Advantages of Multiple Models and One-Size-Fits-All Competency Models

OneSizeFitsAll_v2When competency models are needed in an organization with many different jobs, there are two basic strategies for model building: “one-size-fits-all” approaches and multiple model approaches. I will describe these two approaches as well as intermediate approaches.

The first basic strategy, one-size-fits-all, involves creating a single competency model with one set of competencies applicable to all jobs. Like most other competency models, a one-size-fits-all model usually comprises eight to fifteen competencies needed for effectiveness in a broad job category, such as all management positions. The competencies in such a model must be general skills, traits, and values, not job-specific skills.

The one-size-fits-all approach is often used when upper management wants to drive organizational change by sending a strong message about the values and skills needed for the future. This approach is also used when upper management or HR prefers simple solutions, or when the HR staff want to quickly implement a program that will have broad impact.

The one-size-fits-all approach has several advantages. First, it provides a simple, clear message to everyone about what is important. Second, once developed, the model and applications based on the model are applicable to many employees. For example, one “360 feedback” instrument can be used with everyone whose job is included in the model. Finally, the competency model promotes the development of a common language for describing important skills and characteristics.

But the one-size-fits-all approach also has significant disadvantages. One-size-fits-all models often describe values that are espoused or wished for, rather than describing what it truly takes to be effective in a job. I have seen many organizations with a conspicuous lack of teamwork include a “Teamwork” competency in a one-size-fits-all model, even though superior performers are more likely to need political savvy and a “thick skin.” Another disadvantage is that employees may believe that the model does not really apply to their own job. They may become skeptical or even cynical about the model. Finally, one-size fits-all models are not as useful as job-specific models in guiding selection and development for a particular job.

The other strategy for developing models for people in a range of jobs is to plan to build multiple competency models from a common set of generic competencies. The first step is to identify a set of 25 to 35 “building block” competencies to be used for constructing all job models. In applying this strategy, I try to meet with senior management and HR staff to customize a generic competency dictionary for use in this organization. Customization often involves changing some of the generic competency names and the language used in the definitions and behavioral descriptors, so that the language is consistent with concepts and terminology that are already used in the organization.

The next step is to hold a resource panel or a meeting with subject matter experts, to gather data to guide the decision about which generic competencies to include in the model for a particular job. Once the competencies for that job are identified, the panel can help select and modify behavioral descriptors from the generic dictionary, to customize the description of how each competency needs to be demonstrated in that job. This process is repeated for each job requiring a competency model. Each competency model includes a subset of the generic competencies and may also include unique, job-specific technical competencies.

The multiple model approach is most likely to be used when competency models are needed for many different jobs and when jobs have few features in common. This approach is especially useful when the planned applications include careful matching of individuals to jobs, for selection, career planning, and succession planning.

The multiple model approach has several advantages. First, because of its flexibility, the approach facilitates development of a set of competency models that encompass the jobs of all or most employees. Second, because the approach generates competency models tailored for each job, the models have high face validity and credibility. A third advantage of this approach is that it facilitates comparison of the requirements for different jobs – to design a compensation program or to plan career paths. When the organization needs to select staff, the multiple model approach helps identify which competencies are essential and desirable for a particular position.

The primary disadvantage of the multiple model approach is its complexity. For each job there is a different competency model, and the different models may generate a corresponding need for different competency assessment forms, selection interview guides, performance appraisal forms, and so on. The multiple model approach is likely to create administrative work for HR staff. To deal with this complexity, some organizations use software programs that help identify the competencies for a job and manage assessments and other HR applications based on the models. Another disadvantage of the multiple model approach is that because no competencies are common to all jobs, top management cannot use this approach to send a strong message about values and skills that are essential for the future.

Some organizations have adopted approaches that combine elements of the one-size-fits-all approach with the multiple model approach. These organizations typically identify a small set of core competencies, such as “Customer Focus” and “Initiative,” that apply to all jobs but supplement the core set with additional, job-specific competencies. The core competencies send a message about shared values for the future, while the additional competencies ensure that each competency model truly describes the requirements for that job. The main disadvantage of intermediate approaches is that they tend to result in competency models with larger numbers of competencies than would be the case using either the one-size-fits-all approach or the multiple model approach.

The bottom line about job competency models
Planning the development of competency models is an exercise in practical problem solving. There are alternative methods for collecting and analyzing data, for deciding what to include in the model, and for formatting the model and its behavioral descriptors. The choices among the alternatives should depend on goals of key stakeholders, the needs of key users, the budget and time available to develop the model, and the preferred styles of the model building team.

