A man may be competent in one branch of knowledge without being competent in all.

—Aristotle, 350 B.C.

He has the competence to deal with the whole universe.

—Cervantes, Don Quixote, 1600

There are currently over 500 books in print featuring the word "competency" in their title. There are books on competency-based training, competency-based pay, competency-based training delivery, competency-based recruitment, competency-driven performance improvement, competency-based instruction, competency-based athletic training, and competency-based social work. In each case practitioners promise to help achieve strategic objectives through competencies, which are billed as a break-through concept in performance criteria. Competencies are definitely popular; the only problem is that almost everyone has a different notion of what a competency is.

Definition: Traits of High Performers

Competency-modeling is, quite simply, an attempt to describe work and jobs in a broader, more comprehensive way.

—Ron Zemke, 1999

Competencies are descriptions of desired performance traits in employees. The goal of competencies is to build a common set of standards (criteria) to improve the selection, development, and evaluation of employees. Described variously as competency maps, models, or profiles, these character traits act as criteria for performance measurement in annual reviews and promotions. As predictors of personal and organizational success, competencies can be extremely useful to human resource departments in the interviewing and hiring process, as well as in the areas of developing, appraising, promoting, and ultimately compensating employees. They are also extremely useful for self-assessment.

One example of a performance trait is independent judgment. A definition of this competency would be: "uses discretion in interpreting company procedures to make decisions in ambiguous situations." Other examples of performance traits are initiative, self-discipline, leadership, systems thinking, problem solving, customer focus, strategic thinking, teamwork, and empathy.

The Hierarchy of Performance Descriptors: Goals, Competencies, and Skills

As concise descriptions of a desired performance standard, competencies are more specific than goals and less specific than skills. A competency of "communicating," for instance, might include "listening" as one of its several skills. Thus competencies represent groups or clusters of skills, as in the following example where "leadership" is the goal:

  • Goal: Leadership

    • Competency: Interpersonal Communication

      • Skill: Listening

        • Performance Objective (behavioral description): "When listening, employee periodically confirms her understanding of what the speaker is saying."

Note that this is a loosely formulated performance objective, which is often used in these cases. A rigorously framed performance objective would stipulate the frequency and the conditions under which this would occur. (See Objectives: Knowledge, Skills, and Attitude.)

Origin of Competencies: Performance Objectives

The competency concept may be the most exciting and potentially promising idea to hit the training field since behavioral objectives.

—Ron Zemke, 1982

Competencies represent clusters of skills, and as such grew naturally out of early work on performance objectives (descriptions of performance that you want learners to exhibit at the end of a course, before you consider them "competent"). In the 1950s Benjamin Bloom had mapped out the classic triad of domains for objectives, namely knowledge, skills, and attitude, and in the 1960s Robert Mager contributed his path-breaking work on writing performance objectives. In the early 1970s David McClelland, a Harvard psychologist who founded the McBer consulting group, began to experiment with competencies, a level of performance-expectation that was broader than, but included, objectives.

In a seminal paper, McClelland proposed that competencies such as initiative, self-discipline, and empathy were far better predictors of high performance on the job than were the traditional IQ test. McClelland defined competencies as traits that led to superior job performance and thereby contributed to the financial success of the organization. He established these competencies by interviewing high and low performers regarding "critical events" (key behaviors) on the job. Competencies differentiated the star performer from routine performers, and were, McClelland stated, predictive of success.

Competencies: Innate or Learned?

When formulating competencies, it is necessary to distinguish between innate and learned competencies. For example, if using competencies to hire and train a sales force, one competency to look for might be "influencing for results." This competency would consist of several skills, two of which would be such learned skills as product knowledge and presentation skills. But it might also include the attribute or attitude of being an "aggressive" sales person—which is more an inborn than a learned trait. To implement the competency of "influencing for results," in other words (in a simplified example), HR will have to hire an "aggressive" sales person (an inborn trait) who will then be trained in both product knowledge and presentation skills (learned traits). The following hierarchy of performance descriptors shows what this looks like:

  • Goal: Increased Sales

    • Competency: Influencing for Results

      • Skills, Knowledge, and Attitudes:

        • Presentation skills (physical/behavioral): Learned

        • Product knowledge (mental/cognitive): Learned

        • Aggressiveness (emotional attribute): Innate

When developing competencies and their subsets of skills, knowledge, and attitudes, be sure to distinguish among traits to hire for and traits to train for. Generic off-the-shelf competency descriptions may well suffice for the former, but for the latter, organizations will have to write their own competency models.

