition. The Academy for Human Resource Development and ASTD's Research-to-Practice National Committee were cosponsors. During the conference, "Shaping the Future: Leading Workplace Learning and Performance in the New Millennium," more than 60 specially selected individuals discussed their perspectives on the future of the field and predicted the trends that they believed would affect workplace learning and performance. The top ten trends, in order of importance, centered on money, diversity, time, work, world, meaning, change, knowledge, technology, and careers (Van Buren & Erskine, 2002).

[1]Training types from Rothwell and Sredl (2000), pp. 9–10.

Traditional Training

Training may be unplanned or planned. In unplanned training, individuals are asked to shadow experienced performers. That may involve "sitting by Nellie" or "following Joe around the plant." It is rarely effective, since people cannot learn how to perform by merely watching others.

If training is planned, then it should follow an approach based on the instructional systems design (ISD) model. The ISD model is a systematic approach to training. Although many models depicting ISD have been published, they have several important features in common.

The ISD model begins by analyzing the performance problem, with the goal of determining its underlying cause. Is the reason for the problem a lack of individual knowledge, skill, or appropriate attitude, or is there some other cause? If the problem is not rooted in the performance of an individual, it must be addressed through management action, not through training.

The second step of the ISD model is to examine organizational requirements, job or work requirements, and individual requirements. The following key questions may be included in this step:

  • What are the working conditions in which individuals are expected to apply what they have learned in training, and how will those conditions affect that application?
  • What are the job or work requirements, and how clearly do individuals understand the results expected from them?
  • Who is being trained, and what can we reasonably assume that they already know about the topic on which they are being trained?

The answers to these questions and consideration of related conditions should clarify both the training context and the context in which learning is applied. In this step, HR practitioners seek to clarify the context in which training occurs and is subsequently applied.

In the third step of the ISD model, the HR practitioner conducts a thorough training needs assessment (TNA). A TNA identifies what workers must know, do, or feel if they are to perform work that meets organizational expectations. It then compares those performance requirements to what the individuals actually know, do, or feel as they work. The purpose of a TNA is to pinpoint knowledge, skill, or attitude deficiencies that can be addressed through training.

Writing instructional objectives is the fourth step of the ISD model. An instructional objective states successful results of training and thereby how to meet a training need. Attaining the objective rectifies the deficiency. In a sense, then, an instructional objective expresses what a person can do when training is completed.

In the fifth step of the ISD model, decision makers determine whether to prepare or purchase the training content needed to achieve the instructional objective. In some cases, they may feel the need to tailor the training content to the corporate culture, in which case it must usually be designed in-house.

The sixth step in applying the ISD model is to decide on the means of delivering the training. There are, of course, many methods, such as classroom-based training, e-learning, on-the-job training, and video- or audio-based instruction. The chosen approach must strike a balance between cost and instructional effectiveness.

A process that utilizes technology to deliver learning is called a learning technology. Learning technologies are frequently divided by method into two types: the presentation method and the distribution method (Van Buren & Erskine, 2002). A presentation method presents instruction to learners, as occurs in computer-based training, for example. A distribution method sends training to users, such as by providing courses to company suppliers on CD-ROMs.

Electronically driven training is sometimes called e-learning. The term is applied to a variety of applications and processes that include Web-based and computer-based learning, virtual classrooms, digital collaboration, and the use of the Internet, intranets, extranets, audiotape, videotape, satellite broadcast, interactive TV, and CD-ROM (Kaplan-Leiserson, n.d.). Research results suggest that the e-learning market for the United States will grow to reach an estimated $23 billion worldwide in 2004 (Goodridge, 2001). Blended learning, which is gaining popularity, combines several presentation methods (Kaplan-Leiserson, n.d.).[2]

Conducting a formative evaluation is the seventh step in applying the ISD model. It pilot tests the training before it is delivered on a widespread basis.

The eighth step of the ISD model is the implementation phase, when the training is delivered to targeted participants.

The ninth step in applying the ISD model is a summative evaluation. This final assessment is designed to evaluate issues such as the participants' reactions to the training, the effectiveness of the training process and its content, and the impact to the organization's bottom line.

