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How to use competency frameworks for business success

Competency frameworks effectively define the skills, behaviors, and soft skills an employee needs to be successful, both in a specific role and within the organization. These frameworks are just one of a number of tools HR can use for people-driven performance management, hiring, and team building, but with their focus on capabilities, they’re also one of the most important.

A competency is the sum of a set of skills, knowledge, abilities, attributes, experience, personality traits, and motivators. Once your organization maps the competencies desirable in a role, you can find stronger hires based on skills assessments, make more informed development choices, and deliver the necessary training to help people fill skills gaps, either in their current role or a future one. Essentially, competency frameworks integrate into hiring, leadership, performance management, and much more.

What is a competency framework?

A competency framework defines abilities and masteries that contribute to an individual’s ability to do their job well. This framework should exist at both an organizational and an individual job level. It should also enable recruiters to identify people who are a strong fit for specific roles, while giving managers the tools to assess behavior and production, set goals, and make organizational decisions. Competency frameworks are most often used in recruitment, for evaluations, and for employee professional development.

How do you define a competency?

Competencies are specific behaviors or traits that contribute to a person’s ability to do their job well. Underlying characteristics can predict behavior in a variety of tasks and skills, such as a person’s ability to analyze situations quickly and perform well under stress. Competencies include characteristics, related knowledge, skills, and attributes, all of which play a role in job performance. For example, competency frameworks typically answer questions like:

  • What are the job’s expected outputs?
  • What behaviors will lead to the expected outputs?
  • What knowledge, skill(s), and ability(ies) will lead to the expected outputs?

A competency framework can be defined at an organizational level with broad competencies, and at a role level with specific competencies.

Organizational competencies

Organizational competencies are core masteries that define what the organization requires of its employees to succeed and how it expects overall goals to be accomplished. Most organizations define 15 to 25 competencies that lay out how employees are expected to act, and common traits everyone needs to succeed. These remain the same across the organization.

Common organizational or core competencies include:

  • Agility
  • Communication
  • Problem-solving
  • Integrity
  • Customer centricity
  • Strategic perspective
  • Resilience
  • Innovation
  • Teamwork
  • Personal leadership

These traits define a company culture of behavior and mastery that allows employees to meet the organization’s expectations.

Technical and behavioral competencies

Technical and behavioral competencies, also known as individual competencies, must be defined on a role level and applied to individuals. They map the skills and behavioral traits necessary to succeed in individual roles and so must be defined accordingly.

Technical competencies – Technical competencies are what a person can do, including hard skills and specific know-how. For example, an IT role would need someone with a strong knowledge of system security, specific software or platforms the organization uses, etc. But they would also require certain behaviors to be successful in that role.

Behavioral competencies – Behavioral competencies express how an employee performs in their role. While organizational competencies are broad and high level, these define individual behaviors that apply to the role. For example, an IT person might need attention to detail, empathy, quick thinking, problem-solving, and a good memory to perform well in their position. Some organizations further split these into interpersonal competencies as well. 

Defining competencies and how they apply to both the role and the organization is a crucial part of developing a competency model. Individual competencies must be defined as technical and behavioral, and organizational competencies must apply to every employee across the company.

Why to use a competency framework

The main benefit of implementing a competency framework into an organization is improved performance. A framework outlines the skills and behavioral traits an employee needs to excel at their job, making it easier to identify those who have the correct traits, skills, and behaviors for certain roles.

This allows you to define what “good” work looks like at every level of the organization, highlighting both how the organization works and how employees can meet the needs of their roles. More importantly, a clear competency framework lays out both what an employee should be able to do and how to do it.

A good competency framework enables HR to hire the right person for the job based on core behavior traits, which increases hiring accuracy, reduces job turnover, and boosts performance.

The process of creating and integrating competency frameworks can be intimidating, long, and costly. However, if you’re considering competency-based hiring or performance management, know that it will pay off. While the actual value of competency frameworks depends on their quality and how well they’re integrated, there are numerous benefits for organizations overall. From recruiting and assessments to performance management and succession planning, competency frameworks play a significant role in the businesses that employ them.

Success defined

Competency frameworks allow you to define success in a role and in your organization. If you can highlight the behaviors that are necessary to make strong achievements in your organization, you can streamline hiring. And, if you’ve defined what success looks like in each role and function of your organization, you can improve performance management. In short, you create a map for job expectations, career paths, and performance measurement by which you can measure, reward, and promote workers.

Improved processes

When you know what you’re looking for, the target capabilities and skills you need, and the behaviors that perform well in your role, hiring becomes smoother along with internal processes and even succession planning. Any employee-based program is automatically based on the existing framework, helping you to set targets, establish goals, and better define candidates. This also speeds up processes because, rather than redefining what’s needed from a candidate each time and getting leaders to agree on targets, they’re already set down.

Big-picture mindset

Hiring with a competency-first mindset instead of a drive to fill a position or some other sense of urgency means you’ll hire highly qualified team members who will fit in with the organization. In the long term, these are team members who’ll be useful even as your organization grows and changes. This results in fewer hiring mistakes and helps you create a team that can see the big picture.

Qualified hires

Competency-based HR pays special attention to the people who can do a job well and catalogs their characteristics and behaviors. This leads to more qualified hires, because you know the skills and behaviors that have been proven to do well for a role.

