Are your competencies too much of a good thing?

I love a good competency model. I’ve previously written about the value of using competencies for improved performance outcomes in the recruiting process, succession planning, and learning and development. The competencies model is a road map for success giving us the criteria of which to measure by, improve on, and hire for.  Susan David from the Harvard Business Review recently warned that in some cases our competency models have become so robust that they are actually “impossible and counterproductive”.  Check out the article. She lays out some interesting points.

I agree with her that a competency framework can become so enormous that it’s just plain unmanageable. You risk your model becoming something more like the IRS code and despite all the fabulous software nobody really understands what’s in there. Additionally, Susan points out that with too many competencies you may end up with KSAs that are inversely related. As a result while improving one skill you are suppressing performance in another. This is similar to suppressing learning through cognitive overload. By trying to fit that one more critical piece in a training session you actually end-up depressing learning.

An enormous list of competencies also may lead to an enormous list of areas for improvement, even for strong performers. Presenting someone with a laundry list of areas for development is demotivating and contrary to the goal of implementing a competency framework. Secondly, it can create too great of a focus on the negative. This risk is not inherent in using a competency framework but it’s something to be aware of. Consider for a moment team performance. What happens if a leader spends too much time and resources trying to develop an underperformer as opposed to a star performer? Perhaps it seems logical that the A players don’t need any type of learning intervention. However, how might the long term results for the company be better suited by focusing energy on further developing super star skills? What else might your top performers accomplish? A low performer may be brought up to standards, but they also might be a wrong fit for the job and eventually leave or be managed out of the organization. Similarly, Susan points out that too much focus on what needs improvement may result  in bringing those competencies up to an average level of performance while the person’s natural talents are largely ignored instead of perfected and taken to the next level.

I’m still an advocate for competency frameworks and I think in many instances they are worth the time and research. Like any tool there are definitely pitfalls to avoid. What do you think – are we getting carried away with our competencies?


Susan David, Are Your Goals Impossible and Counterproductive? The Harvard Business Review (Jan 2010)

Using Competencies to Drive Performance

The bad news is that competency modeling is a time consuming endeavor – as a HR Director once said, “It always takes too long”. The good news is that once you’ve completed the research and developed the model you can leverage the data to improve performance in three ways.

1.    Recruiting: Good performance starts with the right hire. I think this is the most frequently ignored opportunity for applying well crafted competency models. Too often recruiters are working from a job description that hasn’t been updated for five years. Or, the candidate screening process is driven by a generic wish list of experience. Take for example a Public Relations job – say the recruiter is seeking a person with four years of PR experience, a Masters Degree in PR, and manufacturing experience. Do any of these criteria really determine how successful someone will be on the job? If you don’t understand the core competencies necessary for success than your new hire may miss the mark.

2.    Succession Planning: Identifying competencies for key roles builds performance strength in the long run. You can apply a competency model to identify skill gaps in the succession plan for business partners. Then you can prepare them now for future advancement.  In doing so they’ll deliver stronger performance once they move into the new role. A lack of succession planning or an inability to identify the skills needed for success can have disastrous results. An ill prepared team member promoted to a higher level position may flounder and diminish performance for the entire team.  Some upfront work ensures better performance through employee transitions.

3.    Learning and development: Competency models and the data gleaned in their development can help identify current skills gaps and training needs. In the process you can ask team members questions to not only build the model itself, but to identify where they need coaching, and how they want to be coached. Therefore you can create targeted learning interventions to improve performance for all team members performing in the role.

These are a few my thoughts. What would you add to the list? Do you think competency modeling is worth the effort – or when do you think it is not worth the time?

Web 2.0 – A Tool for Driving Performance

Performance management is a top HR challenge. Driving performance and increasing efficiencies is a top concern of management. Yet there is fear and lack of knowledge in implementing and harnessing the power of one of the newest performance management tools – Web 2.0.  My message to L&D – start educating your HR and operations managers on Web 2.0 technology and how it can be used to drive performance.

The Great Divide
Consider these statistics:

  • 82% of HR leaders at 100 of the largest corporations cite “Implementing Talent Planning Initiatives such as better training and development, talent management and/or performance management” as a top change initiative (1).
  • Despite this goal, 23% of HR decision makers are unfamiliar with Web 2.0 and 42% are familiar with the sites but do not use them. Only 34% actively use Web 2.0 technology (2).

