Why a Focus on Jobs Is Not Enough

This chapter describes the challenges facing today's human resource (HR) practitioners and offers justification for a new way of thinking about human resource management. The following five vignettes portray HR situations in fictitious organizations. Readers are prompted to write down a solution to the problem presented in each vignette; then the vignettes are analyzed. Next, we discuss the problems that result when organizations focus on jobs as the criterion for matching employees with the work that is essential to organizational success. The chapter closes with an answer to the question, What are the major HR management subsystems in organizations today?

Five Vignettes

First, take out a sheet of paper. Next, read over each of the following vignettes. As you read each vignette, record what you believe should be done to solve the problem described.

Vignette 1

John Parks, director of HR for Acme Corporation, is upset. He remarks to his secretary, "It seems like the only thing we do in this department is look for people to hire. We're always churning people. We don't have time to stem the turnover by taking a proactive approach to human resources. Instead, we are always looking for warm bodies to fill the latest vacancies."

Vignette 2

The senior vice president of operations has just been informed by the CEO that he must let go of 20% of his staff within 30 days in order to cut costs. He sends a memo to his direct reports, instructing them to reduce their work units by 20% of the committed working hours. He then leaves for a 3-week vacation. His direct reports are left guessing as to how to implement the order and how to handle the consequent fallout. The senior vice president is not available to consult for advice.

Vignette 3

The CEO and the director of marketing approach an international organization with a proposal to provide services in an area outside the company's core business. They do not expect to win the business, but much to their surprise, they are awarded the contract. At this point, they begin to wonder how they will staff for the work. The first person they call is the director of HR; she is told to recruit five different specialists who must report within 6 weeks. The director of HR is given little information to guide the search.

Vignette 4

The director of HR in a large organization of more than 20,000 employees examines the projected retirement dates of the senior executive group. To their chagrin, the executives learn that 80% of their key group is eligible for retirement within 2 years. The CEO assigns the vice president of HR the task of preparing a succession plan for building an internal talent pool sufficient to meet the expected shortfall of executive talent.

Vignette 5

The Axeljocanda Corporation has a long history of preparing and using high-quality strategic business plans. In this organization, the HR department operates as an administrative, paper-pushing work unit. The department has performed job analysis and job performance assessment on only a few key jobs in the organization, leaving the rest unexamined.

In Axeljocanda's corporate culture, department managers commonly do not compare notes with their peers about initiatives in their departments. As a direct consequence, the compensation manager has never met with the training director or with the director of employee relations. Furthermore, the vice president of HR has never been invited to participate in strategic business planning retreats with the other senior executives.

Analysis of the Vignettes

Think for a moment about what happened in these vignettes. In Vignette 1, the HR department is too busy churning people to focus on results and determine how best to achieve them. In Vignette 2, middle managers find themselves facing the difficult task of reallocating work responsibilities simply to achieve short-term cost savings. In Vignette 3, the organization is experiencing a need for talent and does not know how to get it. In Vignette 4, a highly competent vice president of HR faces the challenges of developing, in the short term, a plan to meet long-term requirements. In Vignette 5, the HR department is neither vertically aligned with organizational strategy nor horizontally aligned among its own functions.

The Problem With Focusing on Jobs Alone

The vignettes described in the previous section dramatically underscore some of the problems facing HR professionals and their organizations today.

Traditionally, job analysis—the process of identifying the work that people do—has been the foundation of HR department activities. According to a classic treatment by Walker (1980), a job analysis has four possible purposes. Each purpose provides a view of the job from a different angle; therefore, each is identified by a slightly different approach. One purpose is to discover what people do in their jobs. This approach takes a close look at the reality of the jobs. A second purpose is to find out what people think job incumbents do in their jobs. This approach seeks to gather perceptions about the jobs. A third purpose is to ascertain what people or their immediate supervisors believe job incumbents should be doing at their jobs. This approach determines the job norms. A fourth purpose is to determine what people or their supervisors believe job incumbents are doing or should be preparing to do in their jobs in the future should changes occur in their workplace. This approach to job analysis emphasizes planning for changes (Rothwell & Kazanas, 1994, 1998).[1]

A job description, which tells what the incumbent does, and a job specification, which clarifies the minimum requirements necessary to qualify for a job, are major outputs of job analysis. Job descriptions and job specifications, in turn, are key to such HR functions as employee recruitment, selection, training, and performance management.

One problem with traditional job descriptions is that they are written only to clarify those activities job incumbents are supposed to perform and may not clearly describe measurable worker outputs or results that meet the requirements for organizational success. If you doubt that, examine Form 1, Job Description and Job Specification (Sample), which contains a typical job description from an organization. Note that the example does not list the desired outputs or results under the description of responsibilities.

Outputs or results are the products or services that workers produce and deliver to others; recipients might include coworkers, constituents, customers, or persons or organizations external to the workers' organizations. Outputs or results should be produced to a level of quality that meets or exceeds the receiver's expectations.