Enjoyable workplace culture

Competency includes workplace professionalism and the ability to remain calm and communicate well. Since attitude is taken into consideration, you’ll find yourself working in a team that’s overall more enjoyable to interact with.

Better problem management

You’ll also build a team that has good problem-solving skills. This includes resolving internal conflicts, issues with a project, and complaints from clients. Competency-based HR actively searches for candidates with the best problem-solving skills compatible with the issues your organization commonly faces. This results in better informed decisions and fewer escalating problems.

Set clear expectations

Using a competency framework allows you to outline employee expectations clearly, which in turn improves communication and performance. By defining competencies, you can:

  • Ensure training and professional development is target based and productive
  • Offer employees a way to measure and improve their competencies while expanding mobility
  • Track employee and competency growth
  • Improve communication between management and the workforce by clarifying job standards and establishing channels for constructive feedback
  • Set clear expectations for employees while producing a mechanism for recognizing high performers

Competency frameworks aid in recruiting and managing the people correctly so they stay where they’re needed, while growing professionally (which they can then measure). These frameworks can tie into every aspect of recruitment and performance management, as well as succession and pipeline planning, because you have the tools to measure, reward, and improve upon the successes of your best employees.

Pros and cons of competency frameworks

Your reasons for adopting a competency framework into your organization influence their success. For example, it can be easy to underutilize a competency framework, or to use them as traditional performance management.

Pros

The pros of using a competency framework include:

  • It’s easy to communicate clearly how employees are expected to perform and behave in their work
  • Appraisal and recruitment are easier and more focused on skills
  • Recruiters can assess and identify skills based on performance
  • HR can work to link specific skills and behaviors to performance over time
  • Assessments become more transparent and therefore more fair
  • HR can standardize processes like leadership and development based on behaviors and competencies
  • You can more clearly distinguish between team performance and individual performance
  • You have a stronger understanding of what to look for when hiring, promoting, and training

Cons

Competency frameworks are not right for every organization. Their cons often relate to poorly developed or poorly utilized frameworks:

  • They can unfairly focus on past competencies and so have to be assessed and updated regularly to be fair
  • It can be difficult to understand and use frameworks
  • Sometimes training is required to make performance improvements
  • Competency frameworks can’t replace performance management, but HR sometimes tries

Streamline recruitment with a competency framework

Hiring new employees is often a balance between opting for the hard skills and knowledge to perform well in a role, and the personality and behavior to fit well into an organization. Traditionally, recruiters create a profile of who they’re looking for and match potential candidates against that profile. Unfortunately, this process heavily focuses on technical skill and formal learning, often overlooking competencies such as attitude and behavioral patterns, which can be equally important.

Competencies show not only what an employee can do, but also how and how well they utilize the resources at their disposal (i.e., tools, skills, knowledge) to complete their jobs. Using a competency framework as part of the recruitment process allows you to streamline this process by identifying those factors and therefore make better hires.

Improve interview accuracy

Competency frameworks allow you to set up a structured interview in which recruiters use standardized, behavior-based questions to determine how candidates handled previous situations or theoretical ones. This allows you to score individual candidates based on how well they respond, rather than using unstructured models.

This identifies role-based competencies for the position you’re hiring for, and improves the accuracy of hires for both current and future roles as well. Creating a competency framework normally involves reviewing existing employees to determine which factors make them successful in a role – including their behavior, decisions, and actions – alongside technical skills and knowledge.

Richer candidate feedback

With competency frameworks, you can create and offer clear, rational responses when refusing candidates. This makes the overall hiring process smoother by communicating with candidates rather than leaving them in the dark. It also helps recruiters better define what they’re looking for according to candidate characteristics not suited for the position.

Reduced turnover

Hiring candidates whose behavior doesn’t fit a specific role often results in high turnover rates. For example, even an experienced person with the right technical skills for a role may not do well if they hold to tradition and prefer to move slowly while the role requires a fast-paced, fast-adapting individual. This friction will produce a negative work environment and inevitably drive the employee away. By identifying the specific behavior competencies that allow candidates to excel in a role, you can improve job satisfaction as well as performance.

Lower costs

Looking for specific behavior parameters on top of technical skills and knowledge improves the accuracy and efficiency of candidate selection, and therefore reduces total costs. Competency-based recruitment is results oriented and measurable, allowing you to create a direct return on investment in the recruitment process.

Stronger candidates

Competency frameworks give recruiters a map of what success looks like in a role so they can match candidates to specific behaviors rather than looking for a generic profile. This, in turn, speeds up the recruitment process, improves personality and behavioral matching, and increases the chances of finding a good fit.

What is competency-based human resources?

The core concept of competency-based human resources (HR) is to hire for roles based on the competencies that have been identified for that role.

When you implement competency-based systems, the employee benefits from a clear blueprint of a role and a definition of success. They receive transparency regarding recruitment, succession planning, expectations, and evaluations. Employers benefit from reduced turnover, a high level of competence among their team, good skill matches, and high efficiency.

Competency-based human resources:

  • Structures internal employee mobility
  • Creates a framework for open, honest feedback
  • Clarifies success in a job for employee reviews
  • Provides direction for needed skills
  • Sets goals and benchmarks for professional development
  • Gives employees the tools they need to take initiative and further their competencies

Combining HR planning with business planning will allow your company to work comprehensively to achieve your mission and vision. It will align your team with your resources and goals, and ensure your personal, team, and departmental strategies all work toward the same purpose. It’ll also reveal any gaps that need to be filled with additional training or planning.

