I have a friend who works for a huge company. He has spent the last year of his life working on a "competency" project intended to hire, develop, train, and deploy employees. He's discouraged.
This big company knows all about software and hardware, but it is totally incompetent (i.e., out of its league, clueless, self-opinionated, myopic, ego-centric, and every other blundering adjective one could think of) when it comes to defining a competency-based system. Everyone has an opinion, people have their own vested definitions, and university professors (who never managed a business in their life) queue up to receive projects. It's an exercise in futility.
The other day I was watching a program about a Japanese construction project to build the world's largest, tallest, and heaviest building – on sand, in an earthquake zone. We won't debate why anyone would want to build such a thing, but it served as a nice metaphor for competency-based people management systems.
The Difference Between Buildings...
Unlike the big computer company, everyone working on the building knew exactly what they were supposed to do: some planned, some manufactured components, some assembled parts, and some managed the whole process. Best of all, they all used the same base-10 numbers, engineering principles, and metric system.
The Japanese building had three main systems: a static central core that supported the entire structure; separate functional areas for living, shopping, working, and so forth; and dynamic operational areas that would be constantly working, cleaning, supplying, and so forth. They had everything, and nothing, in common – except they must all work together.
...And Competency-based Systems
Sadly, the competency-builders in my friend’s company don’t stick to neatly complementary, coordinated roles. Worse, they don’t even speak the same language.
Managers want detailed competencies that define and control all work activities. Staffing executives seem to prefer great big global definitions like "miniaturization," "entrepreneurial" and "hard-driving,” while line managers like operational definitions such as "analytical," "business savvy," and "determined." When they get together, they produce a laundry list of every objective known to man or beast. The project becomes a stuffed mammoth in the living room: it fills the room with its presence, it's totally static, and it's dead.
Trainers want general, global competencies that reflect pop trends. Their job is to purchase prepared training programs and deliver workshops and seminars that seldom, if ever, change incompetent people into productive workers. As a result, they see competency systems as an exercise in including every buzzword ever uttered by a training manual.
Recruiters, meanwhile, are happy to get anything of value. But because they are usually unfamiliar with job analysis and good testing practices, they don't know how to accurately and reliably measure it. Left to sweep up after the elephants (or the mammoth) at the end of the parade, they work with whatever resources managers will grudgingly give them.
Let's just say that if these folks were constructing a building, the core would be Legos, cardboard, structural steel, and tin cans; the functional areas would be cobbled together with baling twine; and the operational areas would stock the kitchens with toilet paper and the bathrooms with sliced bread.
Sound Construction Principles
To fulfill management's objectives and last longer than three years, a competency-based system should be built like a building: methodically, using input from each group in their unique areas of expertise:
- Executives must deliver a clearly articulated business vision and mission, expressed as broad-scope executive imperatives that apply to all positions. These form the "core" of the building, supporting and holding everything in its place
- Mid managers must convert the vision and mission into operational business plans.
- Line managers must convert the operational business plans into managerial objectives, which serve as the basis for decent performance management and appraisal. Then they must go one step further and convert these objectives into human competencies, tweaking and tuning them to each individual situation.
- The competencies must then be redistributed to training, management, and recruiting.
- Finally, recruiters responsible for staffing must be able to simplify and measure competencies. This allows staffing to acquire the right talent to do the job regardless of prior experience or background.
Throughout the process, there must one generally accepted definition of "competency." I like Merriam-Webster's definition: "the ability to perform," or the ability of a specific individual to perform the skills required for a specific job.
Building on Sand
Instead of going with what they really know, in the real world most everyone thinks that, because they are human, they are human relations experts. This seems especially true of people promoted to management for their individual contributions!
Trainers think that they’re psychologists. Healthcare psychologists market themselves as business experts. And recruiters think their job is sourcing, not qualifying.
Until everybody learns do their part appropriately, competency systems will continue to look like sand castles. And hold up just as well when the waves come up the beach.