Another problem with traditional job descriptions is that they quickly become outdated. In today's dynamic organizations, work activities do not remain the same for long. Job descriptions, however, rarely keep pace with changes in work requirements. That leads to much confusion as people try to figure out whether a job description is current or outdated.

Form 1: Job Description and Job Specification (Sample)


Job title

Job analyst

Purpose of job

Conducts studies of work performed. Prepares job descriptions and other information requested by managers and HR practitioners.

Number of people supervised



  • Collects, analyzes, and prepares work information for personnel, administrative, and management functions.
  • Consults with management to determine the purpose, range, and type of prospective studies.
  • Studies the organization's current work data and compiles the necessary background information.
  • Observes work processes and interviews workers and supervisors to determine job and worker requirements.
  • Analyzes work data and develops written summaries. Uses developed data to evaluate methods and techniques for worker-related programs; improves them if necessary. May specialize in classifying positions to meet civil service requirements.
  • Performs other assigned duties.


Minimum education required

Bachelor's degree with a specialty in HR management, general management, or a related field

Minimum experience required


Other essential qualifications

Patience, perseverance

Cornell University professors Patrick Wright and Lee Dyer conducted a study on how the HR profession will change because of technology. According to their preliminary findings, there is a possibility that the job description will be "one of the first institutional fixtures of the profession" to become obsolete (Leonard, 2000). Job descriptions will not only be out-of-date before they are even written due to rapid change, but may become obstacles for HR professionals who are trying to effect organizational change. Leonard further noted that job descriptions are carefully written to meet legal requirements and to list the organization's expectations for an employee but lack the flexibility needed today.

Again, examine the job description shown in Form 1. Assume you are the supervisor of the person in the described position and ask yourself the following questions:

  • How will I know if this worker demonstrates successful performance?
  • How do I know that the job description is current?

Unfortunately, workers often have the same questions. They are left to guess about the measurable outputs or results they are expected to produce, in what form, at what level of quality, and on what schedule.

Sometimes workers are not alone in playing this guessing game. When they put those questions to a supervisor they might be greeted with a blank stare or given answers too vague to make sense. Frustrated, workers continue doing what they have always done—or what they have seen others do—without knowing for certain whether they are achieving desired outputs. But when customers, supervisors, or managers do not receive the products or services they expected on time or of sufficient quality, they blame the worker. This raises yet another question: What is the supervisor's responsibility for this dilemma?

This scenario illustrates a possibly three-fold problem. First, there might be a mismatch between workers' capabilities and the outputs or results they are required to produce. Second, the information provided could be inaccurate or incomplete. Third and finally, the expected outputs might not conform to traditionally defined jobs that are rigid, compact, and inflexible.

The point is that job descriptions are not enough. Yet the findings of one survey, sponsored by the American Compensation Association and conducted with a sample of 1,000 members and 219 respondents, seem to indicate that "even though work design endeavors have created changes in the way work is done, most respondents still apply traditional job analysis to jobs to get information for compensation and other human resources management purposes" (Fay, Fisher, & Mahony, 1997, p. 21). Joinson (2001, p. 12) suggested that "one option is moving away from skills-based descriptions and toward ‘job roles,’ focused on broader abilities, that are easier to alter as technologies and customer needs change."[2] Although it is true that well-prepared job descriptions can be a powerful tool, keeping them clear and current is a major challenge that exceeds the grasp of many organizations today. As a consequence, the mismatches described in the previous paragraph are all the more likely to occur.

[1]For further information on job analysis, see Zemke and Kramlinger (1982); Dubois (1993); Dubois and Rothwell (2000); and Rothwell and Kazanas (1998), pp. 116–148.

[2]For further review on job roles, see, for example, Dubois (1993); Byham and Moyer (1998); and Cook and Bernthal (1998).

The Major HR Management Subsystems in Organizations Today

There are several ways to conceptualize the structure and means for organizing the HR system in an organization.

The first, and perhaps most familiar, is the functional method (Rothwell, Prescott, & Taylor, 1998). In this approach, HR management is organized into units such as employee relations, training, compensation and benefits, and payroll. Each is considered a function because it bears specific responsibilities for the organization's total HR system.

A second way of structuring HR management is the point of contact method. With this approach, which is much rarer than the functional approach, HR is organized around meeting the needs of its clients, stakeholders, and community. There are separate functions for worker input (such as recruitment, placement, and orientation), maintaining workers (such as payroll, training, compensation, and employee relations), and output (such as decruitment and retirement).

A third way to think about HR management has become popular in recent years. This method divides those who do the work of the HR function into two groups. One group handles transactions, such as processing payroll, making name changes on benefit forms, and updating employee records. A second group extends the people management expertise of the HR function to line management groups, offering on-the-spot, real-time consulting advice to managers and workers who may be dealing with "people challenges."