Competency frameworks and performance management

The competency frameworks model is invaluable for the hiring process, as you can vet candidates based on hard skills as well as behavior and responses to determine if they’re capable of filling a role well. However, it’s also incredibly valuable for performance management and end-of-year reviews.

Knowing what makes a role successful, you can more easily judge when and why an existing employee performs well in their role, when they outperform, and how to improve their performance.

Managing performance as a culture

Many organizations manage performance at one or two points throughout the year, but not on a daily basis. Integrating competency frameworks allows you to determine if individual behavior contributes to a role.

For example, if a person in customer service is routinely short, rude, or uncommunicative, they’re obviously not fit for the role and will likely be moved or fired. However, we rarely apply those same behavioral considerations to other roles. A manager must be open, willing to invest in the success of their team over themselves, and act as a teacher and leader. If they fail to demonstrate those behaviors, is the manager truly performing well in their role?

A well-designed competency framework will clearly define organizational values, focus job and career trajectory, assist employees in managing job satisfaction, and encourage personal development.

Competency is not performance

Recognizing that someone is capable and seeing them perform are separate things. A person may have all the required competencies, but still perform poorly in a role. So, performance management must be separate from competency frameworks. Competency relates to performance in that you can see how people work (and how well).

At the same time, motivation, drive, and commitment play a big part, so a person who’s highly competent may become demotivated and underperform, while a less competent individual may outperform. You can gauge how employees work using competency frameworks, but you still have to gauge what they do separately.

Competency-based performance management is a good solution when combined with traditional performance management. Competencies give you more tools to measure how employees work and how they’re contributing. You can look for success according to the metrics you set down, and measure accordingly. But it’s not the only factor: Physical output and production still matter a great deal. You need both, and each is complementary to the other.

How to build a competency framework for your organization

A competency framework comprises a matrix that maps behaviors and skills to roles and tasks inside your organization. As such, building your own requires you to map it to your organization, which takes time and research. Or, you could purchase a competency framework, but you’d want to customize it to your organization’s specific needs and roles.

Defining necessary competencies across your organization allows you to hire and train for those skills, measure them, and determine which other abilities contribute to job success.

Competency frameworks give you the tools to gauge an employee’s ability to perform well in a role based on behavior, personality, and hard skills – allowing you to go beyond what’s on paper to determine how people actually perform. While undeniably valuable, many companies struggle to determine what’s needed and why. What’s more, crafting a competency framework can require months or even years of research to get it right, leading many to outsource the work instead.

Both outsourcing and creating your own competency framework have their pros and cons, so it’s important that you consider more than simply costs when deciding which route to take.

Outsourcing competency framework design

Outsourcing the building of a competency framework requires you to connect with an external organization that already has a significant amount of benchmarked data, an established process, and “fill in the blanks” data that they can quickly and easily tailor to your unique organization. Many have industry-specific solutions, which can be easily updated for your organization at a lower cost. This gives you a competency framework you can establish quickly and at minimal expense.

Developing your own competency framework

Many organizations choose to develop competency frameworks internally, either using existing benchmarked data or starting from scratch. This involves considerable internal research to map competencies to roles, determine objectives, source an organizational and management framework, and ensure ongoing improvement.

You need to align business, sourcing, and strategy to create a single list of objectives, identify competencies, map existing competencies to success across teams and roles, develop a framework for teams and departments to foster collaboration and ensure individuals with certain skill sets and abilities are available where needed, and establish a process for monitoring performance and effectiveness.

Develop internal resources to:

  • Analyze existing job roles and what makes them productive
  • Interview leaders and workers and compile data
  • Structure how competencies contribute to end goals
  • Define how each competency contributes and why

Choosing the best solution for your organization

If you can successfully handle internal research and analysis, building your own competency model from the ground up may be beneficial. However, most organizations benefit considerably more by bringing in not only third-party research, but a third-party perspective as well. Outsourcing allows you to adopt research compiled across your industry, then have it modified to meet your organization’s specific needs. Because the bulk of the work is already finished, you can easily identify what applies to your organization, create management and leadership frameworks around it, and adjust accordingly as time goes, rather than starting with nothing.

Starting with a standardized framework

Most organizations list the same basic skills or competencies as others. Even if you require fairly heavy customization, buying a standardized framework will likely reduce budget strain considerably. Most competency frameworks include skills frameworks and role mapping. You can also choose a skills-only framework that simply maps skills to roles, giving HR a good idea of what they need and what hiring managers across their industry are looking for.

Once you have a basic framework, it’s important to personalize it by making adjustments to fit your organization’s specific roles, and to ensure the framework integrates into performance management, hiring, and training. Popular frameworks include SFIA, OECD, and IAEA. In most cases, it’s a good idea to go over options with your talent or assessment provider to ensure you have a good fit.

Define where and how competencies are employed

Leaders will use competency frameworks to assess candidates for hire, to manage performance, for professional development, and in career planning for their workers. It’s crucial they understand this and how those factors affect them and their own careers before they begin to use it.

