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Competencies in Selection, Appraisal and Development


Helen Bouchami Consulting
In this article Helen Bouchami of Helen Bouchami Consulting reviews some purposes for which competency frameworks are used. In the second part of the article she goes on to discuss how competency frameworks are developed.

Competencies have been around since the 1970s, but interest in competency-based approaches has grown in recent years. At their best competency-based approaches provide:

  • A common and consistent language for discussing performance and potential
  • A means of matching people to work requirements and career opportunities
  • A way of mapping learning solutions to identified development needs
  • A framework for integrating Human Resource Development processes - assessment, selection, development centres, coaching, development planning, career development etc.

Initially competencies were developed as a reliable means of predicting effective performance in a job. Hence, early applications of competencies were in the field of selection. However, these methods, especially Assessment Centres, are time consuming and require a considerable degree of skill. In the rush to adopt sophisticated selection processes, it is important not to ignore some basic criteria relating to knowledge and experience that are usually far easier to verify. They can offer a realistic set of pre-requisites for the role.

In a recent assignment for a global Healthcare company, the task was to design a process to identify potential Country Managers. Although we had researched and developed a competency model, there were also clear requirements in terms of experience. For example, it was out of the question to appoint someone to what was fundamentally a Sales and Marketing role, who had no experience in either function, however well they stacked up against the competencies. We established some initial screening criteria, based on length and type of experience regarded as absolutely essential for the role. This narrowed the field of candidates for whom a more time-consuming assessment would be conducted. At the same time, the profile, including both the competencies and the pre-requisites, was widely circulated and used to inform career development discussions for those who aspired to a Country Manager role.

In some organisations competency assessment forms the basis for annual appraisal. Sometimes there is a separate Performance Appraisal that reviews performance against objectives. The principle behind this separation is usually the concern that staff will not be as open to feedback about development needs if their review is tied (as many performance reviews are) to pay increases, bonuses or promotion opportunities. Yet it is difficult to see how the two could be separate. If effective performance on the job can be achieved without high ratings against the competencies then either the competencies are irrelevant, the assessment process flawed, or the performance criteria are too narrowly defined. For example they may include only the easily identifiable ‘hard measures’ of profit, sales, costs etc.

A ‘mixed’ appraisal must also value the ‘how’. This should mean that given two managers with identical bottom line results, the one who has achieved this whilst developing her people, building effective relationships and networks for the future and maintaining high standards of professional integrity should be rated (and rewarded) higher than a manager who has done none of these things. Unless they are linked to performance, and to reward, then competencies are likely to remain a ‘wish list’ – nice to have, but not critical to job or career success.

Spencer and Spencer, in their book Competence at Work define a competency as ‘a fairly deep and enduring part of a person’s personality’, which begs the question – if it is enduring, how can it be changed through development? This fairly ‘hard-wired’ characteristic of competencies is precisely what makes them so useful in selection – if they are hard to develop, then better select them in. ‘You can teach a turkey to climb trees, but you’re be better off hiring a squirrel.’ What has happened in fact is that competency models have strayed from this original behavioural definition, and now often include a mixed bag of behaviours, attitudes, skills, knowledge and even tasks. To my mind it is more helpful to acknowledge that competencies need to be supplemented by knowledge and skills when assessing development needs and solutions. In particular because the development options will be different in each case. Reading a book or attending a short workshop may be a perfectly adequate way of learning to read a balance sheet, but behaviour change is a slower, more organic process, unlikely to be encompassed within the timeframe of the annual development plan or to have a ‘one-course-fix.’

In summary

  • Competencies are a valuable addition to the HR repertoire, but experience, knowledge and skills still have their place. Don’t ‘force-fit’ everything under the competency umbrella.
  • Unless HR professionals can demonstrate how competencies contribute to individual and corporate outcomes that are valued by the organisation, they will remain in the realm of worthy but woolly HR-speak.

Classic approaches and their limitations
The classic approach to developing competencies is to select a sample of outstanding performers in a given role and a comparison group of average or mediocre performers. Each individual is interviewed in depth using the Behavioural Event interview (BEI) and statistically meaningful differences between the two groups shape the competency model. Because the competencies are researched with some rigour, they can claim to have predictive validity – that is they will help identify those who will perform well in the target role. Using this methodology, the development of a profile can take months, especially where it must be validated across country or organisational boundaries. In a stable environment this can be worthwhile as the profile remains valid over time, but in situations of rapid change and shifting job boundaries, profiles can be out of date even before they are published. Nor are traditional methodologies well adapted to analysing future organisational requirements. Organisations typically have a need to prepare their people to manage future uncertainty, not simply to replicate past excellence.

The Digital experience
Digital Equipment Corporation, where I worked for eleven years, was a pioneer in the 1980s in using competencies to integrate its Human Resource Development Processes. Before long, though, the need to select and develop people for future requirements, and to constantly revisit existing competency models in the light of rapid change, forced a review of the methodology. In particular there was a need to accelerate the development of profiles and to flex generic profiles to meet the specific needs of different groups which each configured jobs slightly differently.
The first innovation was to link the competencies, not to jobs, but to areas of activity e.g. managing people, managing customer relationships. This helped in several ways:

  • Firstly it became much easier to adapt the profile more specifically to different roles. For example, whilst all Account Managers managed customer relationships, only some of them managed people. By linking the competency requirements to each area of activity it was easy to see how the profile might be adapted to different situations.
  • Secondly, by documenting what the role involved, it became easier to track when changes to the work made a review of the competencies necessary. Far too many organisational practices outlive their relevance simply because the underpinning rationale has been lost from view.
  • A bonus was to find that managers who had been somewhat alienated by the ‘HR speak’ of competencies, could make much more sense (and use) of them once they could see the link between the competencies and task.

The other major change was to use a workshop format to gather and map the data. Not only did this help gather a lot of data quickly, it provided a forum for discussing and reconciling different views. The involvement of those who will be using the profile is key to building consensus, understanding and ownership. In this respect the process of developing a profile is almost as important as the end product.

Balancing rigour with pragmatism
Of course, not every competency profile currently in use has been developed using BEI. Some companies have based their competencies on the company’s values, for example. Also, because competency models may look quite similar from company to company, some have simply adapted a generic model. In a way this takes us back to where we started – before competencies became commonplace, it was often a few HR people sitting round a table who decided what the ‘person profile’ should be for a given job, or what criteria should be included on an appraisal form. If BEI proves impractical, this does not dispense with the need to gather the best available data. After all, the decisions about who to hire, who to promote and what development to invest in are important ones.

What is needed then is a methodology that:

  • Develops ‘future-proofed’ competency models for today’s fluid and flexible organisations
  • HR departments can learn to use, to create and update profiles, without ongoing dependence on an outside consultant
  • Creates profiles that are understood and owned by those who will use them
  • Makes explicit the link between performance of key work activities and behavioural competencies
  • Acknowledges that competencies are not the whole picture (see November’s article), and so integrates relevant skill, knowledge and experience.

If you are embarking upon a competency development project in your organisation and want to discuss how HBC’s fast and flexible approach can meet your needs please contact us. HBC is based in Reading, UK.

Helen can be contacted on +44 (0)118 988 5795 or e-mail [email protected] - or you can visit her website at

Copyright © 2001 Helen Bouchami.


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