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Competency frameworks: The bubonic plague of training?

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NooseGo on, be radical, think the unthinkable and question the perceived wisdom that competency frameworks are necessary, says Garry Platt. One size does not fit all, he says, so ditch the competency frameworks - the future is bespoke.







Most trainers in their development are introduced to the concept competency frameworks - the creation of Richard Boyazis back in the 1980s (think T'pau and Bananarama). His book 'The Competent Manager: A Model for Effective Performance' introduced the idea of identifying those behaviours which led to superior performance and then, following their refinement, developing people against them. It was an idea which significantly influenced the concept of NVQs.

Platt "There are so many negative things that I have encountered in relation to competency frameworks that have led me to believe they are one of the great white elephants in the HR and training community."

Since that time, organisations have adopted competency frameworks at about the same rate as bubonic plaque swept through medieval Europe, the only difference being there are no weeping pustules. The introduction of competency frameworks appears to have had mixed success and I haven’t found one verifiable study demonstrating the benefits of it adoption. The output is often a core of essential skills deemed vital for everybody in the business. Sometimes specialist skills are defined for particular roles with unique demands. This approach occasionally becomes more complex when the descriptors of the core skills are contextualised so that it can be easily understood how the core competency relates to a specific job.

A third level of complexity can be added to this when, not only are competencies defined and edited against particular functions but also different levels, so how an operative applies a 'customer focused' approach is defined differently as to how a senior manager in the same department might have to practise this competence.

The work necessary to produce this kind of framework can be significant if it is to reflect those skills which will support the business. Occasionally they are 'off the peg' - in other words they are barely researched at all and an almost standardised framework is produced (SHL produce one for instance). Others invest months and many thousands of pounds in their creation. The question that the trainer should ask is: 'Is it worth it?' There are so many negative things that I have encountered in relation to competency frameworks that have led me to believe they are one of the great white elephants in the HR and training community. They occupy this position for several incontrovertible reasons. Let's look at just a few of them:

They are out of date as soon as they are created
The commercial environment we occupy today is virtually if not completely different from the world we occupied one or even two years ago. The pressures which affect our organisations alter and change on a daily, if not hourly, basis. The plans and objectives of departments and sections flex and alter increasingly frequently and the people and staff we employ constantly change, if not by turnover then by development.

We live in a sea of flux and instability, attempting to create a rigid structure which will stay in synch with these variables is impossible. A competency framework is actually a 'compromise framework', we pick those skills that we think will be the most appropriate but unless the creators are equipped with a crystal ball it is unlikely that they will be that lucky in their choices.

One size does not fit all
The idea that everybody needs a particular range of core skills is an attractive one. It means we have structure against which we can recruit, induct, train, promote or out source everybody. In my experience however there is such a level of diversity within organisations that this approach is rendered inoperable. Unlike Handy - who appears to propose a singular culture model - I find that in organisations larger than a small/medium enterprise they are pluralistic and varied. It is also my experience that departments or sections of businesses have completely different core demands and the force fitting of a standardised set is like selling shoes in one size.

"In many organisations the appraisal interview takes place once a year - you get assessed against a range of competencies which were defined as appropriate back in 1989 just after the Berlin Wall fell - and then it gets forgotten about for another six months or a year. What good is that?"

They don't do very much
Observance and application of the competency framework seems to be the exception rather more than the rule - which is strange. But once again, in my experience, generally true. Having spent time and effort on the competency framework the only place it regularly appears is on the appraisal document. I hesitate to call it a performance management system because I think that would be contrary to the Trades Description Act. In many organisations the appraisal interview takes place once a year - you get assessed against a range of competencies which were defined as appropriate back in 1989 just after the Berlin Wall fell - and then it gets forgotten about for another six months or a year. What good is that?

So, what's the alternative? You could downgrade the status of the competency framework from a Grade 1 Ancient Monument that cannot be changed or altered, to a flexible collection of skill sets which are tailored to the unique demands of the current times and the function.

Alternatively - if you wanted to be completely radical - you could move away from a menu-driven approach (where the competency framework influences the training delivered) and instead move to a consultancy-driven system with just a few core programmes, and a much more bespoke and developed range of responses aimed at the particular and exclusive demands of specific groups or departments. The key thing here for the trainer reviewing their approach to training is to think the unthinkable, question the received wisdom that competency frameworks are a good thing. They might be in some organisations and some cultures, but not in every organisation and not every culture. One size truly does not fit all.


Garry Platt is a senior consultant at Woodland Grange specialising in management development and trainer training. He can be contacted on 01926 336621 or e mail:
[email protected]

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