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Spice up your Competencies

Competency frameworks are tricky to get right: they need to be easy enough for all employees to understand and use, their back-end has to hold a certain level of complexity in order for them to be really useful. Recently, a colleague and I said that they are like an iPhone. Super complex machine that makes our lives exceptionally easier.

The issue is, I’ve found, the builders of the complex machine that’s a competency framework aren’t people who have dabbled a lot in complexity.

And (and this is a very important “and”) we have to remember that behind any current-generation mobile phone, are teams of hundreds of people who design and build the machine, one tiny piece at a time; thousands of people who work on the apps that make is so useful; and another obscene amount of people who market it for us.

So it’s not fair to task a few HR and L&D people with it.

Are competencies a thing of the past?

Competency frameworks have been in decline over the past decade, since their meteoric rise to HR and People Management stardom in the early 90s.

I recall the first competency framework I designed for a financial services firm. I thought it was as simple as it could get:

  • 5 core competencies + technical skill set would be assigned to every role.

  • Each core competency had 4 levels of competence: level 1 being the lowest and 4 being highest.

  • Level 0 was allowed, if a competence was not necessary for a specific role.

As a pilot, I mapped those out to the firm’s grading scale and to a selected portfolio of 12 job descriptions.

It followed Competency Logic:

  • It was simple and specific enough so people could clearly place themselves on the scale;

  • it clearly and transparently mapped to grades and roles that indicated career progressions paths in the organisation;

  • it mirrored the compensation mechanism;

  • it was anchored in the strategy, short and long-term goals.

It was so logical Spock, Data and Seven of Nine would have been proud of it. The Global Head of HR, however, signed it off as too complicated, and opted for a solution that had no mapping to roles, comp grades or job descriptions..

The most recent competency framework I upgraded was a bit different, but fundamentally the same:

  • 8 core competencies broken into 44 behaviours.

  • Each behaviour had 4 levels of competence: level 1 being the lowest and 4 being highest.

  • People had current scores (how they feel they are now), and each job title (allowing for variances across 3 global regions and 30 countries) and an Aspiration scorecard.

What the employees saw:

  • A dashboard that showed them which behaviours they may want to work on towards the aspiration of their role.

  • Choose any role, understand what the Aspirations are for that role, and start working towards that.

  • (a toolkit that suggests how to build a personal development plan that sticks)

It followed the same Competency Logic as before.

Sounds complex? It was. It is. But in that complexity was the power of this. This is the atlas that allows people make their way towards their purpose, through achieving mastery (e.g. expertise) in a self-directed manner (and that’s important, because that’s where motivation is.)

Why bother with competencies?

Competencies were originally pitched to allow the organisation to recognise its inner strengths. These were the capabilities that helped define a competitive advantage. I would go a step further and say that they are the capabilities that facilitate the competitive advantage.

Bothering with competencies invariably helps the people at the helm create a blueprint of the key behaviours in the organisation and align them with what the organisation needs in order to be successful.

Essentially, competencies define how people should behave in order for the organisation to succeed.

This - in itself - is a piece of organisational understanding worthy of your time, effort and bother.

New Competency Framework thinking

This HBR blog, which mentions competencies as and innovation-limiter (not an easy read, I’m afraid), got me thinking even further: should competency development be treated like innovation?

Here are the two rules the author lists, adapted to competency thinking:

1. Handful of promising markets to focus on

Your company strategy should have its top objectives clearly defined. These will help define the skill, knowledge and behaviour you need to have to achieve them. Now – back track to understand where the organisational levels are and start building those up.

2. What sort of revenue would capability need to generate when it is mature?

This is a poignant topic – it’s all about the ROI, right? (and it’s really hard to prove ROI on people-related activities, right?) Right.

But! (And it’s a big “but”) if there are gaps between your current Skill/Knowledge/Behaviour pool and the pool you need to achieve your objectives, achieving those objectives will be costly, if you reach them at all.

An incompetence gap costs a pretty penny

At some point, the gap of incompetence will mean you need to hire external talent or consultants; you might need to invest in different technology and there will be cost of embedding that; you will lose valuable time and productivity.

As the pace of change and innovation increase, as uncertainty and volatility rise, giving thought (then direction) to the skill/knowledge/behaviour pool is a valuable steer to keep a finger on the pulse and get ahead in the dreaded war on talent.

…and also: cost saving!

Thinking of competencies in this way gives you a granular picture of the gaps you need to focus on.

No more keeping up with the Jonses and buying training programmes just because everyone else has them.

Learning budgets are focused on achieving real, measurable change in skill/knowledge/behaviour that are directly linked to objectives.

When done right, this way of thinking about competencies will reduce external hiring needs and boost internal mobility and internal talent acquisition.

When done in industries that are radically automating, this will re-shape the nature of redundancies, transforming capability as the industry automates.

Complexity doesn’t mean complicated

Competencies are complex because the requirements of knowledge, skill and behaviours are complex. But it is the complexity is the power of this tool. That’s where all the ultimate ROI is.

But complexity doesn’t have to be complicated. This is a different kind of board game, and we need to learn the rules of engagement.

Besides, a lot of things that were slightly dubious in the 90s are making a comeback that’s making them more relevant than ever (I’m looking at you, Spice Girls!).

Why not competencies?

Photo credit to Guido_capi via

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