Conceptualizing a Model Building Project

six steps horizontal 3Conceptualizing the Project is the first step in Workitect’s competency modeling process, and is taught in our Building Competency Models certification workshop.

What This Step Involves

The key components of conceptualizing the approach are:

  •   Thinking through the need
  •   Clarifying the need through discussions with the sponsor and other key stakeholders
  •   Developing an approach
  •   Gaining the sponsor’s support for the approach

A. Thinking through the Need.    In thinking through the need, it is helpful to consider the following questions:

  •   What is the business need for the competency model(s)?
  •   What HR applications will be built using the competency model(s) to address the business need?
  •   What is the organizational context?
  •   What business or organizational changes have occurred?
  •   What other competency models exist or are planned?
  •   Has the organization developed a mission or values statement?
  •   What is the organization’s strategic plan or direction?
  •   What aspects of the organization’s culture should be taken into account when considering this work?
  •   What HR applications and programs are already in place for selection, professional development, assessment, and performance management?
  •   Who will sponsor this work? What are the sponsor’s needs and concerns?
  •   What other key stakeholders will be affected by the competency model and its applications? What are their needs and concerns?

B. Clarifying the Need.   You probably will not have answers to all of the above questions and it is likely that the sponsor and other key stakeholders will have perspectives and concerns that you have not thought of. By talking with your sponsor and with some other key stakeholders, you can clarify what is needed. In addition, sounding out key stakeholders and demonstrating interest in their needs, you will begin to build support for the project.

C. Developing an Approach    There are three main approaches to competency model building. When deciding how to approach a competency model-building project, it is useful to consider these three distinctive approaches:

  •    Single Job Competency Model
  •   One-Size-Fits-All Approach
  •   Multiple Job Approach

A project usually focuses on one of these approaches, although it is possible to use a combination of these approaches within one organization. The approaches will be described in detail in the next three issues of this series.

D. Gaining the Sponsor’s Support for the Approach     Before you can begin a competency-modeling project, you need to have your sponsor’s support, first for the general conceptual approach and later for a project plan that specifies the time, money and other resources that will be required. Before developing a detailed plan, it is useful to ensure that the sponsor supports your general conceptual approach. Therefore, you need to share your approach with the sponsor and check to see if you have your sponsor’s support. You can do this in an in-person or telephone meeting.

Question for readers: What challenges have you had in following these steps? Are there steps that should be added?

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Key Concepts of Career Development

Career GoldWhether functioning as a supervisor, coach or employee, a review of several concepts relating to career development helps pave the way to new levels of understanding, insight and growth – and the development of competencies needed for success in an organization.

1. Not Just For Promotion — It is important to recognize that employee development is not limited to upward mobility. Becoming more knowledgeable, proficient and professional in the performance of current responsibilities can represent career development just as much as moving to a different assignment. Also, there is potential for increasing the responsibilities in a position as the employee grows into them.

2. Personal Responsibility For Growth — The employee must assume responsibility for career planning and personal development. The company cannot help to develop an employee who does not wish to develop. Consequently, it is important that the employee know him or herself. He/she must define personal goals, determine whether these goals are attainable, take time to evaluate the skills and knowledge needed to achieve these goals and set priorities for starting on the chosen path. Only the employee can answer the crucial questions of “Where do I want to go?” and “How much of myself am I willing to invest in order to get there?”

3. Interdependent Roles — There is a dual effort in this process. While it is the individual’s responsibility to achieve the level of success desired, the organization has a responsibility to provide the necessary coaching, counseling, personnel structures, and other support to the individual, so that he/she can make progress toward his/her goals.

4. Honesty — Both the organization and the employee must be honest with themselves. The employee must realistically assess his/her abilities, skills, knowledge, and potential as well as the level of his/her personal commitment to the chosen career path. At the same time, the company must be honest with the employee as to whether career objectives are feasible or probable in terms of future organizational needs. The manager needs to make it very clear that the company cannot make any promises to the employee. All the company can guarantee is that it will do its best to provide resources that will facilitate employee growth that is in keeping with the attainment of corporate objectives.