Levels of Expertise: Abstract Traits vs. Specific Tasks

Competencies are often arranged according to organizational job levels—such as executive, manager, supervisor, and individual contributor level. Whereas on the managerial level a competency is more abstract ("being a leader"), lower level competencies can actually be akin to tasks ("answers the phone appropriately"). The following example, using the situation of a sales force, should make this clearer:

  • Competency: Relationship Building (for sales force)

    • General description of the competency: Understands client's situation, speaks their language, acknowledges their viewpoint, and helps them understand the value of the product, thereby establishing credibility and trust with the client.

      • Specific Levels of Expertise Under this Competency:

        • Job Level 1: Responds to client phone calls in a timely fashion (task-level, administrative).

        • Job Level 2: Manages client expectations ahead of time if there is a particular constraint associated with the product (tactical level).

        • Job Level 3: Creates a true partnership with the client in terms of coming up with an appropriate solution to the problem (managerial level job, a more abstract capability).

Danger of Competencies

Competencies are Humpty Dumpty words meaning only what the definer wants them to mean.

—Ron Zemke, 1982

If the power of competencies lies in their ability to focus organizations on specific performance traits as keys to organizational success, their danger is equally great: If framed too broadly, they are impossible to implement. HR departments can spend endless corporate time and money describing competencies and the performance objectives on which they are based—and not implement them properly. Every company needs to be aware of this and allocate money for implementing, as well as formulating, key competencies.



Benjamin Bloom: Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Bloom was the pioneer in staking out a claim for the three domains of "knowledge, skills, and attitude" in the terrain of behavioral objectives. Learning objectives are precursors and building blocks of competencies.


Robert Mager: Preparing Objectives for Programmed Instruction (later: Preparing Instructional Objectives). Mager writes the classic text on how to develop and write objectives for specific skills. Mager's method is sometimes referred to as criterion-referenced instruction (CRI) because each objective sets a criterion (standard) for performance.


David McClelland: "Testing for Competence Rather Than for Intelligence," American Psychologist 28 (1973): 14–31. A seminal paper on competencies. McClelland isolates critical personality traits in top performers.


Tom Gilbert: Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance. A book more on general competence than on "competencies" as a discipline. A key text in the human performance technology (HPT) movement.


Richard Boyatzis: The Competent Manager: A Model for Effective Performance. A classic study of competencies among managers, supervisors, and executives.


William Blank: Handbook for Developing Competency-Based Training Programs.


Ron Zemke: "Job Competencies: Can They Help You Design Better Training?" Training (May 1982). Zemke issues a warning about an overall lack of agreement in defining competencies, but points out their great promise.


Howard Gardner: Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Gardner breaks out "standardized" intelligence tests into "spatial, musical, logical, linguistic" and other more specific domains of intelligence. (See Multiple Intelligences.)


David Kolb: Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development.


Robert Sternberg and R. Wagner: Practical Intelligence: Nature and Origins of Competence in the Everyday World.


Gary Hamel and C. K. Prahalad: "The Core Competence of the Corporation," Harvard Business Review, May/June 1990.


William Rothwell: Mastering the Instructional Design Process (section on "competency assessment").


David Dubois: Competency-Based Performance Improvement: A Strategy for Organizational Change.


Lyle Spencer and Signe Spencer: Competence at Work: Models for Superior Performance.


Daniel Goleman: Working with Emotional Intelligence. Goleman's first chapter "Beyond Expertise" discusses competencies. Goleman relies heavily on McClelland (1973).


David McClelland: "Identifying Competencies with Behavioral-Event Interviews," Psychological Science 9 (1998): 331–339. (See also Fastpaths 1973, McClelland.)


Paul Green: Building Robust Competencies: Linking Human Resource Systems to Organizational Strategies.


Ron Zemke: "Putting Competencies to Work," Training (January 1999). In a sequel to his 1982 article, Zemke issues a second warning: The time has come for HR departments who have been painstakingly compiling competency models for years "to prove themselves" through real-world implementations.


William Rothwell, et al.: The Complete Guide to Training Delivery: A Competency-Based Approach.


Kenneth Cooper: Effective Competency Modeling and Reporting.

See also Learning Style Multiple Intelligences

The 30-Second Encyclopedia of Learning and Performance. A Trainer's Guide to Theory, Terminology, and Practice
The 30-Second Encyclopedia of Learning and Performance: A Trainers Guide to Theory, Terminology, and Practice
ISBN: 0814471781
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2002
Pages: 110
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