For example, a common misunderstanding is that competency frameworks only come into play during end-of-year reviews. However, a good framework integrates into daily behavior, individual task management, and in guiding employees on how they should perform at their job.

Introducing new performance measurement tools will almost always be met with resistance, even from leadership. The clearest path to success is to ensure everyone involved has the information about what it’s for, how it works, and what it will do. Providing adequate training and information also provides everyone with the opportunity to get onboard.

Measure work and performance

Employee assessment and performance management is a crucial role for HR, one that impacts business performance, goal achievement, and leadership development. While performance appraisal and employee assessment has traditionally been tied to factors such as individual output and performance, new models are replacing simple productivity assessments with more complex ones capable of measuring how an individual’s behavior impacts their team and the productivity of their team or those under them.

Competency frameworks are extremely valuable for these determinations, as they measure soft skills, behavior, and factors such as emotional intelligence. A well-implemented framework can positively impact recruitment, talent management, performance management, and leadership development.

Chances are, your organization already conducts yearly or even quarterly performance reviews. In this case, you collect data to see what everyone’s doing. It’s important to look at actual production and output, as well as total team performance in terms of creativity, collaboration, etc.

If you don’t have a performance review in place or only collect limited data, you’ll likely have to start by talking to team leads and managers to collect this information:

  • Identify key performers in each role
  • Identify the lowest performers

This step is more important if you’re working towards a competency framework but is valuable for skills as well. A simple DiSC performance analysis can help you fill gaps if you don’t have work data on hand.

Most competency frameworks include several layers of competencies, which include core competencies for the organization and then layers of competencies applied to employees in different levels of leadership or technical positions. If you want to utilize competencies for employee assessment, whether in hiring or in performance management, you also have to ensure that role-based competencies are in place.

This means working with an employee assessment organization to determine which competencies contribute to success in individual roles or teams. Here, you want to look at how individual performance impacts productivity and team productivity, which factors enable success in the role (such as communication, EQ, etc.) and map competencies to success inside roles based on factors such as actual work being performed, level of collaboration required, external communication required, and so on.

Measuring core competencies

Managers need a competency framework in place to measure employee effectiveness. It must work at an organizational and an individual role level, identifying knowledge, skills, and behaviors that contribute positively to the organization.

The basis of recording competency data is that managers, their managers, and other higher positions must record total behavior and performance during significant incidents, average day-to-day behavior and performance, and total behavior, including both positive and negative reactions. Creating role-based competency frameworks thus allows managers to map individual behavior to ideal targets.

In short, this involves:

  • Observing how people work and what they do to complete the work
  • Interviewing people with competency assessments to see what competencies top performers are displaying
  • Use questionnaires and interviews to see what people think contributes to their job

Observing

Employees must be observed objectively and without bias so only their specific actions and behaviors are recorded. Most competency measurement begins with recording average behavior, then settles on recording behavior during crucial moments such as during large projects, moments of stress, etc., and then any marked deviations from standard behavior. Providing managers with a template or program to record this data is essential.

Measuring significance

It’s important to measure the significance of incidents and behavioral changes. For example, if an employee is performing poorly but has recently been involved in an accident or lost a loved one, the change could be due to trauma and not an actual personality shift. The significance of changes in behavior can also be mapped according to the impact that behavior has on output, on other parts of the organization, and on customers.

Benchmarking

By learning the normal behavior of individual employees over time, you can benchmark their data to establish standards based on these tendencies. This will then allow you to identify over- and underachievers inside the same role, pinpoint personal improvement in individual employees, and mentor and improve others to reach the same standards.

Measuring core competencies allows you to better assess and develop individual performance by defining how successful work is completed. This, in turn, allows you to recognize, develop, and reward that behavior, producing a positive behavioral loop.

Conduct interviews across your organization

The easiest way to see what people need to perform work is to ask them. For most organizations, this means:

  1. Grouping roles into types
  2. Identifying specific roles across the organization
  3. Prioritizing roles (where to start and why; some roles will serve as bases for others, some should be finished sooner for hiring purposes, etc.)

In most cases, the more people you interview for each role, the better your eventual framework will be. Different people see their roles in different lights, explain their roles in various ways, and may even take on more aspects of a role than another person.

  • What skills does the person use in their daily work?
  • Which do they use occasionally?
  • How do they rank those skills?
  • How do managers and team leads rank their skills?

You can also sit down with a team to discuss roles, including what they see as the most important aspects and skills for specific positions. Group perspectives can be just as valuable as input from the person actually in the role, because you learn what tasks others rely on that person to do and why.

You also want to look at:

  • What skills (if any) people in those roles think are missing
  • What skills leadership thinks are missing
  • If skills are in place to meet changing role requirements (even if those haven’t happened yet)
  • If roles are changing and if so, how much
  • Any input the people in those roles have to offer

Eventually, you’ll end up with a general list of skills for the role, which you can prioritize based on importance. Prioritization allows you to improve hiring for skills, because you know what’s necessary and what’s nice to have.

Mapping skills to productivity and performance

Pay attention to people who perform well in performance reviews. It’s also important to interview people who perform badly though. Monitoring poor interviewees allows you to map skills based on performance so you can see if gaps contribute to performance gaps. In many cases, performance gaps relate to stress, mental health, and competencies. You need to take all these factors into account.

  • What skills, or soft skills, are present in high performers that aren’t present in low performers?
  • What skills gaps exist in the organization? Do they affect performance?