Source: Competency Development Guide, page 19

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The Evolution of Competency Modeling

The first ten years of competency modeling were dominated by consultants trained in the McBer approach. This approach involved a rigorous research methodology, which included identification of criterion samples of superior and average performers, behavioral event interviews, thematic analysis of transcripts of half the interview sample, and cross validation through coding and statistical analysis of the other half of the interviews. During this period, competency models were most often used to guide selection and professional development. Workitect uses the same methodology to develop job competency models.

Today, 40 years after the first competency model, more than half of the Fortune 500 companies are using competency modeling. Consultants working in the McBer tradition are still building many models, but these consultants have been joined by many other consultants using different methodologies. With market pressures to build models more quickly and less expensively, there is less emphasis on methodological rigor.

Over the last two decades, organizations have begun to use competency models in new ways. Many organizations that have redesigned their work processes and restructured their jobs have developed competency models for newly designed jobs for which there are few, if any, job incumbents with experience. These new competency models, of necessity, describe emerging and anticipated skill requirements, rather than skills that have been effective in the past. Many organizations have taken a “one size fits all” approach to competency modeling, by developing one competency model, usually for leaders, and applying this model to a large set of jobs, sometimes even non-managerial ones. Other organizations have moved in the opposite direction, by simultaneously developing multiple competency models for different jobs within an organization.

Competency models are still most often used to support selection and professional development, but developmental assessment – “360 feedback,” competency assessment by self, manager, peers, direct reports, and customers – has become a significant human resources application in its own right.

In the past twenty years, there have also been changes in the workplace which affect competency model building. Because organizations are changing more rapidly, the “shelf life” of a competency model has diminished. Frequent reorganizations change job roles and make existing job descriptions and competency models obsolete. Competency models are often needed for new and critical jobs, even though there are few employees with experience in these jobs and fewer still who could be considered outstanding performers.

Staff functions, such as human resources, have become leaner, so that the remaining staff have more responsibilities and job pressures and less time for discretionary, additional activities such as investing time in competency model building. Thus, more of the model building work falls to external consultants. At the same time, human resources staff are under more pressure to produce results quickly, and this means implementing a useful human resources application, not simply developing a competency model. The budget for the development of a new competency model must therefore compete with the budget for its applications.

Organizational changes have also affected employees, who are the “end users” of competency models. The increased intensity and pace of work make it more difficult to get employees to participate in model building activities, especially resource panels and focus groups. Perhaps because of the pace of work, employees’ attention span, their tolerance for complexity, and their willingness to read have diminished. As a result, competency models need to be leaner and simpler, with high-impact language that holds the reader’s attention.

What has impacted the way you do models today? How are you doing them now?

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The First Competency Model

Competency modeling, an approach originated 40 years ago, has become a mainstream practice in human resource management. Over that period, the methodology has evolved, partly in response to changes in organizations and the workplace, and partly in response to the needs of people using the competency models to address specific needs in organizations. Many of the original creative insights from the development of the first competency model are still relevant today.

The First Competency Model

The first competency model was developed in the early 1970’s by the eminent psychologist and Harvard professor Dr. David McClelland and consultants from McBer and Company*. He is best known for his work in the field of motivation and especially his theory of people’s “need for achievement.” Rejecting IQs and personality tests as valuable measures of a person’s potential success at a task or career, he developed innovative ways of measuring psychological characteristics. McClelland recognized competence and motivation to achieve as the characteristics best able to predict success on tasks. The U.S. Department of State was concerned about the selection of junior Foreign Service Information Officers, young diplomats who represent the United States in various countries. The traditional selection criteria, tests of academic aptitude and knowledge, did not predict effectiveness as a foreign service officer and were screening out too many minority candidates.