The ISD model has proved effective in improving job performance. Unfortunately, this well-known approach tends to place much responsibility for all phases of training on trainers, which may weaken a sense of ownership among learners and their organizational superiors.[3]

[2]Many sources provide guidance on e-learning and blended learning. See, for example, Rosenberg (2001) and Rossett (2002).

[3]In response to this problem, trainers have experimented with alternative approaches, including models that attempt to make training a joint venture (Rothwell & Cookson, 1997) or place greater responsibility for learning on the learner (Rothwell, 2002).

Making Training Competency Based

Organizations today are finding competencies to be of great value in their training practices. Greengard (2001) offers a discussion on some of these practices. For example, Ford Financial uses a skill- and competency-based learning program that affords employees an opportunity to view information such as the skills and competencies needed for positions. General Electric uses a formal competency analysis program, based on 45 different behaviors, to assist in meeting its training needs.

The American Compensation Association (now WorldatWork) surveyed 60 respondents whose organizations either used or were developing competency-based training about practices in their organizations (Raising the Bar, 1996). Respondents indicated that methods such as formal classroom training, job expansion or development experiences, formal coaching or mentoring, self-directed study, and job rotation were most frequently successful in building competencies. Respondents noted that their most commonly used approaches to competency-based training and development included unrestricted eligibility for programs, self-selection, application of job, service, grade, or similar criteria, and objective assessment of needs.

Researchers Cook and Bernthal (1998) found in a 1998 study that 75% of 292 participants indicated the extent to which job and role competencies support HR systems was "moderate/great." Only 25% indicated "small/not at all."

Training can become competency based in at least three ways.

  1. Reinvent the ISD model.
  2. Train to build individual competence relative to a competency model of exemplary performance.
  3. Build individual competence in a work team context.

These approaches are not mutually exclusive, but they do represent different emphases.

Reinventing the ISD Model

When the ISD model is reoriented toward building worker competence to achieve exemplary performance rather than matching individual abilities to work requirements, training becomes competency based.

One key point of change centers on the third step in the ISD model, the training needs assessment. A traditional TNA pinpoints performance gaps that can be closed through training, but the focus of the TNA changes with a competency-based approach. Since competency models encompass all the variables that underlie successful job performance—not just knowledge, skill, and attitudes—then performance gaps must be systematically identified in broader terms for competency-based practices. In short, the competency-based approach views training as more than providing knowledge, building skill, or improving attitude.

It may sound easy to move training from its traditional focus on meeting needs to a new focus on building competencies, but that is not really the case. Training people to become successful (or even exemplary) performers dramatically expands the role of training. For instance, that might mean pinpointing and building competencies that go beyond knowledge, skills, and attitude to include motivation levels, personality traits, awareness of bodies of knowledge, or any of those variables that may be developed and which distinguish exemplary from fully successful performers.

The key to transforming traditional training into competency-based training is thus centered on the training needs assessment process and its focus. Instead of limiting attention to work requirements as in the traditional approach, the goal is to discover the differences between exemplary and fully successful performers and trying to narrow those differences. Competency-based training may involve the more challenging activities of changing individual motivation levels and cultivating the development of personality traits. Not all competency deficiencies can be resolved with a high-powered training program, however, no matter how innovative its design or method of delivery. For example, how can an organization train its employees to be more patient? If a particular competency is critical to success in the work, decision makers may prefer to modify the selection criteria for that job.

Other enhancements to the ISD model can also make training competency based. During performance analysis, for example, trainers may adopt a broader goal than to determine whether a problem is due to a lack of individual knowledge, skill, or appropriate attitude or is rooted in some other cause. They may instead reframe the question in the following terms: "Is the problem caused by a lack of individual competence, or by an organizational or environmental factor that cannot be controlled by individuals?" If the reason is a deficiency in competence, training to build competence may resolve the problem, but if an organizational or environmental factor is the cause, management action, not training, is the appropriate response. This broader focus is what CEOs increasingly expect (Rothwell, Lindholm, & Wallick, 2003).