Mapping skills to productivity and performance will help you determine which ones are important for the role, which are not, and which actively impede performance when they’re missing.

It’s incredibly helpful to look at people who have been with the organization for a long time, who are in roles that have evolved over time and so may not have the skills needed for it. You also want to look at people who were hired without necessary skills and learned those skills (or didn’t) while on the job.

This kind of research will give you a clear picture of what’s impactful for hiring, what needs to be taught to improve performance, and what your overall strategy should be.

Assembling your framework

Once you’ve completed your research, you have to put it all together. Often, that involves using a competency framework as a base or a competency management tool. However, it should always include the following steps:

  • Group skills into categories such as “manual skills,” “strategy,” “interpersonal,” etc., and use that to prioritize certain skills
  • Organize major skills groups into three to four sub-groups to map sub-groups and broader skills to roles
  • Identify and name competencies in a logical way
  • Link those named skills to specific roles based on assessments, using either broader categories or individual subgroups

Integrating a leadership competency framework

Excellence in an organization often starts from the top down. If your leaders, including managers, board members, CEO, and other top staff, do not behave in a way that benefits the organization, you can’t expect the rest of the workforce to. Leadership competency frameworks allow you to integrate new standards at the top, first integrating and adjusting leadership, then onboarding the workforce.

While leadership competency frameworks should never stand alone or become separate from the overall competency framework, creating competencies for leaders first gives you the ability to introduce and streamline the process where it matters most — with the people guiding the rest of your workforce.

Providing training

A leadership competency framework gives leaders a template for their own behavior, showing what is effective and what isn’t inside of their roles. However, making the switch to new management styles is rarely a smooth transition. However, providing training and learning opportunities gives everyone the ability to adapt and learn new things. This, in turn, gives those who struggle with the new model the chance to recognize where they have to adapt to keep up.

Define how to use competencies

Recruiters and interviewers should know what questions to ask, and what skills and characteristics to look for. They should be able to pick out desirable behaviors on a resume and know what to ask in the interview to prompt candidates to reveal their behaviors.

Management also needs to have the tools to use company competencies. They should know which behaviors foster mastery and high performance, and which do not. Rewarding positive behaviors and taking the initiative to offer training and development to those who show promise are also mandatory abilities.

Foster incorporation and engagement

Hiring and evaluating employees based on a competency framework requires pushing adoption and buy-in from every member of the management and recruiting teams. They should understand why the framework was developed and how to use it, as well as how it’ll be updated and how they can change it to meet individual circumstances:

  • Link competencies to business objectives
  • Connect competencies to personal growth and success, not just to business performance
  • Establish policies that reward the behavior and competencies you want to see
  • Offer coaching and training where needed
  • Communicate the whole process openly and honestly
  • Ensure managers and employees understand how data is collected and why
  • Create a privacy standard for behavioral evaluation

The biggest challenge with competency-based HR is adoption. However, once the framework is accepted throughout the organization, it’ll produce a culture of competence critical to the organization’s success.

Identify skills gaps

Every organization will experience competency gaps. Here are a few ways to identify them before they become a bigger problem:

  • Conduct a performance review on a team and individual level
  • Identify behaviors each person should display in their role
  • Highlight missing competences, and identify which can be taught and which cannot
  • Allocate resources when closing gaps to save costs and time by either restructuring or training employees where necessary

Identifying and closing gaps requires managers to have a clear understanding of organizational and role competencies and why they matter, so you must get management onboard.

Identifying future gaps

Whether due to retirement, moving on to new roles, or even promotion, companies regularly lose highly qualified talent. Unfortunately, with no steady pool of qualified replacements, many of these roles remain vacant for months before new employees fill them, who then have to learn the organization and its culture before they can be effective.

Gap analysis can predict where skills disruptions will appear based on projected departure, retirement, and internal promotion, as well as unexpected losses.

Once you’ve identified where you’ll likely experience gaps, you can take measures to fill them. This involves identifying critical roles inside your organization that can’t be left empty and are therefore prime candidates for succession planning.

Creating a talent pool

Once you’ve identified behaviors and competencies that contribute to success in critical roles, you can begin to develop a talent pool. This means pinpointing employees with high potential, reviewing their strengths and weaknesses, and working to create strategies so they and others can close those gaps and prepare for their potential new role.

This pool of employees should receive leadership development, training, and even organization-sponsored education to prepare them to step into a higher role.

To produce a readily available employee pool, most consider:

  • Behaviors that contribute to success
  • Education level/qualifications
  • Years within the organization
  • Willingness to learn and develop themselves

Many companies also benefit from offering a broader employee development program open to everyone in the organization, which allows self-motivated individuals to pursue learning and transition to new roles. This removes some of the need for advanced evaluation and interviewing to qualify candidates for development programs, but may cost the organization more overall.

Once a talent pool is established, you can score their competencies based on what will be needed for future roles. Mentoring programs, developmental assignments, stretch assignments, formal training, and action learning are extremely valuable in development planning.

A competency framework gives HR the behaviors and competencies to look for in candidates. This helps you put together comprehensive training to develop those with desired qualifications and behaviors so they’re well qualified when a role becomes available. In this way, organizations can ensure employee loyalty, lower total costs, and reduce time lost due to gaps in crucial roles.