imagesWhen asked to develop alternative methods of selection, McClelland and his colleagues decided that they needed to find out what characteristics differentiated outstanding performance in the position. They first identified contrasting samples of outstanding performers and average performers, by using nominations and ratings from bosses, peers, and clients. Next, the research team developed a method called the Behavioral Event Interview, in which interviewees were asked to provide detailed accounts, in short story form, of how they approached several critical work situations, both successful and unsuccessful. The interviewer used a non-leading probing strategy to find out what the interviewee did, said, and thought at key points within each situation. To analyze the data from the interviews, the researchers developed a sophisticated method of content analysis, to identify themes differentiating the outstanding performers from the average performers. The themes were organized into a small set of “competencies,” which the researchers hypothesized were the determinants of superior performance in the job. The competencies included non-obvious ones such as “Speed in Learning Political Networks”; the outstanding officers were able to quickly figure out who could influence key people and what each person’s political interests were.

The Evolution of Competency Modeling – The Methodology

From this initial study, the McBer team developed a methodology that dominated the practice of competency model building for the next 10-15 years. Key insights from the initial study are still highly useful in competency model building today: the focus on outstanding performers, use of behavioral event interviews, and thematic analysis of interview data, and distillation of the results into a small set of competencies described in behaviorally specific terms.

The method differed from traditional job analysis in several ways. Job analysis focused on understanding tasks and the skills needed to perform each task; competency modeling, however, focused on personal characteristics needed for success in a broader job role. And while job analysis focused on effective performance, competency modeling focused on outstanding performance. Practitioners of job analysis attached credibility to the views of job holders and other subject matter experts about what is important for effectiveness. Competency modelers believed that only outstanding performers could provide insights about what is important, but that even outstanding performers could not always articulate the secrets of their success. Finally, while job analysis often led to long lists of tasks and their associated skill requirements, competency modelers distilled the results of their studies into a relatively small set of underlying personal characteristics.

It is interesting to speculate about why competency modeling took hold and became widespread. The interest value of competency models may be one reason. Personal characteristics are more interesting than tasks, and insights about outstanding performance are more interesting than those about effective performance. Another reason for the success of competency models is that they work well as unifying frameworks for a variety of applications in human resource management. A manageable set of personal characteristics can serve as a conceptual framework for selection, assessment, professional development, performance management, and other human resource programs. Finally, competency models work well as vehicles for driving organizational change. The Workitect Competency Dictionary includes the competency of “Managing Change”.

*McClelland provides a description of the study in his introduction to Competence at Work, by Lyle M. Spencer, Jr. and Signe M. Spencer. New York: Wiley, 1993.

The Workitect methodology for model building is based on the McBer methodology.

This material is included in Workitect’s Building Competency Models workshop.  

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in October, 2012 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

Next blog – The Evolution of Competency Modeling – Today and Future

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Communicating with People Involved in a Modeling Project

In our previous blog, we listed points that should be covered with all employees when launching a job competency modeling project.

In addition to receiving the same communications provided to all employees, the people involved in various aspects of the project should receive clear and complete information about their specific role.           

When informing people who will be on a resource panel or will be interviewed:

  • The communications can be from senior sponsor or a senior person on project team.
  • Reiterate purpose for the project.
  • Explain why they were selected.
  • Explain how they are to participate, either on the panel or in an interview.
  • Attach key questions they will be asked (for them to consider before their session).
  • Stress that their individual comments will be held confidential; only a summary of all      comments will be published.
  • Inform them of the person they can contact with questions.

When distributing the model or application:

  • Communications should be from senior sponsor.
  • Summarize the history of the project to this point.
  • List the people who participated in creating the model/application.
  • Explain the implementation plan and timeline.
  • Inform them of the person they can contact with questions.

In summary, do not underestimate the importance of this step.  A competency-based human resource system, implemented properly, should have a very positive impact on employees’ job satisfaction.  It makes it more likely that people will be assessed fairly and accurately, and be afforded opportunities based on objective criteria (a picture of what superior performers really do that makes them superior performers).  Poor communications of a model-building project leads to a diminishing of this positive effect and can actually lead to a negative result.

Are there any other important points that need to b e covered?