Training to Build Individual Competence

Another approach, the strategic systems model (SSM), is generally analogous to the ISD model. The SSM is implemented relative to internal as well as external factors that affect organizational and employee performance and is designed to accommodate the participation of persons from both environments. It is particularly useful for practitioners who must develop a curriculum that includes numerous training and other opportunities in systematic and strategic contexts for a diverse population of employees.[4]

In this approach, the responsibility for training—and for competency building—shifts from the organization to the individual. Although the organization remains responsible for clarifying the copetencies essential for successful performance in a job category, work role, department, or occupation, individuals are expected to be more responsible for building their own competencies. They do that by being more proactive, assessing their competencies against existing competency models or those they develop on their own by, for example, talking to mentors or exemplary performers or keeping competency journals in which they record their process of building competencies.

Building Individual Competence in a Work Team Context

Most organizations in the United States have experimented with work teams. They present a special challenge, however, since team-based management usually directs attention to group rather than individual performance.

When teams become the focus of attention, it just makes sense to start thinking in terms of team or team member role competency models rather than job, department, work role, or occupational competence. Each individual works within a team, and its members should contribute to the collective ability to meet or exceed customer requirements. With a team competency model, individuals can be assessed against how well they demonstrate the needed competencies. Training can then help to narrow deficiencies in individual performance.

[4]For additional information on the SSM, see Dubois (1993, 1998).

The Advantages and Challenges of Competency Based Employee Training

Each of the three methods of transforming training from a traditional to a competency-based approach has its own set of advantages and challenges.

Advantages and Challenges of Reinventing the ISD Model

A competency model adds a rich dimension to traditional job analysis results. It portrays worker competencies clearly in terms that are specific to the organization. In short, competency models do more to ground training in the corporate culture.

The ISD model and the analogous SSM bring a systematic approach to training design, development, and delivery. Competency models augment both approaches by portraying how exemplary performers achieve their success. Using competency models as a foundation for training supplies a broader range of alternatives for raising performance levels than does training alone. Competency models provide a holistic approach that acknowledges dimensions to performance other than knowledge, skills, and attitudes.

There are also special challenges involved in reinventing the ISD model to accommodate competencies. Resources and time are required to research each competency model. In addition, competency-based training requires a paradigm shift from instruction for achieving single behavioral objectives to instruction for acquiring and applying the competencies needed for fully successful or exemplary performance. When the number of prospective learners is small or the shelf life of the training will be short, investments in competency-based training may not be cost-effective.

Advantages and Challenges of Training to Build Individual Competence

There are several possible advantages to orienting training toward building individual competence. Competency-based training is highly individualized to meet learner needs. Because the use of competencies focuses on learning objectives and expected performance outcomes, it allows learners to structure their activities and processes in ways that are most meaningful to them. With this approach to training, learners are able to identify and use many learning resources in diverse settings.[5] Training design based on competencies is especially desirable when the targeted performance area is of high strategic value to the organization.

There are, however, challenges to using this approach. Time and money must be available to carry out individualized competency identification and assessment for those targeted to receive training. And even after the organization commits its resources to the effort, some persons do not thrive with learning or processes that demand a high degree of personal involvement. Typically, these persons lack the self-discipline necessary to work in a self-directed way to achieve their own learning outcomes. Others may prefer to blend socialization with the learning process rather than pursue their goals individually, especially when they are building abstract competencies.

Advantages and Challenges of Building Individual Competence in a Work Team Context

A competency-based approach to training consistently communicates a common set of performance expectations to every team member. It focuses all training on meeting the individual needs that support successful and creative team performance. Competency-based training helps to keep team members focused on achieving exemplary performance.

There are special challenges to building individual competence within a work team context. Team-based training sometimes assumes homogenous thinking among team members, which can become groupthink. In short, the nature of teams is often a disincentive to becoming an exemplar because group cohesiveness, not stellar individual performance, is more prized. In a team culture, personal learning and growth take place within the boundaries established for the team and its performance in the organization. That can be experienced as restrictive to both individual or even group performance.