Mapping behaviors that contribute to success in new roles

With a competency framework in place, you can identify the factors and behaviors that contribute to success in a role that will soon be empty. This will let you target unlearnable or difficult to learn behaviors (such as honesty, creativity, flexibility, strong problem-solving, people skills, etc.), and then identify candidates inside your organization who already have those skills. But, unlike traditional hand selection and grooming, a competency model allows you to share what success looks like inside a role publicly so each individual knows what they have to learn and master to be promoted.

Clearly communicating what’s expected

Many organizations are ambiguous about what’s expected from competency frameworks simply because information can be translated in many ways. Allowing individuals to interpret competencies according to their situations can be a double-edged sword. Take the time to identify and clarify points of confusion to ensure understanding and adoption. Offer clear examples of good behavior so leaders know what’s expected of them.

Using behavioral statements as well as anecdotes, studies, and even case studies of desirable behavior inside the organizations can be extremely helpful for conveying a point. For example, if you can say “remember when X employee did this and achieved Y? What if X employee had done Z instead, a behavior that many of you do every day. Would Y have still been achieved?” Additionally:

  • Link expected behavior to outcomes and production
  • Make sure leaders understand why competencies exist (what’s the end value?)
  • Provide examples relevant to your work culture and environment
  • Ask leaders to come up with their own examples to ensure understanding

Developing targeted employee training

Training employees delivers value by building internal resources and capabilities, increasing workforce productivity, and improving employee loyalty to reduce turnover. Training programs can also close gaps, prepare existing employees to change roles, and ready candidates for succession.

Competency frameworks refine this process by identifying goals and target behaviors, as well as which learnable behaviors and skills actually impact roles. This process is known as capability building, wherein you introduce and manage employee development as part of workforce planning.

Changing focus from activity to efficacy

Traditional employee training and retraining modes rely on activity. However, these models often fail to evaluate learning and development, as they lack performance targets and data.

A competency framework identifies the behaviors and actions that contribute to success in a role and allows you to track them against success. This way, you know what skills need to be taught, when training is successful, and when training contributes to positive business outcomes.

Targeting learning where it matters

You can also focus learning objectives with competency frameworks by meeting specific learning and development needs, rather than introducing a single broad course. For example, you could target specific employee roles for certain trainings while letting others study something more valuable to their role. Common competency framework-based training includes:

  • Employee development
  • Skills development with systematic exposure to work experiences
  • Orientation activities and training
  • Continuous learning for employees to maintain relevant skills
  • Employing experienced workers in the role of mentor or coach
  • Offering lifestyle development such as stress and time management to improve productivity and behavior
  • Aligning new initiatives with organizational planning to ensure employees are prepared for changes
  • Breaking down cultural barriers to improve cross-organizational communication
  • Building training around business applications rather than the classroom

Target individual training based on current and future competencies desired in specific roles to benefit both the organization and the employee. This could include training an IT team in a new software the organization is integrating before it’s introduced, or educating customer service on customer relationship management. As a result, their skills become more relevant, increasing their value and improving the organization’s total output and productivity.

Creating an environment that encourages learning

A competency framework creates a system that can accurately gauge what employees need to learn. It also allows you to measure the success of training and learning, not through employees passing tests, but through measurable changes in behaviors that actively contribute to the organization.

This means learning should encompass not just hard skills, but also leadership (personal and others), values, attitudes, behaviors, hard skills, and internal systems and processes.

Training based on a competency framework can target goals and desired outcomes for individual roles, which enables you to bring groups of people where they need to be to meet the organization’s needs. This includes delivering specific skills in a brief period of time and slowly developing candidates for larger roles over longer periods of time.

Competency frameworks, employee monitoring, and quality assurance

Competency frameworks are increasingly integrated into organizational performance management to measure not only what employees do, but also how they do it. This same data can be integral in fostering a culture of management and quality assurance by defining what success looks like. This gives managers the tools to shift focus away from procedure and tradition towards efficiency and meeting quality standards.

While this requires a certain level of competency from leaders, it also allows you to take steps to measure and verify the quality of work being completed using information already at your disposal.

Using competency frameworks for monitoring

An organization should develop a competency framework around the skills and knowledge necessary to complete tasks for a role, as well as the behavior and attitudes required to perform well in it. Actual monitoring typically uses a three-part process of watching and observing, benchmarking and actively using data, and offering feedback. More specifically, this looks like the following procedure:

  • Assign managers to monitor worker behavior consistently over time
  • Benchmark data to establish performance norms both for individuals and roles (you can use this to identify high performers, when performance goes up/down, and to target those struggling within the organization)
  • Focus on noting behaviors shown in key situations, such as in decision-making, learning, meeting deadlines, or offering real-time feedback and goal-oriented motivation

Good behavior leads to quality work

The core of any competency framework is to improve either productivity itself or the quality of productivity. While some organizations lose sight of tying competencies to direct output such as organizational goals, production, or performance, you need to lay out those traits and behaviors that directly contribute to organizational goals, including quality, and tie them to behavior. In your definition, be sure to:

  • Tie competencies to performance (otherwise, they won’t help the organization)
  • Establish competencies that directly affect quality control (such as asking for help, focusing on producing quality work, being technically skilled, seeking feedback and constructive criticism, being flexible, establishing clear work processes, etc.)
  • Monitor performance output alongside competencies to verify they line up with the quality of work produced

Create processes to maintain your framework

Once you’ve created your framework, it’s important to establish processes to ensure its ongoing maintenance and validation. Chances are, you hire an external team to handle interviews, craft a framework, and customize results to your organization. This is largely unfeasible internally, unless HR suddenly has an abundance of free time or you’re willing to bring in freelancers.

