I have developed and used competency models for more than twenty years in personal and leadership development. In 1990, my colleagues and I developed and ran a successful executive MBA programme based on the Boyatzis competencies of ‘superior performers’ developed in 1982. (We even adapted it to create our own model of ‘emotional intelligence’ long before it became fashionable.) All the large corporates now use them. We use them in bquest with small businesses. But do they work?
A competency model identifies the behaviours (the external signs visible to others of the knowledge, skills, motivations, thinking processes, social roles and traits ‘inside’ a person) that very good managers demonstrate that not so good ones don’t. Once you have your model, the theory is that if you develop these competencies in other people then you will enable them also to demonstrate superior performance.
From experience, I know that you can identify the key competencies for superior performance (in any particular workplace contect) quite easily and quite accurately if you do the research properly. But I also know that many companies don’t bother with the research and, instead, rely on picking the competencies they want from a ‘catalogue’ of competencies. Inevitably, this risks a company using a model that a focus group (usually of senior management) thinks is right rather than one that is actually right based on what actually happens. And remember that when you ‘think’ something is right, your thinking is shaped by your own biases. Furthermore, even if you do identify the required competencies accurately, it does not mean the model is complete; there are always gaps.
So, I don’t trust many competency models in use to be accurate, and certainly I never find they are complete. What use are they then? I adopt a pragmatic approach to employee development by saying you have to start somewhere. I like the story by Karl Weick in ‘Sensemaking in organizations’ (based on a poem by Miroslav Holub I think) in which he tells of a troop of soldiers lost for days in a snow storm in the Alps. Indecisive, not knowing where to go, they are on the verge of dying when one of them finds a map in his pocket. Using this, they navigate to safety. On getting home, they find the map that they were using was actually a map of the Pyrennees and not the Alps. The moral being that when you are lost, a map, any map, even an incorrect map, will be helpful to kick-start purposeful action.
Next time you are looking at developing employees, to help you begin to make sense of what needs to be developed, take a competency model (off the web) and use it as your starting point. It won’t be a perfect model, but use it to begin a dialogue with your employees about their and your company’s needs. From this dialogue, you will find you are taking purposeful action, and you will soon enough build your own model for the company.