Competency frameworks and how to make them effective

Competency frameworks are all the rage. But how can your organisation make the most of them?

According to recent research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, Competency and Competency Frameworks, more than three-quarters of organisations are either using competencies or introducing them – except under a different name.

Competencies are also called capabilities, skills frameworks or accountabilities. The term is HR-speak for a list of behaviours and skills required to perform a job role to a defined standard. Competencies also indicate to the employee what is expected of them.

They can also be used to drive performance management, spelling out not only what outcomes are required from an individual, but the way in which these activities should be carried out.

At learning management system (LMS) provider SumTotal, international marketing manager Susan Venter says a competency can be broken down into three elements: knowledge, skills and ability.

Take a simple job function such as a van driver. They will need to have passed their driving test to be able to qualify for the job – a knowledge-based exercise. They will then have to demonstrate they can drive the van to a decent standard – a skills-based competency. Finally, they will be expected to consistently carry out delivery jobs to tight deadlines and to deal amicably with customers at their destination – an ability.

Performance management

Venter says competencies are most commonly used for performance management purposes and as a reference point for personal development programmes.

But from a L&D point of view, according to Alun Cope-Morgan, European president at LMS provider Saba,competencies are employed to identify skills gaps where an individual needs development to meet the requirements of their job description.

“By setting an L&D programme against a set of competencies, a person is helped to grow in their role and to eventually be promoted. They are then matched with a new set of competencies and a fresh set of training requirements are identified,” he says.


Most LMS providers offer an off-the shelf framework of job competencies to be used as a starting point, but Ventor says most organisations customise these to match their specific goals and culture.

Competencies can be either soft or hard skills. This means that an individual’s list of competencies could include areas such as communication, team-building, people management and problem-solving, alongside a number of technical requirements such as IT skills or professional qualifications.

John Baker, training and development director at insurance provider Legal and General (L&G), says highly-regulated industries, such as financial services, are also likely to include a list of qualifications or necessary provisions required by their people to ensure compliance in their particular sector.

He says L&G uses a competency framework not only to understand the learning interventions required by the organisation, but also to help individuals with career planning and the company with succession planning.

“This gives us an overall view of the competencies within the business to the extent that if we plan to move a function to a different office, we can see what skills we have in place at this new location to see if a switch is possible,” he says.

L&G uses an LMS from Saba to organise and access its competency framework. The system stores all the competency requirements for each job and the current competency records of each individual. A catalogue of recommended training courses is also available.

Baker says all kinds of information is amassed within the LMS to build a picture of an individual’s competencies and learning history. But he feels this is only a small part of what an LMS can bring to the organisation and is looking at exploiting the system’s functionality to drive e-learning innovation.


Baker is also keen to make more of the collaborative aspects of his LMS, so that individuals pursuing a certain skill can communicate with others in the organisation who are exemplars in this area.

The use of LMSs in this way is generally thought to have brought about an important shift in the way learning and development is delivered in organisations today.

Whereas traditionally learning was something individuals were told they had to do, today more people are taking responsibility for their own development. They can access their own records, see their skills gaps and take necessary steps to bring themselves up to speed – be it by accessing an e-learning module, signing up a for a training course or agreeing a programme of work experience with their line manager.

But for a competency-led approach to be embraced to this extent by employees, organisations must ensure the framework they devise for their people is both straightforward to follow and meaningful, says Justin Skelton, managing director at Apex Training.

He says many companies over-complicate their approach to competencies and as a result fail to connect with their workforce, who see it as just another jargon-filled HR exercise.

Skelton recalls one organisation he worked with that had 78 competencies set down for a management role, each with half a page of descriptors. “You needed an MBA just to understand it. The whole thing had been written by management consultants,” he says.

To avoid this happening, Skelton advise that most jobs should be described in no more than six to 10 competencies, each broken down into a few simple-to-follow requirements, written in a language that means something to the people on the ground.

by Ross Bentley

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