Core competencies and competency frameworks: a primer

By Anne Sexton - Last update

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Joe Hanley of UCD simplifies the concept of competencies and competency frameworks, how they work and why they are so popular.

Competencies and competency frameworks

The terms competencies and competency frameworks can evoke confusion in the minds of many line managers and HR practitioners. This need not be the case.

The concept underpinning competencies and competency frameworks is simple. Competencies and competency frameworks are directly related to the terms compete, competitiveness, competitive advantage. They are inextricably linked. Therefore, competencies enable an organisation to compete.

We can describe competencies in an integrated format in the key people management functions. These include:

  • Staffing (recruitment and selection)
  • Probation
  • Induction
  • Performance management
  • Reward
  • Development (including management development and succession planning)
  • Exiting

Paul Sparrow of the Lancaster University Management School has referred to competencies in a strategic HR context as the magic glue.

Just what are competencies?

Competencies are “managerial behaviours which are positively associated with superior organisational unit performance” (Cockerill and Schroder). They are also an “overt, manifest behavioural repertoire that people bring to a job in order to perform competently” (Woodruffe). In addition, they are the “underlying characteristics of a person which results in effective and/or superior performance in a job” (Boyatzis).  Finally, they are the “deep and enduring part of a person’s personality which causes or predicts behaviour against a specific performance criterion or standard in a job situation” (Spencer and Spencer/McBer).

Three main categorisations

There are three main categories of competencies and competency frameworks:

1. Core competencies

These are the pillars for sustaining competitive advantage in your marketplace. For example, innovation, cost leadership, customer satisfaction and so forth.

2. Management competencies

These are the specific technical and people management competencies associated with the job of the manager in managing within the core competencies.

3. Behavioural competencies

Finally, these are the soft skills and behavioural repertoires which our staff members possess. They should also practice within the core competencies. These behavioural competencies tend to be in-house specific.

Why are competencies and competency frameworks popular?

In practice, the term competency is a broad umbrella term. It allows us to describe how we want a staff member to perform a function using particular skills and knowledge, as well as attitudes, styles and motivations.

In addition, a properly constructed competency framework can be an accurate tool for measuring critical work behaviours. It is in this context that competencies have really become popular. This is because they are behaviourally-based. As a result, they allow us to express how we want to see all of our corporate and individual work behaviours in action.

A framework for the proper development and planning of these behaviours allows us to design and define organisational culture. Any tool that assists in providing this capability of getting underneath organisation culture has immense potential value for organisations. Hence the popularity of competencies and competency frameworks.

The link to business strategy

Normally, organisations express their business strategy in terms of specific results. Simply put, this is the what, such as profitability, growth, market-share etc. The business strategy, which is a medium-term statement of corporate intent, is normally broken down into a series of annualised plans. When realised, these should deliver the strategy.

However, this assumes that the organisation possesses a vehicle to deliver the what. This may be a dangerous assumption. Delivery of the what does not happen by chance. It only happens when our managers and staff are capable within the specific organisational competencies. This is the how  required to deliver the results.

Therefore, business strategy delivery may be contingent on a key variable whose existence we assume already exists within the organisation. For example, people-competency. As stated, this may be a dangerous assumption to make. It is akin, before a long journey, to assume there is fuel in your car. You need both to complete the journey.

This assumption trap may well explain why some strategic business initiatives fail. You must take into account the competencies and work behaviours required of staff before trying to implement an initiative.

The link to strategic human resource management

Dreher and Dougherty explain that human work behaviours may not change unless we direct “powerful forces” at the specific work behaviours needed to execute the strategy. What does this mean?

It means that organisations must purposefully set out to define and determine required work behaviours (culture) through powerful prompting mechanisms. Powerful prompting mechanisms are given expression through the effective deployment of congruent and aligned people-management systems and processes.

Consequently, strategic HRM provides the key business link to normal HRM activities. It clearly defines in advance the required work behaviours to implement a business strategy and how an organisation will go about this. It goes about this, from a HR perspective, by ensuring that we focus the intent of all HR systems and processes on evoking required work behaviours. This is the magic glue. This is achieved through developing specific systems and processes in the broad areas of staffing, performance management, reward, development, communications and exiting.

Joe Hanley lectures on strategic human resource management on UCD’s MBA and MEM programmes. His industry experience embraces senior executive HR positions for large multinational companies including Siemens, Norwich Union, Unisys, General Foods and Wrangler Bluebell.

Anne Sexton

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