Further challenging the use of Web 2.0 is that 64% of U.S. companies deny employees access to social networking sites and 54% of HR decision makers have encountered or have had to discipline employees for wasting time on the internet(3). These fears are shared by HR and operations – not to mention Legal. I worked in HR for years and I’ve had to discipline employees for inappropriate use of email or spending too much time chatting with their cube mates. There is no greater risk of Web 2.0 impeding performance than any work tool. We aren’t about to see organizations ban email because it is sometimes used inappropriately. What the statistics show us is that Web 2.0 is not viewed as a tool to drive performance – in fact it’s just the opposite. It’s viewed as a time waster or a liability. Mainly because leadership and HR decision makers do not understand how Web 2.0 can be used to drive performance.

Web 2.0 to Drive Performance
Many HR leaders and operations managers haven’t made the connection that just as Web 2.0 can be accessed to interact with friends, family and loads of useless knowledge, it can also be leveraged to connect with peers, subject matter experts, practice leaders and relevant information that can help team members enhance performance.

The performance review is one area that can be improved by Web 2.0 and it’s a source of pain for HR and management alike. Sadly, performance management is too frequently a top down approach narrowed to the annual performance review. What should be a culmination of multifaceted feedback throughout the year becomes a scramble to write what is effectively a limited summary of the last 6 weeks of a person’s performance. Web 2.0 can facilitate the process of obtaining performance feedback in real time from multiple sources.

According to T&D magazine younger workers are already using social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook to ask for and obtain performance feedback long before their managers sit down and have a formal meeting. New software allows this to be duplicated internally. For example, Rypple software allows employees to import relevant contacts from their email and post Twitter-like questions regarding their performance (3). For instance, a sales person may post questions after a client sales call such as “What did you think of my presentation? How well did I address the clients concerns? What can I do better next time?”Their contacts may include their direct manager, a senior sales representative, and a marketing rep: people who have the expertise to provide fast accurate feedback. Perhaps, the best part of these tools is that they’re employee driven (user driven). It’s all about them and they’re actively engaged in managing results and getting feedback from people they trust. Also, you can’t underestimate the importance of real time feedback; quickly receiving positive feedback is important to people and reinforces desired behaviors. Quickly receiving constructive feedback helps employees make corrections faster. HR people will like it because it provides documentation of performance feedback throughout the year.

Web 2.0 tools are also an ideal platform for launching just-in-time training and facilitating collaboration. If you’ve ever posted a question to any online forum or read about a topic on Wikipedia then you have an idea how Web 2.0 can be used to glean information. Wikis, blogs, and discussion forums can be used in the workplace to provide informal learning opportunities as well as more formal interventions such as e-learning courses, toolkits and job aids that are available on demand. Business partners can post questions and find answers in particular areas of expertise and learn through the shared experience of others. Performance is improved through knowledge sharing and greater efficiencies are achieved as information is available when you need it.

I encourage you to read the article Social Networking: A Force for Development from the July issue of T&D magazine. The article describes how IBM has successfully utilized Web 2.0 tools to implement discussion forums, a peer review system, and a cool messaging tool in their learning function. It also shows how IBM not only leveraged these tools to increase collaboration and knowledge sharing, but they addressed quality control by rating contributors based on their skill in a certain area. The ratings are verified by management to ensure people are getting the right information.

The Tip of the Iceberg
These few examples are the tip of the iceberg as to how Web 2.0 can be leveraged to drive performance. Sure, what lies beneath the surface of the water is scary, but, the future is already here. Educate leadership that Web 2.0 is a tool just like any other. Yes, there is risk. However, the tool can be managed to mitigate risk and the benefits of developing quality user generated content to increase performance is worth it. It’s better to start experimenting in unknown territory then to be left behind.


(1) HR Transformation: Driving Business Results, Fidelity Employer Services Company LLC

(2) Keys to a Successful Talent Management Strategy, TrainUp

(3)Dude, How’d I do? by Pat Galagan, T&D Magazine (July 2009)

(4) Social Networking: A force for Development? by Marjorie Derven, T&D Magazine (July 2009)