Competency Models – HR & Understanding Work in the Network Era

Competency models and profiles are a cornerstone of HR methods and practices in today’s enterprise.  They play a central role in:

  • recruiting
  • learning / training & development
  • performance management, and
  • (increasingly) compensation philosophy and practices

Competency analysis and profiling was developed from the work of David McLelland, a professor of psychology at Harvard University in the 50′s and 60′s.  In the course of his research and thinking, he came to question the conventional wisdom that IQ and aptitude tests were the best / most accurate predictors of successful and/or superior performance in a job or work role.

McLellan hypothesized that past performance was the best predictor of future successful performance, and set out to prove that.  His subsequent work became an accepted theory, then a methodology for several high-profile projects, and eventually was codified into a methodology that all HR consulting firms now practice.

In 1963 McLelland and several of his Harvard doctoral students set up McBer and Company, a small Boston-based consulting company in the early 80′s.  One of those students, Lyle Spencer Jr., wrote “Competence At Work – Models for Superior Performance“, the definitive book on competency profiling, and another of the McBer gang, Richard Boyatzis (a professor of organizational behavior at Case Western Reserve), wrote “The Competent Manager – A Model for Effective Performance”, the definitive book on managerial competencies.

In 1989 / 90 a major HR consulting firm, Hay Management Consultants, acquired McBer and Company and began the long-ish process of bringing competency analysis and modeling to the enterprise world at large.  I was there, and actually worked on a couple of projects with Lyle Spencer, author of the seminal Competence At Work (side not .. the book costs $150 .. holy cow!).

Lucky me, he is a smart man and was a good teacher.  From 1989 to 1992 he travelled the globe, training a cadre of Hay consultants in the methods outlined in Competence At Work.  Then, the firm started selling.  Today, most organizations use competency models.

So today all major and most smaller HR consulting firms sell and implement competency analysis and modeling.  Also included in that work is the field of Emotional Intelligence (Daniel Goleman).  Emotional (and social) intelligence are only going to grow in importance as the  presence of  of what is called Enterprise 2.0 continues to grow and spread.

If you are familiar with the book “Emotional Intelligence – Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, you will note that EI is a derivative subset of generic Hay-McBer competency models. Generic competency models provide a good solid foundation for work design.

So, what about the networked work of the social business or Enterprise 2.0?  When the generic competency models that underpin competency analysis were developed, the Web and hyperlinks, collaboration platforms and hyperlinked social networks did not exist, per se .. remember, this was the early 90′s, pre-browser.

McKinsey & Co. (another well-known consultancy firm, has recently published What Matters: Collaboration types and tools: (note: this link no longer goes to the specific content)

“To improve the productivity of collaboration workers (those who interact to solve problems, serve customers and conceive new ideas), we must understand the details of how their work gets done.

We identified twelve segments of these workers, each characterized by the day-to-day activities required by their jobs.”

.In the McKinsey piece (you have to pay), you can mouse over each job / role, and there’s a capsule comment about what’s required.  This is mainly aimed at cataloguing what collaboration tools and dynamics are most appropriate for the role, but …

It’s far from a rigorous competency analysis or model, but it is a beginning to placing these generic roles into the context of the networked business environment and workplace.

Given that I worked at building competency models for about a decade, I have some familiarity with the techniques.  I remember building a generic competency model for networked knowledge workers about 4 or 5 years ago, but I think it was too early and so it got lost in the drifting currents of too much information passing too rapidly under the bridge.

I believe (if I recall correctly) there was an early example also to be found on David Gurteen’s knowledge management web hub(hang on, I’m going to pop over there and see if I can find it).

Aha !  Here it is … What makes an effective knowledge worker ?

I remember it well.  I suspect that since then many early-stage competency models have been developed that address the issue of working in networks.

But for the record .. I believe it is still too early, in 2013, to deeply understand what effective and successful performance in a networked environment looks like, over time.

Today we know much more about how to function effectively in social networks than a decade ago, and I think much of what we know is portable to the networked workplace.  Off the top of my head ..

  • Listen to others
  • Share generously
  • Add value, but don’t insist on being right
  • Listen some more
  • Practice good ‘social hygiene’
  • Avoid attacking others 
  • There’s a fine line between criticism and negativity .. find it and use it

And I think that with a bit of searching any one of us will now be able to find competency models for organizations engaged in the early steps towards transformation to being a “social business”.  One of the best places I know to begin that search is at my friend Harold Jarche’s blog (and treasure chest) which goes by the name “Life in Perpetual Beta”.  He has analysed deeply and thoughtfully many or most of the coming challenges to working and learning effectively in the networked era.  I think that effective competency models for this era can be developed using his analyses.  He used to have key categories for these analyses listed on his sidebar but they seemd to have been moved off the home page.  That’s probably because he has things so welll organised and tagged that you only need to use the “Search” capability on the blog.

But there’s lots of legacy thinking and legacy models in many of the areas of HR that I think are preventing and will prevent, until changed, the deep transformations that I believe will accompany our ongoing integration of networked activity into our daily work and personal lives.

And I’m not even going to get into the potential changes to cognition and emotional intelligence that may arrive , and/or become necessary !

Anyhow … it seems clear to me that we’ll hear a lot about the competencies required for effective and superior performance in the networked information-and-knowledge flows enterprise (aka Enterprise 2.0).

McKinsey’s typology is an early beginning to that work, and I am sure that the issue(s) will be much studied in the next couple of decades.

If I worked at a major HR consultancy today, I’d be licking my chops!

12 comments

    • wireuser

      Hi, Bruce. Yes, they are, in a sense. But/and I (believe I) am a realist. I don’t think that the core and guts of what I call ‘wirearchy’ are going to happen in a deep and comprehensive any time soon. And there will always (or at least for quite a while yet) be the need for (intelligent) models to offer guidance for development of human potential. I don’t see this going away .. yet.

      • Bruce Lewin

        I don’t think that the core and guts of what I call ‘wirearchy’ are going to happen in a deep and comprehensive any time soon

        Interesting – it’ll be good to hear more about the core and guts!

        And there will always (or at least for quite a while yet) be the need for (intelligent) models to offer guidance for development of human potential. I don’t see this going away .. yet.

        Absolutely!

  • Mark Britz

    Jon, don’t you think this will always be fluctuating? Social being about the dynamic condition of being human and networks being driven by technology (always changing). Competency Models are typically explicit – not that its a bad thing but it seems that in a world of (borrowing from Harold Jarche) “perpetual beta” the cycle of explicit-tacit-explicit is rapid, the strength for individuals then doesn’t lie in aligning to a model but the ability to learn-reflect-adjust-learn… Then again, you do note the term “generic” when describing these models and that does allow for some flexibility.

    You stated too that “I believe it is still too early, in 2013, to deeply understand what effective and successful performance in a networked environment looks like” – I would guess that the real measure is not about performance IN the network but more the performance because of it?

    Excuse my ramble – you’ve given me much to ponder (as usual) and for that – thanks!

    • wireuser

      I would guess that the real measure is not about performance IN the network but more the performance because of it?

      I think this is a very good point. Thanks for expressing it so clearly, mark !

    • wireuser

      Hi, joachim. Thanks for stopping by. Yes, I remember this post .. you are addressing some key issues and from a constructive angle, I think. I also think it’s clear that the classic form(s) of competency modelling will need to change given the upending of the long-standing socio-psychological contract between employees and employers in the western world

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