[5]For further review on self-directed learning, see Rothwell (1996a, 1996b) and Rothwell and Sensenig (1998).

Deciding on Competency Based or Traditional Employee Training

It is important to know when to use traditional training and when competency-based training is an appropriate choice.

Use traditional training based on the ISD model in the following situations:

  • The organization's resources are insufficient for researching and validating a competency model.
  • The shelf life of the training is limited or its objectives are short term.
  • The targeted training population is small.
  • The work does not have a strategic impact on organizational success. Use competency-based training in the following situations:
  • The organization has the resources available to research and validate a quality competency model.
  • The work and related training content have a significantly high strategic impact on organizational success.
  • Time is available to devote to competency identification, validation, and modeling.
  • The training content shelf life is of sufficient length to justify the expense of researching and validating the competency model.
  • The training population is large enough to warrant resource expenditure.
  • Decision makers consider it appropriate to focus on achieving exemplary rather than fully successful performance when the training is complete.

Models for Competency Based Training

There are three models for reinventing training around a competency foundation. The models correspond to the approaches to competency-based training we described in the previous sections of this chapter.

  1. Reinventing the ISD model
  2. Training to build individual competence relative to a competency model of exemplary performance
  3. Building individual competence in a work team context

A Model for Competency Based ISD

The competency-based ISD model reinvents each step of the traditional ISD model around a competency foundation.

The first step in applying the competency-based ISD model is called performance analysis, in which trainers analyze the performance problem. Traditional performance analysis is designed to separate problems that can be solved by training from problems that require management action, but performance analysis in the competency-based ISD model is different. The goal of the competency-based process is to determine whether the problem is caused by a lack of individual competence or by a lack of organizational competence.

Individual competence is related to the characteristics needed for an individual to meet or exceed organizational or customer-performance requirements. Organizational competence, in contrast, refers to the organization's core competencies. In the competency-based ISD model, it is important to align individual performance with organizational or, more important, customer expectations. Some customer needs are predictable, such as for products or services, but there are additional, value-added elements that make some organizations preferable in a customer's eyes. Those elements are tied to the organization's core competence, which amounts to its strategic strengths.

By focusing attention on both individual and organizational competence, trainers move beyond a simple focus on an individual's knowledge, skill, and attitude and begin to consider organizational factors that may create barriers to individual—or exemplary—performance.

As in the traditional ISD model, the competency-based model requires trainers to examine organizational, individual, and work requirements. Instead of focusing on the minimum performance requirements, however, trainers who use the competency-based ISD model must specify the conditions essential for exemplary performance. Key questions to consider in this step may include the following:

  • What working conditions are essential for exemplary performance?
  • What competencies enable individuals to match the outputs of exemplary performers?
  • Who is targeted for training, and how closely do those individuals approach the characteristics of exemplary performers?

The answers to these and related questions clarify the optimal context in which learning will subsequently be applied. The focus is on what it takes to create exemplary, not minimal, results.

In the third step in the model, the training needs assessment, the competency-based model expands the traditional focus of the ISD model to address all the variables that support exemplary performance. (See the section on reinventing the ISD model, on pp. 130–131, for more details.)

The fourth step in applying the competency-based ISD model is to write instructional objectives, specifying the behavioral indicators tied to exemplary work performance that must be demonstrated upon completion of training. Those indicators must be observable and measurable.

In the fifth step trainers must decide whether to prepare or purchase training content to achieve the instructional objectives identified in the previous step.

The sixth step in applying the competency-based ISD model is to select a method of delivering the training. Trainers must consider not only traditional issues such as the relative costs and benefits of different delivery methods but also whether the method is appropriate for the competency and perhaps even how to blend methods to achieve the best results. For instance, if the objective is to build writing skills, audiotape-based instructional delivery may not be the most effective approach.

The seventh step in applying the competency-based ISD model is to conduct a formative evaluation. In competency-based training, the formative evaluation is focused on how well the training builds competence. It is therefore particularly effective when exemplary performers or other work experts participate in reviewing the training and contribute their insights and know-how on achieving enhanced outputs or results.

