The science of… Competency Frameworks

Seems like an apt one to choose seeing I went on a competency framework workshop today. I have an issue with the workshop, but will save that for another post once this series is completed.

So today’s post in the Science of… Occupational Psychology is all about competency frameworks. What a beast this is!

Where in the world do I begin with this? Ok here it is, the age old mantra about competency frameworks – You know your staff can do the technical side of their job, and that’s measurable, but how do you measure how they behave? With a competency framework!

Ok, so look, I know they can be contentious, but they mean well. Something about the road to hell comes to mind. And, I’m in the middle of developing our own company competency framework. They’re not bad. They just get sidelined. But this post isn’t about justifying the existence of competency frameworks, it’s about how they get constructed. I warn you now, there will be jargon, I can’t help it today.

Company Values

The first place to start is to identify and define what the company values are and how these are understood by staff. What this means in reality is to do an audit of how staff define and understand the values. Is it the cleaner at Nasa scenario or is it a blank face?

Once you’ve got this, you have a fair place of understanding what the competency framework needs to look at. That’s to say, is performance the issue? Is it interpersonal skills? Is it communication? Is it development? Is it being fun? Or a mix of these?

Job Analysis

This is the crux of it. This is where it all starts from. Meeting with staff, carrying out focus groups, interviews, workshops, offsites, party’s (well not quite). The key questions here are about:
– what are the key activities you do day to day?
– what are the behaviours expected of you at work?
– what are the positive behaviours you see and are rewarded for?
– what are the negative behaviours you understand are not in line with company values?

The responses from those produce rich information about understanding the behaviours cum competencies that staff currently exhibit. This isn’t about what management want them to exhibit, it’s what they’re currently exhibiting. This information then needs to be grouped, or themed to produce the core competencies.

These competencies then form the standard, consistent basis that everyone will be measured against. You then need to produce indicators of those behaviours e.g. “making the right decision” would need a positive indicator such as “able to collect accurate information to make informed decisions” and a negative indicator such as “makes no effort to gather information, making judgements based on own subjective opinions”.

This is a lot of work. A LOT OF WORK. While at my last company, a team of us spent 2 weeks doing nothing but producing the competency framework for the client who needed it. It was the bane of my life. But extremely satisfying once complete. If only because it was complete.

Throughout this process though, there needs to be regular reviews with the business to ensure the competency framework is being produced in line with the language, culture and values. If a team does this in solo, you run the very high chance of producing something which might be excellent but simply not fit for purpose.


So it’s complete. It’s produced. You can now announce to the world you have a new competency framework. Everyone cheers and forgets about it 2 minutes later.

The key thing is to embed the framework in every part of your being as a business. First hit the obvious places – recruitment, appraisals, promotions, objective setting. Those will be the high profile areas that everyone will already understand and then be able to draw the line of sight of how the competency framework will only enhance and strengthen those processes. There will need to be training and roll out of the framework, but this should be with the objective in mind of updating the current processes – not a new way of doing things, an improved way of doing things. What the framework enables you to do is to give structure to all these processes – and that structure comes from staff not from HR. What’s the importance of that? It’s a business initiative, not a HR initiative.

This will take time. At least a year. Then once you’ve got that, you can think about other initiatives the competency framework should be used. Talent management, leadership development, business planning, learning and development, culture development, employee engagement – you get the idea? You have a core base from which you are already measuring staff. You’re not just taking it further and demonstrating how you can use it strengthen the company culture and brand.


How often should it be revised? When managers start to complain en masse about it’s applicability to the business. Not 2-3 years, but when you have every department coming to you with feedback that says – I cannot use this anymore we need to update it.

And what do you do in that case? Follow the above process. It’s a long, involved process. But once developed and used effectively, it becomes a core piece of the way a business functions.

Is it really objective?

No. It’s still based on interpretation of each competency and of each indicator. How does “Making the right decisions” differ from “Ability to discern quality information”? Or “ability to communicate well with all staff” to “understands how to engage actively with others”?

It’s objective insofar that it’s developed in conjunction with the business. If a sole developer or consultancy or business unit takes charge then it will be subjective as there’s no business context that underpins it. It is validated through the business. It’s use is only validated when managers actively come back to you and say – “I found it useful to use the competency framework because I got stuck on how to further develop my staff”.

Posts in this series:

The science of… Assessment Centres
The science of… Psychometrics
The science of… Ergonomics
The science of… Appraisals
The science of… Learning and Development
The science of… Occupational Psychology


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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

2 thoughts on “The science of… Competency Frameworks”

  1. >Hi, Sukh.This is a great summary. Like you, I've spent days of my life on these in the past but I've come to the conclusion that it was probably time best not spent. HR has too many practices which encourage rigidity and resistance to change and I rather think this is one.

  2. >Hi Kevin,I agree to an extent. I think they encourage rigidity and resistance because they're used as sticks rather than carrots. At the best of times they should be used as a springboard for discussion. Unfortunately I think that once the education piece has happened managers don't have the time to continue using it as it's intended. And then what happens is it only comes out at review time.This is why those companies that use their competency frameworks well are those that have it embedded across a range of initiatives to show that it's not just for performance management but also for business success.Good to hear from you on this Kevin 🙂

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