Competency frameworks are bunkum

I mean, if you read no further, you would still understand the gist of this post.

In the interest of fairness, and for a bit of a debate, here’s all the good things about competency frameworks.

4. They help establish consistent behaviours for everyone to be measured against.

I’ve developed competency frameworks in my time. Spent months of my life that I’m never going to get back understanding corporate behaviours, job based behaviours, and how these might be translated into identifiable measurable things. Rolled out these frameworks to the workforce and spent time with managers helping them to understand how to use them.

You know who loved them? Technical experts. Why? Because it gave them a tool to be able to have those conversations which didn’t focus on a persons craft and were about their behaviours, or their attitude or their knowledge. It gave them a way to have good conversations because they didn’t know how to do that well.

You know who else loved them? All the suppliers and vendors who built their business on a competency framework that identifies x and helps improve performance by doing these sets of interventions. They’re a tangible product, some even have norm groups for some reason, and some are actually quite good.

But they’re the wrong solution to the problem.

The problem has always been how to help people at work talk well with each other. The biggest challenge and biggest opportunity for every team, for every manager, for every senior executive, for every comms team is how to communicate well.

No competency framework will fix that.

When you put a competency framework in place, you’re effectively restricting the clever people to conform to a set of agreed principles. You’re telling people they’re not allowed to think about their own behaviour at work because you’ve produced a manuscript of what that looks like. You’re reducing the whole of a persons being into a neat framework that everyone must and will conform to otherwise they’ll be in disciplinary procedures.

As L&Ders we need to be focused on improving dialogic skills. That’s how organisation development happens. That’s how engagement scores improve. That’s how retention happens. That’s how good recruitment happens. That’s how dealing with difficult behaviour happens. That’s how the world turns round.

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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.

14 thoughts on “Competency frameworks are bunkum”

  1. I especially dislike competencies in recruitment. Those of the ‘give me an example of when you have done X’ variety, to see if they can tick a box on the list of things a company they don’t even work for likes everyone else that works there to do. Usually linked to some hideous values.
    Firstly, that means we could end up recruiting clones and limiting innovation. Similar to the whole ‘culture fit’ malarkey. Secondly, it works on the basis of the fallacy that just because you have been able to successfully do something at one place, means you can do it somewhere else, ignoring the fact that job success can be contextual and dependant on factors outside of the individual like their team, the culture of the org etc.

    1. I was a fan of the whole consistent interviewing approach thing. Because, you know, it’s treating people equally. Forgetting that people are individuals and need to be treated as such.

  2. Another blog post that’s on the money, Sukh. Even though competency frameworks can be useful as a base reference point and a tool for structuring discussion, my frustration with them is when they become an object to and of themselves. The same applies to any sort of psychometric tool that is worshipped far beyond its simple usefulness as a tool, be it MBTI, competency frameworks or what have you.

    I just happened to be reading this morning a good, relevant article on Edutopia regarding anything that claims to “accelerate learning” and is based on “brain research.” Your article helped to boost my cynicism.

  3. So I confess I like competency frameworks. Maybe because I’m an engineer they appeal to my logic. What I also find, using in particular a behavioural framework, is that they give a language to have dialogue and conversations around performance.
    Most frameworks are pants. They are a mixture of skills, behaviours and competencies and extremely limited so encourage cloning as Gem points out.
    By being able to have conversations about what someone does, the level at which they display a behaviour or competency, the impact of their use is my opinion a very useful term. It gets away from lazy language of “he or she is inspiring”. How? What do they do that makes them inspirational?
    I also believe that used as part of a recruitment exercise, then it can help to predict future success. In my experience, when we ignored the evidence they were poor recruits.
    So yes let’s have dialogue, but maybe L&D also needs to embrace some science. Maybe that’s part of its image problem around lack of commercialism. Most stuff can be measured and I believe people’s performance can too.

    1. As you’re aware, I’m a fan of MBTI. I’m now questioning this fandom, though, which prompted today’s post. I still like it, and I still see how it helps people talk with one another. In much the same way that you describe, I have seen that frameworks help the techy types, and the non-articulate types do those things better.

      I’m completely with you on the profession needing to embrace the rigour of science more in its practise.