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Competency Modeling: Communicating With Employees

Meeting_b&wcolor_646x220-1When launching and implementing a competency-modeling project, the leaders of the project have to clearly and comprehensively communicate with two audiences:

1. All employees
2. The managers and employees who will be directly involved in the project

All Employees

When any new project is undertaken within an organization, particularly one initiated by the human resources department, people have a natural tendency to get suspicious, concerned, or just curious.  Employees who understand the project, it’s scope, each person’s involvement in it, and it’s potential benefits will help turn suspicion into support, and will go a long way toward making the project successful.

If your organization has access to an internal or external employee communications expert, use that expertise to help you plan and implement an effective communications effort.

Here a few points that can be covered in communicating the project.  Ideally, the initial announcement should come from the senior sponsor and include:

  • The business need for creating this model at this time.
  • The name of the senior sponsor for the project.
  • Names of people on the project team.
  • How will the model be used, the application, and when will it be implemented.
  • Who is involved in creating the model- particularly jobholders and managers of job holders.
  • Who to contact with questions

The Job Competency Models Project

  • Introduction to competencies and competency models (background, description, benefits).
  • Our approach – why and how they were developed.
  • What’s in it for you, i.e. how you can benefit.
  • How they will not be used.
  • Questions/discussion

Why Develop “Competencies”?

  • Changing the Approach: Career Streams vs Career Ladder
  • Key Concepts Underlying Career Development
  • Performance Improvement and Management
  • Integrating Development Planning with Performance Management

Steps to Developing Competencies

  • Acquiring Competencies
  • Types of Developmental Activities

Identifying Competencies to Develop

  • A Guide to Self-Assessment
  • Selecting Competencies to Target for Development
  • Using the Competency Selector
  • Developing Goals

Working with Coaches, Mentors and Managers

  • 5 Stages of Personal Development
  • Beyond Competence: Achieving Personal Mastery through:
  • Awareness
  • Attention
  • Application
  • Creating a Comprehensive Development Plan

Future blog: Communicating with people directly involved


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Difference Between Job Descriptions and Competency Models

Job descriptions are often equated with job competency models. While similar in content, there are important differences. They serve different purposes and are developed in different ways. Here is a comparison of the two documents.

Job Descriptions
• Title of position
• Department
• Reports to (to whom the person directly reports)
• Overall responsibility
• Key areas of responsibility
• Qualifications (skills and experience required)

Applicatons: recruitment, compensation structure, performance management (establishing job standards and goals), training.

Example: Project Manager

Job Competency Models (Workitect method)
• Title of Position
• Major responsibilities
• Performance criteria for each responsibility
• Qualifications (competencies: skills, knowledge, and underlying characteristics* required)
• Behavioral indicators (specific ways of demonstrating the competency)
• Links between main responsibilities and competencies

Applications: talent management, succession planning, performance management (evaluating characteristics used to meet or not meet job goals), assessment and selection, training and development.

Examples:  Project Manager, Executive, Account Rep, Call Center Manager, Human Resources Profesional

*A job competency is an underlying characteristic of a person that results in effective and/or superior performance in a job. The characteristic may be a motive, trait, skill, self-image, or body of knowledge.   The Competent Manager, Boyatkis, 1982

Some organizations have combined the two documents and have added required competencies to job descriptions. The advantages are that it reduces the number of HR forms that are needed and makes the list of required qualifications more complete. The main disadvantage is that data needed for talent management, development, and succession planning is usually incomplete.

Regardless of where the competencies are listed, the most important determinant of their effectiveness is how they were identified. A description of the process creating competency models can be found on pages 5 & 6 of Integrating HR & Talent Management Processes.


Can a generic off-the-shelf competency model be used?  Don’t jobs with the same title require pretty much the same competencies in all organizations?

Each organization has its own culture and “way of doing business”. Even for jobs with identical titles, job success in one organization will require some competencies that are different in another organization. Even a small difference could be critical. This is why we only build custom models, or teach internal consultants how to build their own models.

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