The First Competency Model

Harvard University

Harvard University

The first competency model was developed in the early 1970’s by the eminent psychologist Dr. David McClelland and consultants from McBer and Company2. McClelland was a Harvard professor who published a paper in 1973 titled “Testing for Competence Rather Than Intelligence”. This launched the competency movement in psychology. The first test of competency assessment methods was with the U.S. Department of State. The department 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.

When 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.

Workitect uses the McBer methodology to build competency models.

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