Whatever the case, you’ll have to either establish an ongoing relationship with those teams to update work as your organization and technology changes, or implement internal processes to ensure work maintenance is ongoing. To determine what you need to do, ask:

  • Who is responsible for maintaining and updating roles and skills?
  • How does HR know when technology used in teams changes? (E.g., if the organization moves from Ruby on Rails to Python, job descriptions have to change with it.)
  • How does HR validate skills? Can skills be mapped to performance during reviews? Can progress be mapped to validate teaching new recruits and existing employees’ skills?
  • Are programs in place to close skills gaps?

If you lack internal processes to maintain and validate your skills framework, it’ll quickly lose value. Most organizations change fairly rapidly with new tools, roles, and teams regularly introducing change. HR must be able to keep track of it all, update the skills framework as needed, and continue to hire and train for the skills the organization needs.

Implementing feedback

Integrating competency frameworks into employee assessments requires a feedback loop where you can continuously improve the framework, scoring methods, and the assessment itself over time.

Consider:

  • Who is handling employee assessment? What are they responsible for?
  • Are roles and responsibilities in assessments clearly documented?
  • How is assessment data used, who collects it, and who interprets it?
  • Is third-party feedback, such as from a manager or colleagues, included in assessing competencies? How is this managed?
  • Are employees involved in the process? Can they offer input? Are they fully aware of what’s being tested?
  • Are relationships between competencies and role performance validated by data? Do you have a program in place to continue this validation?

Roles change over time, which means required competencies can change with them. The easiest way to manage this is to create a feedback loop where competencies are correlated to performance data, employees can give their own input on the validity of the competency, and the quality of competency assessment is managed to prevent bias.

Using competency models to make better hires

Making good hiring decisions is a crucial component of HR and one of the reasons competency and behavioral models exist. Hiring managers should look for behaviors that show alignment with the role, key organization values, and desired engagement and productivity.

Cultural match

Every hire you make will have to adapt to your organization’s culture. This is to prevent clashes that produce friction, dissatisfaction, and, ultimately, higher churn.

For example, if a new hire is accustomed to working with a waterfall method and is hired into an agile organization, they may struggle without the structure of direct managerial guidance.

Defining your cultural values and selecting individuals who can fit in quickly and smoothly will increase the satisfaction and productivity of the new hire.

Core values

Core values can be part of culture, but are often a separate entity. For example, if your organization is dedicated to reducing waste and improving efficiency, but your new hire has little regard for sustainable practices, they’ll clash with the organization’s core values and may bottleneck or reduce efficiency for their team.

While some may adapt to new core values, many don’t or take a long time to do so. Core values can relate to intrinsic work patterns (such as lean waste management or agile self-sufficiency), but can also relate to morals and values like eco-friendly practices.

Motivation and career path

Hire the right people for the right reasons. For example, someone who’s stuck in a job they hate and just wants out will likely have no real personal motivation or investment in your organization.

It’s important to seek out specific motivation for your organization, even if your work is relatively simple. For example, a fashion store hiring a clerk may ask why they applied to that store instead of another (unskilled) labor job such as a fast-food chain worker. This kind of questioning unveils their specific motivation.

Understanding that motivation and desired career path increases in importance as you move into roles where career development and succession planning or organizational growth are more common. But they’re valuable components for nearly any role, because someone without personal motivation for the position is unlikely to perform well or innovate beyond just doing their job.

Pairing personalities with teams

Many times, a company makes a great hire, pairs them with a team, then they quickly lose motivation and disengage or even leave. Why? The issue is often that the individual doesn’t personally agree with the team, its work methods, or even members of the team.

Working with competency models gives you the opportunity to define the key characteristics and traits required to fit into a team, demonstrated by individuals on the team, so you can hire someone who’s more likely to integrate into the team smoothly. While diversity is valuable and important in teams, establishing desirable traits helps you avoid pairing people with teams or individuals who may clash with their personality.

Competency models make it easier to define an ideal fit for a specific role by going beyond responsibilities and into personality characteristics and core behaviors. This, in turn, will reduce churn and increase engagement by bringing on new people who show active engagement and interest in the role.

How to put together an A-team with competency frameworks

Your competency framework will enable you to develop a highly competent team capable of adding measurable value and contributing to organizational performance in a meaningful way.

Create the right framework

For effective team building, a competency framework must be tailored to the organization and to the job role depending on whether your brand uses organizational competencies, role-level competencies, or both. In either case, the framework must reflect the organization currently and as it moves forward.

This means defining:

  • Behaviors that contribute to the success of the role in its current and future incarnations
  • Behaviors that contribute to current and projected organizational goals
  • Hard and soft skills that contribute to success in the current and future environment

If competencies aren’t relevant to the role, the framework won’t be valuable. Most organizations save time by using a predefined, broad list of competencies, but it’s important to customize this to meet specific needs using an outside consultant in combination with internal HR.

