This article offers a practical explanation of the Competency Framework. After reading, you’ll understand the basics of this powerful Human Resource Management tool.
What is a Competency Framework?
A Competency Framework is a model in which features, characteristics and work methods are defined for a certain position or organisation. The framework helps organisations coordinate their general business strategy and vision and the accompanying positions. As a result, recruiters can select and recruit employees more effectively. Besides for recruitment and selection purposes, the competency framework is often also used in career development, performance management and HR planning.
Competencies are observable behaviours and encompass skills, knowledge, attributes and personality characteristics that should have a predictive value for the position to be carried out. Consequently, a competency framework provides clarity on the desired behaviours on various levels of the organisation. The competencies can be observed and will therefore often partly determine the function requirements, retention and development of personnel.
The Competency Framework arose at the end of the twentieth century when the interest for change within the organisation and organisational effectiveness grew. American academic Richard Boyatzis wrote his book ‘The competent manager: a model for effective performance’ in 1982. The book became a bestseller and is currently still a widely accepted and frequently used source of many Human Resource strategies.
Structure and Diversity
Because companies look for different employees with different competencies, each organisation develops its own version of the competency framework. This means there are countless ways of shaping a competency framework. Generally speaking, a set of competencies is constructed per category of positions. For instance, there is a competency framework for management, but also for all other employees that fall under this management.
In a competency framework, various competencies can be defined within various categories. For example, for a managerial position, the following required characteristics may be included in the category of interpersonal skills: leadership, power of persuasion, communication and decisiveness. It’s not always necessary to use a just few words to describe a skill. Often, a brief summary is given of what exactly is expected of the person filling the position.
A shop manager is expected to have a commercial focus and display strong leadership behaviour. A description of the commercial focus could be:
‘The manager recognises how he can boost sales figures through the layout of his shop, how he can increase profit margins through his purchase policy and how he adjusts his product range to match the industry standards.’
Because competencies can be developed for practically any position, there is a great diversity of categories within the competency frameworks. However, there are many organisations that use the following three types of competencies:
Core competencies refer to the areas where the organisation is looking to gain a competitive advantage. A company’s organisational means and strategic advantages combined with desired knowledge and technical capacities are the factors that distinguish a company from others. Most companies don’t limit themselves to only one core competence. These competencies also vary based on the sector the company operates in. Hospitals focus on medical expertise and patient care, whereas a health information agency focuses on the development and health of people.
Behavioural competencies are more specific than the core competencies that apply to the competencies and capacities of the organisation as a whole. The behavioural competencies often form the basis for assessment interviews that are conducted annually and must therefore be defined in a specific and measurable context. As a result, the degree of expertise and development of talent can be validated.
In short, behavioural competencies can be defined as the strengths and weaknesses of people within the organisation. For an HR manager, it’s difficult to measure these competencies because there’s no clear method to establish them. Nevertheless, they are important and play a crucial role in personnel planning, recruitment and development.
Individual behavioural competencies encompass personal qualities such as decisiveness, analytical skills and critical thinking. Analytical competencies can subsequently be subdivided into data analysis, problem-solving ability and the extent to which a person can easily work with numbers.
Interpersonal competencies may include aspects such as the extent to which someone is a team player, has communicative skills, conflict management and whether someone is capable of boosting harmony on the workfloor.
Functional competencies refer to the competencies that directly influence the daily activities that employees will conduct and often include behavioural competencies. Because these function-specific competencies recur daily or regularly, they are often deemed to be very important. Functional competencies are also regularly referred to as technical or operational competencies. Examples include: risk analysis, data analysis, keeping a database, machine management, etc.
Cross-functional competencies are competencies that aren’t directly selected for the position, but are still very important for carrying out related tasks. These could include: advancing teamwork, lowering costs, increasing effectiveness, boosting motivation, etc.
Use Competency Framework
Recruitment & selection
Competencies are highly suitable to be included in the selection process. Interview questions are carefully designed to reveal specific skills, experiences and behaviours of the candidate that are relevant for the position.
When working for the organisation, it’s important that employees learn and grow in the position they practise to encourage engagement and motivation. Unused potential can be developed with competency frameworks. As a result, employees are enabled to assess themselves based on the skill requirements for the position or possible future position. After it has been established that new skills must be developed, they can submit a request to their manager for the opportunity of self-development.
Competencies are invaluable to the recruitment process, but also greatly impact the way employees are evaluated. A well-designed competency framework is based on the organisational values and can therefore be used in the annual assessment of the employee to see how he/she performs in the role.
Designing the Competency Framework
Inform the people within the organisation beforehand and inform them of the fact that a competency framework is being prepared. It’s also important to know what the goal is, what the advantages are and how the eventual framework is used. If this is unclear, questions will start to lead a life of their own during the phase of gathering data. During that phase, employees are interviewed, for instance.
As with any project, it starts with defining the goal of the competency framework. Developing a good competency framework takes a lot of time, which means there must be clarity on what exactly must be achieved.
Decide whether a competency framework must be created for all roles and positions within the organisation or for a specific group of employees only. Bring employees together with knowledge of the selected functions.
3. Gather Relevant Data
An important step towards creating a competency framework is gathering data about each type of task in the selected functions. Gather as many data as possible from both employees and management. The more and better the data, the more precise the final competency framework will be.
The goal here is to gather specific examples and experiences in which specific competencies and behaviours are important. For this purpose, detailed behavioural interviews can be used, but a chat by the water cooler may also yield useful insights.
Taking questionnaires is also an effective way of gathering examples and data. Spend enough time on drawing up the questions, but do take into account the reliability and validity.
The desired or positive competencies or behaviours must be selected from the gathered examples. Subsequently, these must be placed in clusters, or competency groups. Pay attention to duplicates, remove or rewrite possible vague and unclear competencies, or return to the employees to clear up the situation. Eventually, make a selection of competencies that are in agreement with the mission, vision and values of the organisation.
Subsequently draw up measurable criteria to measure the actual behaviour for each competency. These criteria can be used later during assessment interviews or career development.
5. Test and Implement
After the framework has been completed, it’s time to test its effectiveness. A simple way to do this is to select a number of employees with different performance levels and test the competency framework by having them assess their own competencies. Subsequently compare the evaluation with the most recent performance interviews. Employees who perform well should have a higher competency level than employees who perform less. If not, the framework might need revising.
Although a competency framework can be a useful HR tool, a too strong reliance on this tool is not effective and may even be detrimental. In his book ‘Managers, not MBA’s’, Henry Mintzberg already noted that recruiting various competencies doesn’t necessarily make a manager competent.
- A good manager not only performs well because he is able to recruit various competencies, but also because of the relationship and dynamics between his competencies.
- By frantically holding onto a competency framework, the focus lies too much on current needs and competencies, rather than on future requirements.
- Only assessing competencies with measurable behaviour could mean that more subtle factors are neglected.
Now It’s Your Turn
What do you think? Are you familiar with the explanation of the Competency Framework? Has a competency framework ever been created for your position? Or do you perhaps create a competency framework for your own employees? Do you have any tips or additional comments?
Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.
- Young, J., & Chapman, E. (2010). Generic competency frameworks: A brief historical overview. Education Research and Perspectives, 37(1), 1.
- Bolden, R., Gosling, J., Marturano, A., & Dennison, P. (2003). A review of leadership theory and competency frameworks. Centre for Leadership Studies, University of Exeter.
- Mintzberg, H. (2004). Managers, not MBAs: A hard look at the soft practice of managing and management development. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
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