What makes a good competency model? The model must meet the needs of its key users. Each competency should be conceptually coherent and different from the other competencies. The behavioral descriptors should be clearly and crisply worded. The model should also be parsimonious; including too many competencies and behavioral descriptors makes a model ponderous to read and use. Finally, a good model is often supplemented with components that will add value for an intended HR application.

When planning the development of a competency model or models, there are practical considerations that affect the design of the project, the format and content of the competency model, and the success of the project’s implementation. The following seven questions may be useful to Human Resouces professionals responsible for planning and implementation:
1. What HR application should be included in the initial model building project?
2. What will the key users of the model need from it?
3. How should key stakeholders be involved?
4. How extensive should the data collection be?
5. How should research be balanced with intuitive approaches?
6. What format of behavioral descriptors will best suit the application?
7. How can additional, future competency models be accomodated?

This blog addresses question #7. Each question is addressed in Key Questions to Answer before Building Competency Models, Adapted From Practical Questions for HR Professionals Who Are Building Competency Models—a Consultant’s Experience By Dr. Richard S. Mansfield.

Choosing the correct model type is covered in the Building Competency Models workshop, next scheduled for July 18-20, 2017 in Washington, DC and November 7-9 in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

Contact Workitect for help in planning, building, and implementing job competency models and competency-based talent management applications.

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Build your own job competency models

Many companies are building their own competency models without the help (& expense) of external consultants.

More than 1,000 HR professionals have attended a three-day workshop and learned how to use a six-step process that includes the use of templates that guide the collection and coding of data necessary to build competency models, frameworks, and HR applications. Competency models, done right, connect human resource strategies with business strategies.

Details: The next workshop will be conducted on July 18-20 in Washington, DC and November 7-9, 2017 in Ft. Lauderdale.
                        Program Brochure                Feedback from Participants

Our methodology for building models is based on the original job competence assessment (JCA) methodology developed in the 1970’s by Dr. David McClelland, a pioneer in competency research and testing, and by consultants at McBer and Company.

Organizations that buy off-the-shelf models or use a methodology similar to that used to write job descriptions are missing out on the most significant benefit of competency models. Models customized to an organization are based on analyses of superior performers in that organization, with its unique culture, ways of doing business, and business strategy. The models paint a picture of what success looks like in that particular organization. Off-the-shelf models and those developed by sorting cards, brainstorming, or reading the latest business book cannot do that. Why not learn how to build models the right way? If you don’t, all of the HR applications you develop that are based on those models will be flawed.

This is the six-step process that is taught in this workshop.


As a result of attending this workshop, participants are able to:

  • Plan a competency modeling project
  • Communicate and gain support for the project
  • Chose from alternative methods for building single competency models and one-size-fits-all models
  • Build models for multiple jobs in an organization
  • Use resource panels to collect data
  • Conduct structured key event interviews
  • Analyze and code interview transcripts, and write job models
  • Develop HR applications for talent management, assessment, selection, succession planning, development, and performance management
  • Use Workitect’s licensed competency dictionary (purchased separately)
  • Obtain 19.25 credits for SHRM and HRCI certification
  • Create competency models and competency-based talent management applications, including those for:

Performance Management: assess competencies and results side by side, reminding employees that how they do things is as important as what they do.
Training and Development: use competencies to identify gaps in each employee’s capabilities so these gaps can be remedied, and provide individuals with detailed road maps for increasing their capabilities incrementally.
Staffing: use competencies to hire, place and promote people with the right capabilities to help the organization gain competitive advantage.
Compensation: both competencies and results impact pay decisions to reward performance and competency development.
Succession Planning & Talent Management: identify the competency requirements for critical jobs, assess candidate competencies, and evaluate possible job-person matches.

What methodology are you using to build models in your organization? How would you rate the impact it has had on your organization?

Let Us Help You
Workitect is a leading provider of competency-based talent development systems, tools and programs. We use “job competency assessment” to identify the characteristics of superior performers in key jobs in an organization. These characteristics, or competencies, become “blueprints” for outstanding job performance. Competencies include personal characteristics, motives, knowledge, and behavioral skills. Job competency models are the foundation of an integrated talent management system that includes selection, performance management, succession planning, and leadership development. Contact our experienced consultants to learn how we can improve all areas of your talent management processes.