  4. Like you I have spent many hours with competency frameworks. My first involvement was when I was on a Lead Body Working Party defining them! Over the years I have seen many variations.

    I think if they are written with the various stakeholders heavily involved, crafted in language that is accessible to those they are aimed at then they have a valuable role. I would broadly agree with Ian’s view above that they have a role, they have value and that perhaps L&D needs to do more to make them accessible and useful.

  5. Not convinced they are bunkum so much as just open to abuse. The fact that folk, sometimes, use good tools like they are tools doesn’t reflect so much on them as us.

    If the biggest problem orgs face is ‘how to communicate well’ then using frameworks as a chance to capture some common ground in the way people are expected to behave can be useful.

    Think of them as bringing to life a desired organisational culture, rather than creation of a clone army. A framework that highlights the value the org puts on the ability to think creatively or to take accountability for difficult decisions won’t create an environment where people are reduced to being neat – it will form a platform for saying ‘we expect you to go and do stuff we wouldn’t expect’.

    1. Maybe they’re not bunkum, but our skill set as professionals shouldn’t rely on the use or not of them. It should rely quite strongly on skills like dialogue, facilitation and designing strong learning solutions.

      I’ve seen frameworks used well, and I agree they can be useful. It’s when we become dogmatic about them that I start to question why we bothered in the first place?

      1. that’s true of anything isn’t it? Our role is to pick the right combination of approached from those available. I’d agree that not having them is unlikely to hamstring an organisation as dramatically as sometimes portrayed… Stuff gets done.

  6. I have been pondering on this during the course of the morning and wanted to come back with an additional very specific example of where I have seen them make a significant difference.

    My last organisation was quite acquisitional at one point which meant that I was heavily involved in looking at cultural change from an L&D perspective. One of the businesses we acquired had a very patriachal approach to management with almost all the decisions needing to be approved by the most senior person. That meant we inherited a management population who were managers in name only and hadn’t really been allowed to manage. Neither managers or staff were really clear about what was expected of the management role. It was very clear that introducing one of the formal management competency frameworks wouldn’t work in that the language would be perceived as obtuse especially as the population was quite diverse.

    So I approached the challenge by going back to basics, working with the managers, staff and other stakeholders we looked at the following areas – not specifically in this order:

    What does management look and feel like?
    How do you want to be managed?
    How do you want to manage?
    What do senior managers want from their direct reports?
    How will we recognise good management when we see it, encounter it, experience it?

    It took some time and various iterations before we got a slim, plain language, agreed document but it was worth the effort. That document formed the basis of the change we were able to create; it enabled us to successfully achieve IiP in that newly acquired business and it was a working document which managers used in their work, reviews and other areas.

    Ultimately it became the standard for the whole organisation and was incorporated into recruitment, appraisal and other areas. It brought about cost savings, enhanced buy in from managers and staff and I believe genuinely made a difference.

    So as I commented earlier competency frameworks do have value if they are meaningful, business focused and shaped by those they apply to.

  7. Sukh….. Man….. I love your posts. Tempted to end it there with #thatisall and I won’t.

    I think they are bunkum and that is a polite term compared to what I’d use. There are boundaries in place to encourage most people to behave in a decent and humane way, they are called the law. Yes, people will break them and when they do (and/or when those that enforce the law become aware of contravention of these laws), action will be taken. Do these laws apply in the workplace too? Sure.

    So…… Why do we then need competency frameworks? Because we want a more detailed set of laws? Because we want to change a culture? As Simon Heath said here (and I added to here ) focussing on behaviours will not create the change, or if it does, it is a long and arduous process.

    Man, if I think about all those hours I put into creating competency frameworks, integrating them into performance, development, reward, recruitment. Then multiply that by a factor of at least 10 to indicate the hours of time with individuals (managerial or not) and teams helping them ‘get’ the competencies. What a waste. I believe I and the organisation would have been much better off investing the time helping people work better (together) or just understand themselves or others, or just anything really.

    The other issues, is that we massively over complicate the framework too. It is with the best of intention, we think we are helping by making it ‘really explicit’ we are so not doing that.

    So, yes, they are bunkum, in my humble opinion.

    Top post my liege.

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