HUMAN RESOURCES : Measuring up – Beware the competency

Competencies remain hot topic for managers and human resource (HR) managers. large number of organisations base all their HR functions around competency models that are often sold to managers as quick and easy solution to number of potentially time-consuming problems. But what are these so-called competencies? Most worryingly, can we really be sure that they exist?
High profile academics CK Prahalad and Gary Hamel suggest that competencies relate to skills, characteristics, knowledge, and learning that are specific to, and provide competitive advantage for, an organisation. This raises the vexing question of how something that is organisation-specific can be pulled off the shelf and applied generically.
Or consider another, very popular, definition by Case Western Reserve University’s Richard Boyatzis, who suggests that competencies are deep, stable, underlying characteristics which predict work performance. Many competency models seem to be based on this definition. Because competencies, in this case, are global and deeply psychological, the underlying idea is that they will apply across broad range of occupations. Many managers seek “scores” for employees on the basis of set of competencies.
So, for example, in the case of competency called “customer focus” it would be reasonable to assume that, for given employee, it is possible to directly measure customer focus.
But here’s the catch. While, many managers are led to believe that competencies are like personality tests that can be measured directly, the reality is that there is little or no scientific justification for this.
The problem with competencies is lack of evidence for their measurement. One clear example of this issue is seen in assessment programmes for selection or performance management.
Organisations often attempt to directly obtain scores on their competency model by adding different measures together. So for selection, for example, they might have part of personality test, part of behavioural exercise, and part of reasoning test. These different measures are often added together to create an overall measure of competency. There is, however, no evidence that this addition can be achieved sensibly.
Twenty five years worth of research using assessment centres has consistently shown that piecing together aspects of different measures in this way most often fails – and fairly miserably.
These issues affect organisations in many adverse ways. An organisation using customer focus for the selection of new staff member – and trying to measure this competency directly – opens itself up to number of issues if this measurement is not successful (a highly likely outcome).
Firstly, the accuracy of the selection choice is compromised. If I make selection decision based on measure that didn’t work how can I be reassured about the validity of my decision?
Secondly, any feedback that I give to the candidate based on their performance on this competency will be invalid if the measure didn’t work. This presents an ethical issue for the company as candidates should be provided with reasonable access to this information (in the form of meaningful feedback) under normal circumstances.
Thirdly, if employment decisions are based on faulty measures, an unsuccessful candidate may have reasonable case against the organisation using that measure.
What’s more, if employees are provided developmental feedback on the basis of competencies that have not actually been measured, how can staff improve their performance?
More to the point, competencies are often stated in very global terms that are difficult for employees to understand. great deal of research evidence suggests that feedback in more concrete, behavioural, terms tends to foster greater behavioural change.
Competencies and measures must be separated. There are two options. The first is to take an alternative definition by Charles Woodruffe, managing director of Human Assests in the UK. This states that competency is nothing more than category with list of behavioural indicators that appear underneath it. In no way is there ever the suggestion here that we should attempt to directly measure competency.
The second option is to use methods of job analysis, which will specify the knowledge, skills, abilities, tasks, and other characteristics needed for job holder and required to perform job.
Either way, the information obtained from competency profile or job analysis should be used strictly as guide for the application of actual measures of behaviour, personality, cognitive ability or other characteristics. Competencies are not measures in and of themselves.

Duncan Jackson is lecturer at the Department of Management and International Business, Massey University Albany. [email protected]

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