There are, of course, other ways of organizing the HR function. Basically, the HR subsystems of most organizations include recruitment, selection, performance management, job analysis and evaluation, compensation, payroll, development and improvement, and career and succession planning. But regardless of whether you are an HR specialist or generalist in one of today's organizations, you should be aware of how competency-based HR management differs from traditional workbased HR management. Figure 1 summarizes the differences in the two approaches. Competency-based HR management focuses attention on the people who do the work rather than on the work done by those people. We will examine this important distinction in the next chapter.


Traditional HR Management

Competency-Based HR Management


Work analysis and job descriptions form the foundation of traditional HR management. Work analysis becomes the basis for recruiting, selecting, orienting, training, rewarding, appraising, and developing people. The job description delineates work activities. It does not state expected work results in measurable or observable terms.

Competencies are the traits that individuals use for successful and exemplary performance. The identification, modeling, and assessment of competencies form the foundation of competency-based HR management. The HR function seeks to discover worker traits that lead to fully successful and exemplary performance and configures HR activities around cultivating them.

Chief reasons for using the approach

The approach is a known quantity and is geared toward achieving compliance. It categorizes individuals on organizational charts so they can be assigned identifiable tasks for which they are held accountable. U.S. college textbooks on HR management are devoted exclusively to traditional HR management.

The approach stimulates productivity and uses human talent to the best competitive advantage. It recognizes differences in individual abilities to achieve work results. Exemplary performers are significantly more productive than their fully successful counterparts. If the organization finds or develops exemplary performers, it could be more productive with the same size workforce.

Major challenges

  • Work changes rapidly, and job descriptions quickly become outdated.
  • The approach is rarely successful in providing leader ship on using human talent to greatest advantage.
  • The meaning of the term competency is not clearly and consistently understood.
  • Identifying the competencies that distinguish exemplary from fully successful performers is laborintensive and can be expensive and time-consuming.
  • Much inexpert competency work is being done in today's organizations.

Role of HR function

  • Ensures compliance with laws, rules, regulations, and organizational policies and procedures.
  • Takes the lead in achieving breakthrough competitive advantage by selecting and developing more people who can achieve at the measurable productivity levels of exemplary performers.
  • Continues to fulfill its compliance responsibilities in a competency-based environment.

HR planning subsystem

  • Concentrates on head count and HR expenses.
  • Makes forecasts based on the assumption that the future will be like the past and that the same number of people are needed to achieve predictable, measurable work results.
  • Favors quantitative methods for workforce planning.
  • Concentrates on talent and the value HR brings to the organization.
  • Does not assume that the future will be like the past or that the same head count is needed to achieve predictable results.
  • Favors the use of qualitative planning methods.

Employee recruitment and selection

  • Consults the usual external and internal sources.
  • Finds candidates to match the qualifications outlined in job specifications.
  • Assumes that education, experience, and other qualifications are equivalent to the ability to perform assigned work activities.
  • Tries to identify patterns that indicate past sources of exemplary performers and recruits through those or similar sources.
  • Makes selection decisions based on demonstrated ability to perform or evidence of results.
  • Compares applicants' talents to competency models that define the traits of fully successful or exemplary performers in their work areas.

Employee training subsystem

  • Distinguishes training needs from management needs.
  • Builds employee knowledge, skill, and attitude to conform with the organization's expectations.
  • Focuses attention on roadblocks to individual productivity that are created by the organization and management's responsibility to eliminate those obstacles.
  • Builds individual competencies in line with measurable fully successful or exemplary performance.

Performance management subsystem

  • Keeps costs at a minimum while providing performance feedback to individuals.
  • Makes decisions about pay raises, promotions, and related issues.
  • Periodically assesses individuals against competency models for their current work and their aspirations.
  • Provides feedback to individuals to help them move toward exemplary performance.

Employee reward processes subsystem

  • Attracts and retains people who perform the work of the organization.
  • Attracts and retains people whose measurable contributions demonstrate their ability to perform at an exemplary level.

Employee development subsystem

  • Process is either vague or ambiguous.
  • Process is designed to help individuals to discover their own competencies, help the organization to identify the talent it has available, and cultivate talent as work is being accomplished.
  • Recognizes that 98% of all efforts to build competencies occurs through work experiences.
  • Places equal emphasis on work results and on the work process as a means of building bench strength by exposing individuals to new experiences.

Figure 1: Comparison of Traditional and Competency-Based HR Management


This chapter opened with vignettes that underscore differences between the traditional work-based approach and a new competency-based approach to HR. It went on to discuss some of the problems associated with the work-based approach and described key issues facing HR practitioners today. A focus on jobs is no longer enough. HR practitioners need to explore a new approach as a foundation for their work, an approach called competency-based human resource management.

Competency-Based Human Resource Management
Competency-Based Human Resource Management
ISBN: 0891061746
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2003
Pages: 139

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