The Human Resource Practices Development (HRPD) Project
The HRPD Core TeamPatricia A. Brady, Project Director, Team Leader
Maureen Bednarek, Personnel Department
Mark Cason-Snow, Brain and Cognitive Sciences, mediation@mit*
Melissa Damon, Personnel Department*
Margaret Ann Gray, Personnel Department (Performance Consulting and Training)
Alyce Johnson, Personnel Department
Peter Narbonne, Student Financial Aid Services*
Steven Wade Neiterman, Information Systems*
Barbara Peacock-Coady, School of Engineering
Affiliates: Daniela Aivazian, Information Systems, Researcher, Analyst*
Cynthia Vallino, Personnel Department *
The Generic Roles and Competencies Project TeamMark Cason-Snow, Brain and Cognitive Sciences, mediation@mit, Team Co-Leader
Doris Elsemiller, Mechanical Engineering
Stacey Frangos, Earth and Planetary Sciences
Cristina Gordy, Microsystems Technology Laboratories*
Barbara Peacock-Coady, HRPD, Team Co-Leader
Joanne Sayers, Sloan School of Management
Catherine Taylor, Office of the Dean of Students and Undergraduate Education
* Term of appointment shorter than full term of the project
Table of Contents
Evolution of the Generic Roles and Competencies Project Team
Summary of Project Team Work
1. Why Use Competencies?
The Generic Roles and Competencies Project Team was formed in October 1997 following recommendations by the Human Resource Practices Design (HRPD) Team that MIT explore and evaluate competency-based human resources practices. The HRPD Team was chartered in the spring of 1996 to define human resource practices that support the changing needs of MIT and its workforce. The HRPD Team was committed to maintaining the diversity, flexibility, and fairness that make MIT a good place to work. These tenets are at the heart of the Human Resource Principles adopted in 1994.
During 1996, the HRPD Team researched and reviewed best practices within the MIT community and at selected corporations and institutions. Through the process of education, research, evaluation and interaction with approximately 10 percent of MIT’s campus-based staff at all levels, the team found that current human resource practices at MIT no longer aligned with the Institute’s changing environment. However, they found that members of the community would support human resource practices that provided clarity for employees, supported career development, and rewarded and recognized high performance if these practices were designed to meet the diverse needs of MIT’s different constituencies.
On the basis of these findings, the HRPD Team generated eight broad recommendations for human resource practices to help make MIT as excellent an employer as it is an educator. As part of their recommendation to develop a system to support a more flexible workforce, where employees have the ability to move from assignment to assignment, the team recommended that MIT explore and evaluate competency-based human resource practices. The HRPD Generic Roles and Competencies Project Team was formed to test the applications of competencies through partnerships with organizations within MIT, and—drawing on the experience gained—to develop tools and recommend a set of policies, resources and practices required for the effective and widespread use of competencies at MIT.
To this end, two co-leaders and five team members committed 20-100 percent of their time for a 15-month period. It is important to note that collaborations, managed by the HRPD Core Team, were already underway in the School of Engineering.
The team drew on its own field experience, community input, benchmarking data from other universities, human resources literature and consultant expertise in developing tools for practice, and recommending an infrastructure to support a system of integrated human resource practices with competencies at its core.
The Generic Roles and Competencies Team was charged with:
The tools and practices, although developed locally, were expected to be applicable, or easily generalized, for use throughout the Institute. They were not intended to address specific requirements of employee groups whose work may be defined by labor contracts, funding agreements, or other factors.
Changes to Project Scope
The focus and boundaries of the team’s work did adjust as the HRPD’s overall recommendations and strategy became clearer. A summary follows:
Summary of Project Team Work
Competency and Generic Role Development Collaborations
Over the duration of this project the HRPD Core Team and the Generic Roles and Competencies Project Team engaged in eighteen collaborative projects with academic and central administrative departments at MIT (See Figure 1). These collaborations included developing generic roles and competency models, training interviewers in competency-based selection interviewing practices and creating assessment and development tools.
Collaborations were developed and undertaken in the following areas. Detailed summaries of each can be found in Appendix I.
Team members developed the following tools for the Human Resource Practices Toolkit:
Developing Competency Models With Expert PanelsGetting Feedback from Competency Users at MIT
In addition to the feedback from the collaboration projects, the team conducted two focus groups and four individual interviews to assess their impact and gather input for recommendations.
Collecting Benchmark Data
The team conducted benchmarking interviews with five universities that have begun to use competencies. Four additional universities were contacted regarding their implementation of career development services.