Determine how to look for behaviors

Oral interviews, presentations, assignments, and reference checks are the most common methods of settling on competencies. For example, interviews are extremely valuable for this purpose, since candidates are expected to share examples of past work and/or answer behavioral questions.

However, competency frameworks should extend to current employees as well. You need an effective way to assess, maintain, and monitor the competencies of your existing team. By identifying specific behaviors and skills needed for each role, you can make the best hire, but also identify gaps in existing employees and plan for training, which will improve the strength and competency of your team.

Use your competency framework

Once you’ve adopted a competency framework, you must incorporate it, educate recruiters and interviewers on it and why they should use it, and implement it straightforwardly.

For example, in the hiring process, creating a list of words and phrases to look out for that exhibit the behaviors you want is a helpful tactic. Similarly, listing qualities you no longer find important, such as having a degree from a prestigious university, can also be helpful.

Incorporating a competency framework enables you to strengthen your current team, while ensuring new members display the competencies that will enable them to be successful in their role. This, in turn, benefits the organization as a whole.

Promoting corporate entrepreneurship with competency frameworks

The world is increasingly dynamic and flexible, with technology changing at a rapid pace. Increasingly, organizations have to be just as flexible and fast-paced to keep up. This is evident in the success of edgy entrepreneurial corporations like Uber and Bonobos, who went from nothing to major corporations poised to take on the biggest traditional organization. Corporate entrepreneurship is the process of promoting internal entrepreneurship so employees have the freedom and confidence to create efficiencies and new working methods for themselves — therefore improving the organization as a whole.

Competency frameworks allow you to recognize and promote the behavior and freedoms contributing to this behavior.

Identifying and implementing entrepreneurial competencies

Competency frameworks identify specific behaviors that contribute to entrepreneurial thinking. For example, you could highlight where behaviors like risk-taking, trying new things, adaptability, and creative problem-solving come together to generate new solutions and ideas.

By highlighting what contributes to a corporate culture of entrepreneurism, you can encourage and reward it,  and ensure employees have the operational freedom to change how they work. This also requires self-motivation, a willingness to learn, and the ability to adjust and take small steps.

Failing forward

Failing forward is the idea that you have to fail before you can succeed. By allowing employees to fail without severe repercussions, you can foment a culture of constant, small failures leading to big successes. For example, allowing teams to try new things, even when they don’t necessarily succeed, gives everyone the opportunity to take small steps and experiment in a safe space, which reduces risk.

This risk-taking behavior can be extremely beneficial in a controlled environment, because developing new work methods, tools, and processes is increasingly important for organizations to keep up with the competition. This requires an increased level of risk-acceptance behavior on an individual level so employees can try new things without risk of reprisal if they fail (provided they get approval first) and look forward to a reward if they succeed.

Measuring success

While many HR tactics have been used to build corporate entrepreneurship, many of those lack a concrete way to measure success. When you allow failure, what does success look like? Competency frameworks allow you to define the behavior, attitudes, and product that lead to success. How? A person who takes risks and tries new things doesn’t necessarily do so with the benefit of the entire organization in mind.

By identifying the factors that play into success, such as keeping in mind the total impact on the entire organization, focusing on day-to-day work as well as long-term goals (a person spending all their time optimizing a process isn’t performing their job), and self-improvement, which includes the ability to accept and give constructive criticism, you can determine what actually makes this behavior work.

Risk acceptance and encouraging individual contribution are the two primary factors playing into successful corporate entrepreneurship, and competency frameworks give you the tools to encourage, measure, and quantify risk-taking behavior, motivation, self-improvement and development, and the behaviors that add to total employee contributions to the organization.

Using competency frameworks throughout the employee life cycle

Once you implement a competency framework, you can utilize it at nearly every stage of the employee life cycle. That includes competency-based hiring, development, and retention. Understanding employee competencies gives you better insight into where an employee fits and works best. It also reveals how much each employee has grown or changed since entering your organization so you know which employees invest in personal growth and development, and which don’t.

That insight into talent life cycle management can prove invaluable, but it starts with managing competencies, using ongoing assessments, and offering development opportunities.

Perform regular competency assessments

Integrating competency assessments into the yearly performance review can be a great way to ensure that competency profiles stay up to date. Here, you’ll likely want to use a combination of skills assessment, 360-review, and leadership review. Assessments and personality assessments can help but getting actual input from the people others work with is important.

Map competencies to development programs

Mindfully employing competency frameworks can pinpoint and close skills gaps. It’s also invaluable for identifying people with competencies suitable for leadership roles who can be upskilled if necessary. Aligning development with competencies also allows you to measure outcomes from development through regular competency assessments.

Map leadership to competency

Once you’ve defined competencies for roles, including leadership, you can establish clear developmental goals for people who want to move into higher positions. Having a transparent map of required behaviors and skills for growth offers clarity and motivation for people to work towards where they want to be.

Wrapping up — Use competency frameworks to elevate your business

Although a relatively simple concept, competency frameworks map the skills and behaviors your organization needs. They can also improve many aspects of hiring, development, leadership, and long-term role management. At the same time, it’s important to ensure these frameworks are integrated into the organization, introduced to employees, and worked into business outcomes. It’s not enough to develop one; you have to implement it, ensure its adoption, and continuously update it as roles and their associated skills change.


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