The eighth step of the model is the implementation phase, when trainers actually offer the training to targeted participants.

A summative evaluation is the ninth step of the competency-based ISD model. Evaluation has long been an important topic in the training field. Increasingly, decision makers want to know what returns they have received on their expensive training investments. If training is competency based, the answer should be apparent, because every step of the process is linked to the results of fully successful or exemplary performance and the competencies required to achieve them.

HR practitioners should consider three key questions in evaluating competency-based training:

  1. How well did the training succeed in building the competencies associated with essential results for the work to be performed?
  2. How well does the learner's performance compare to the outputs of the organization's exemplary performers?
  3. How well does the learner's performance match the organizational and customer requirements essential to maintaining a competitive advantage and optimal customer service?

These questions may be answered by asking learners to produce work products or simulate service delivery and then measuring the results against the objectives established before training was delivered. Another method is to note key discrepancies between a 360-degree competency assessment conducted before and after training for each learner. The goal of any 360-degree assessment should always be to determine how well the learner demonstrates the competencies required for essential work outputs or results on the job.

A Model for Competency Based Self Directed Training and Development

A competency-based model for self-directed training and development emphasizes the individual's increased responsibility for his or her own learning.

In the first step of the model, individuals decide to take more responsibility for their own learning and competency development. In the second and third steps, they access existing competency models and compare themselves to those models with input from organizational superiors or work experts. In the fourth step, they create individual development plans (IDPs) to close the gap between their perceived competencies and the competencies required for work success or exemplary performance. The fifth step is to implement the plan by participating in training and other developmental experiences designed to build the competencies specified in the IDPs. In the sixth step, they periodically compare their competency development to the models and consult knowledgeable performers and mentors. In the seventh step, they modify their IDPs as necessary in order to ensure that they are building competence and possibly to do further planning.

The individual learner evaluates the results of this approach in cooperation with mentors, peers, immediate organizational superiors, coworkers, and particularly with exemplary performers. A key concern throughout the process is to determine whether the individual produces at or near the level of an exemplary performer when the objectives of the IDP have been met.

A Model for Competency Based Work Team Development

This model emphasizes both the group's ability to carry out its collective work and each individual's competence within the team context.

In the first step of the model, team performance is examined against the performance of exemplary teams. Second, HR or other practitioners develop a team competency model that includes specific competencies and behavioral indicators associated with exemplary team performance. In the third step, individual members are assessed against the team competency model using a 360-degree competency assessment or other method such as a performance test. Fourth, trainers compile the ratings of the entire team and use them to guide the training plans for team members. This may also result in a work team development plan for bringing the team's current performance closer to the level of an exemplary team. In the fifth step, team members undergo training and thus implement the plan to build the identified competencies. Sixth, team members periodically compare their team's competency development to the model. Seventh and finally, they modify the development plan to ensure that they are building competence.

HR practitioners evaluate the outcomes from the work team development plan. Did the team achieve performance that rivals exemplary teams? If it did, then the plan has been successful in guiding team development. If not, additional team development may be necessary.


In this chapter, we compared and contrasted traditional and competency-based views of employee training. We defined employee training and explained its purpose in organizations. The traditional approach to training was described in step-by-step form as it is applied through the ISD model.

Next, the question "How can training become competency based?" was answered. Three approaches were explained: reinventing the traditional ISD model; focusing attention on training to build individual competence; and building individual competence in a work team context. The advantages and challenges of each of these approaches to employee training were delineated and discussed.

This was followed by a discussion about when it is appropriate to use traditional and competency-based training. The chapter concluded by considering three models for competency-based training.[6]

[6]To learn more about these topics, consult Ciancarelli (1998); Cobb and Gibbs (1990); Crabb (n.d.); Filipowski (1991); Fleming, Oliver, and Bolton (1996); Gould et al. (1996); Meade (1998); and Ridha (1998).

Competency-Based Human Resource Management
Competency-Based Human Resource Management
ISBN: 0891061746
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2003
Pages: 139 © 2008-2020.
If you may any questions please contact us: