Competency frameworks: Ignorance isn’t always bliss

Competency frameworks should be a valuable training aide – if used properly

You’d think having a sound understanding of what you are supposed to do at work would be one of the fundamentals, and yet almost a quarter of employees misunderstand a crucial part of their job.

That’s the finding of a study – Counting the Cost of Employee Misunderstanding ( – of UK and US workers, which estimates that firms waste as much as £31m because individuals do not fully understand their role.

Competency assessments

Although the research was carried out by online assessment firm Cognisco it still raises some important questions about how employers ensure staff actually understand what they are meant to be doing and have the skills to do it.

The study taken across more than 35 countries shows that while organisations are often aware of the costs of misunderstanding, only one in three claim to have taken any action to close the gap.

Cognisco chief executive Mary Clarke argues that by ignoring the issue, firms run the risk of compliance, public safety and legal problems.

“Obviously, if an employee misunderstands or misinterprets actions there will be repercussions from loss of business to impaired brand image. But what is often not measured, is the employee’s confidence to take the appropriate actions that could also have a significant impact,” she says.

One way of helping to eliminate the problem is by introducing competency assessments that look at the exact skills required in each role and then measuring staff against them.

Although many firms do this by creating a competency framework and assessment centre during the recruitment stage, few follow this through into the workplace by using it as a tool to identify future training needs.

Caroline Beard, a director at talent management firm Xancam, says the most important part of the process is setting the right competencies for each role in the first place.

It can be tempting for companies to cobble together a standard framework for each job and then leave it at that, but Beard argues they must be updated as business conditions change and the economic landscape develops.

Beard says: “Essentially, competencies are just a way for businesses to articulate what they need from their people. Once the actual competencies have been identified you need to introduce multiple ways of testing each one.”

She says that this sort of assessment using psychometrics, role play and business case studies should not stop at the recruitment stage and is the ideal way of building accurate development plans.

Identifying future leaders

“It’s becoming more useful for performance management, with companies using the assessment to feed into individual training plans. Quite often we will assess an organisation’s top 50 or top 100 managers using competencies as a way of identifying future leaders and mapping out the ongoing training needs.

“This type of assessment also lets you look at trends across the workforce giving training managers a wealth of data around the current skills levels and the future development needs of staff,” she adds.

Noeleen Doherty, a research fellow at Cranfield School of Management, says companies need to use a mix of approaches to accurately measure competencies and future potential in staff.

Research carefully

“Companies are now using these techniques as a development tools because they let organisations and individuals identify the skills they need and introduce a training plan as early as possible,” she explains.

Alan Bourne, a director at assessment firm Talent Q, says it’s important that any test meets the immediate goals for the role but also takes into consideration how the job may change in the future.

Bourne says: “Often, the performance a company needs today will not be the same in the future. Competency frameworks vary in quality and one of the biggest mistakes is not investing enough time in the research of what is needed from staff.”

Training and development is also vital when compiling the results of any competency assessment because it can have a huge impact on how people grow within the organisation.

“There needs to be a very clear line of sight between the assessment and any training that follows. The test itself needs to use a mix of techniques that will create a clever picture of an individuals current performance and future potential,” he adds.

James Bywater, head psychologist at SHL UK, says that companies need to think very carefully about the key behaviours and skills they want, because they can change very quickly.

“Organisations are changing very quickly for all sorts of reasons and many are constantly playing catch-up when it comes to defining what they want their people to do. It’s about giving people the opportunity to demonstrate their skills in a test.

“Once you start using competencies as the language for demonstrating success it lets firms use data in lots of different ways. It especially can be used for development because it helps build on strengths and improve areas of weakness”.

By Ross Wigham

Case Study

Heathrow Express, the London airport train link, has commissioned a dedicated online assessment tool to help identify and reduce any potential safety risks.

The system will be used to assess around 100 drivers and duty managers using a mix of psychology and situation-based questions, to identify any areas for future development.

The results will be used to build a picture of the current level of employee understanding, knowledge and competence within individual aspects of each role.

The programme has been developed by Cognisco and will target specific elements of training required by the Heathrow Express staff.

Steve Chambers, head of service proposition for Heathrow Express said: “Our frontline staff work in an environment where safety is critical, so making sure that we have the right training solutions to guarantee operational safety is of paramount importance to Heathrow Express.”

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