More information about the Building Competency Models workshop.

Join LinkedIn's Competency-Based Talent Management group

Join LikedIn’s Competency-Based Talent Management group for further discussion on this topic.

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Seven Factors to Consider before Building Competency Models

7-FactorsJob competency models describe what superior performers actually do on a job that produces superior results. Armed with this information, selection, retention, training, succession planning and performance management systems can be integrated and designed that will attract, develop and retain top performers.

Superior performance that produces superior results means higher sales, productivity and profits. And everything can be measured. Which explains why many organizations have embraced competency-based talent management. It has provided human resource departments with an opportunity to demonstrate to line management that HR is able to “add value” that improves organizational performance.

However, there are several factors to consider before attempting to develop and implement a competency framework for talent management – factors that can make or break your best efforts.

1. Accept or modify the terminology and educate the users
The language that consultants use to describe competency systems is often confusing, misleading and filled with jargon. It starts with the definition of competencies.

A competency is a “skill, knowledge, motive, attitude, or personal characteristic that causes or predicts outstanding performance”. Most standard dictionaries, however, define competence and competency as “sufficient” or average performance as in “competent to stand trial”. Several HR directors have told me that, with the flip side of “competent” being “incompetent”, they are concerned that the image that competency systems raises for some people is that of incompetence, an implication that people are incompetent until receiving the benefit of competency modeling.

In truth, one of the purposes of competency technology is to help competent people become more competent – in areas where increased competence will produce superior performance. Each of us has strengths and areas where we can improve. Competency modeling just does a better job of identifying the specific competencies that drive superior performance and assessing the degree to which individuals have demonstrated those competencies. Our experience has been that once employees understand the concept and purpose of competency modeling, they accept it

A competency model does a better job of conveying the idea of superior performance because the word model means “something to be copied or imitated”. A job competency model, therefore, is a “blueprint” for all current and prospective job holders to copy, that includes a list of competencies that are required for superior performance. Competencies required for average performance, those required to just survive in a job, can also be spelled out in a job model.

Don’t expect everyone to immediately understand and appreciate the significance of competency modeling. Some may feel threatened by it. Go slow and educate people as you progress.

2. Think in terms of measurable payoffs.
The key question to ask yourself and others in your organization is: “what is superior performance worth?” This is easier to answer for some jobs than others, but there is an answer for every job. It first requires clarity about performance measures.

Since sales jobs have fairly clear measures, let’s look at sales jobs to illustrate the point. In one client’s organization, the average annual sales for all sales people were $3.0 million. The top sales people averaged $6.7 million in annual sales. Superior performance was worth $3.7 million in sales per sales person. Now translate this into the bell-shaped curve that depicts the distribution of performance ratings in many organizations. If you can, in fact, increase the percentage of superior performers and move the curve to the right, you will add economic value. Each sales position that is filled by a superior performer, in the case above, will add $3.7 million of sales per year.

***HR ValueChart4:c

Line executives understand this kind of thinking, where they often do not understand other HR approaches that are seen as having little impact on the bottom line.

3. Consider alternative approaches, including “doing-it-yourself”.
There are several ways to develop competency models. If you are doing more than one model, consider using an integrated approach that utilizes a competency dictionary, a common set of building block competencies, customizable for each job. Each model requires six to ten days of an internal or external consultant’s time, including facilitation of a focus group of high performers, interviews and model development.

Pick an external consultant to get you started who is willing to transfer their methodology to you and train your staff to carry on the work, and/or have them attend Workitect’s three-day Building Competency Models certification workshop.

For a large retail organization, we developed the first two models while training an internal HR manager to do additional models. She also designed and implemented selection and performance management applications based on the models. Structured interview questions were developed for each key position to help hiring managers assess and select candidates with the required competencies. Performance goals and results forms were also developed.

4. Start small, don’t oversell, but start with a critical job
The best way to demonstrate the payoffs of a competency approach is to start with a high impact job or one that is requiring attention, i.e. high turnover, impact on company’s sales, etc. Define the measurable outcomes of doing the model and specify applications.

For example, if you want to do a model of a software developer position, include an application of a selection system and interview guide that will allow you to expand the candidate pool and select superior performing software developers. Other applications can be added, but you should start with at least one visible and measurable outcome for the model. If outcomes and applications are not built in, competency modeling may be perceived as a HR exercise without payoffs.

There is a natural tendency to want to start with a low risk, low visibility position, in order to evaluate the process and the consultant. You are better off doing your homework and thoroughly checking references before selecting a consultant than to waste an opportunity to make an impact that can multiply through out the organization.

The ideal place to start is with the top executive group. Getting that group to develop a model for their position assures buy-in. They may have already gone through a strategic planning exercise that included identifying their organization’s “core competencies”. Developing a model helps them understand the job competency process and align it to the company’s strategy. For example, if innovation is a desired core competency, then a “fostering innovation” competency may be included in most models in order to drive the kind of change needed. An executive model is also needed for a good succession planning system.

5. “One size fits all” model or multiple models for multiple jobs
Some organizations use a generic off-the-shelf model for all manager positions. The model may have been one developed externally to cover all management jobs in all industries. Or it may have been developed internally by surveying senior executives asking them what they thought were the key characteristics required for success in their organization. Both approaches are inexpensive to adopt.

The prime disadvantage is lack of validity in a specific organization. The externally developed model may miss several key competencies that may really make the difference between superior and average performance in your unique culture. The internally developed list is often based on opinion and false assumptions and not on hard data. There can also be a communications gap. One CEO insisted that his organization hire and develop people “with a fire in their belly”. He didn’t mean finding people with ulcers, but it did take a competency model to validate his opinion and to clearly and concisely describe the qualities of people who were actually successful in that organization.

The opposite end of the spectrum is to do models for every job in an organization, which is costly and unnecessary. Job models are not necessary for every single job in an organization. Jobs can be grouped into like categories or levels. For example, ten different positions in an information systems department may be grouped into three levels.

For another manufacturing company, this is the process that was followed. Models for thirteen key management and professional positions at the plant and headquarters facilities were completed within a relatively short period of time.

6. Maximize the uses and benefits.
There are many possible applications and uses of competency models. Unfortunately, a lot of organizations go to the trouble of developing models, use them for one purpose and put them on the shelf. Here are some ways in which you can take full advantage of competency models. Use them to:

  • Integrate all HR and talent management processes using a common framework to select, train and reward people.
  • Assess internal and external candidates using assessment exercises, interviewing and instruments.
  • Develop a model for high performing teams. Select and train team members, use for team building.
  • Expand hiring and succession pool. Models may challenge assumptions about required competencies and identify alternative sources of talent
  • Retain key employees. Target retention of top performers. Employees who see expanded opportunities for growth are more likely to stay (also impacts morale).
  • Redesign jobs. Analysis of a job during model building can reveal ineffective job design plus suggested improvements from focus group.
  • Certify competence levels. Design certification programs to develop and reward competency development.
  • Design 360° feedback instruments and other developmental tools.
  • Determine staffing of merged organization. Keep the top performers in the key positions.
  • Create the learning organization. Use the models as templates to guide development.

7. High tech or low tech?
Competency technology has evolved to the point where you can now buy software programs to help construct competency models. These programs contain competency dictionaries, i.e. lists of competencies that can be used to analyze jobs. Some companies have designed their own customized programs for the same use. As we move closer to computerizing all paper transactions and making greater use of the intranet, this seems to make sense. The more we can use technology to simplify our lives, the better.

However, the process of developing competency models remains basically a human process. It requires interviewing, collecting and analyzing data, observing behavior, skillful facilitation of a focus group and drafting a model document. Judgment, ability to react and adapt to situations, to deal with conflict and resistance and uncover unexpected opportunities to improve an organization’s performance are required.

Using automated tools to assist in the application of competency technology is a good idea. Employees who can access competency models and developmental opportunities through a computer terminal feel more empowered and more in control of their destiny. Just be careful to not put the cart before the horse. Remember GIGO (garbage in, garbage out)? Develop good models and good systems before computerizing. Concentrate first on practicality and fit, not on technical sophistication.

The downside of outlining all the things one should consider before doing something is that it will have the unintended effect of discouraging the reader from doing the “something”. Hopefully, that will not be the case here because the payoffs for your organization and for you personally of undertaking a competency approach far outweigh the pain you may incur. Thoughtful consideration of the seven tips described above should minimize the pain and maximize the gain. Read more.. Insights: Superior Performers Produce Superior Results

Also included in Workitect’s Building Competency Models Workshop and applied in our consulting practice to help organizations develop job competency models and HR and talent management applications, including performance management, succession planning, assessment and selection, and training and development.
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