Reviewing the Literature
The team reviewed literature on the application of competencies in large organizations, with the intention of collecting ideas, lessons and best practices on the implementation of competency-based practices.
The Research Results section, beginning on page 25, summarizes the results
and data gathered from literature, benchmarking and MIT feedback.
Figure 1: Summary of Collaboration Projects
These recommendations represent what the Generic Roles and Competencies Project Team believes will be important for MIT to implement in support of an integrated system of competency-based human resource practices and derive the maximum benefit from such a system. These recommendations include policies, programs and resources, technology support and implementation plans.
SUMMARY OF RECOMMENDATIONS
Competency Model Development
To ensure appropriate and consistent use of Competency-Based Selection
Interviewing, we recommend:
Generic Role Development
Generic roles are tools for describing the commonalties among a set of jobs and provide a base for creating competency models that apply to more than a single position.
PRINCIPLES FOR THE USE OF COMPETENCIES AT MIT
All applications of competencies at MIT should be consistent with these broad goals:
Competencies should be used in a manner consistent with the MIT Human Resource Principles articulated in 1994:
Competencies should be understood and used as a tool to achieve well-defined objectives:
Where competency-based tools or programs are required, every effort will be made to provide choices to fit the needs of different areas of the Institute.
COMPETENCY MODEL DEVELOPMENT
To ensure that all areas of MIT can derive benefits from competency-based tools and practices, we recommend that MIT adopt as a goal that all employees (with the possible exception of faculty and unionized employees) have competency models associated with their positions.
To this end, we recommend that a "core" competency model be developed for each employee category. Such a model has already been developed for Administrative Staff (using Behavioral Event Interviews and analysis of top performers), and has been tied to the revised Compensation and Classification system that is being developed for Rank List III employees. We recommend that a similar initiative be undertaken for Support Staff, so that that group can be part of a system of competency-based practices and programs for hiring, performance management and development. We suggest that MIT extend that effort to Sponsored Research Staff.
HIRING AND SELECTION
Research and experience indicate that skillful use of Competency-Based Selection Interviewing at MIT will lead to improvement in employee performance, job satisfaction and retention. We recommend that all future hiring be accomplished by developing and/or utilizing a competency model as the basis for hiring and that this model establish the basis for a system of practice that includes hiring, assessment and development and performance management. This will require that MIT establish supporting policies, such as:
Competency models used for hiring (and other processes) may come from one of the following sources:
Competency-Based Selection Interview Training
Adopting Competency-Based Selection Interviewing as a standard will require that expertise in this technique be developed across the Institute. We propose the following three-level training model for propagating that expertise:
Levels of Training
Who Should Be Trained?
To ensure the quality of Competency-Based Selection Interviews, we recommend that a policy be established that all such interviews be either conducted by or under the close guidance of a person trained at Level 2. Thus, formal search committees or other teams conducting interviews would either include or have as a consultant a trained Interviewer.
All others who wished to participate directly in competency questioning should be trained as Collaborators (Level 1).
As a guideline, we recommend that anyone involved in two or more hiring cycles per year should be trained at Level 1 or Level 2, depending on his or her involvement.
In areas where there is a high rate of hiring it may make sense that at least one individual be trained at Level 3 to serve as a local resource to train others and provide support for interviewers. (The person in the Performance Development Manager role recommended by the Performance Management Project Team would be the logical person to do this.) Areas without such a local resource person would call on an MIT-wide pool of Trainers.
Twelve individuals were certified as Trainers through HRPD; nine are available to be deployed through the Performance Consulting and Training Team. It is difficult to gauge whether this pool of trainers will be large enough to meet the needs of many areas as MIT adopts Competency-Based Selection Interviewing on a large scale. The need for additional Trainers should be assessed when the demand is more clearly defined.
While competency-based interviewing can provide great benefits in terms of the success of the selection process, it is a complex skill that requires time to develop. We recommend that MIT develop and adopt some clear policies and guidelines on the use of competency-based interviewing to ensure appropriate and consistent use of this technique. These might include a policy on advance notice for interviewees, and guidelines for conducting a balanced interview that includes both competency questions and other issues.
Technology Support for the Interview Process
There are currently software tools on the market (and one currently in use at MIT in I/S) that can help interviewers generate interview questions and customized interview guides. We recommend that such tools be further investigated to support and streamline the interviewing process.
PERFORMANCE MANAGEMENT (see Performance Management Team Recommendations)
Because competencies provide a powerful framework for discussions about job requirements, performance, employee development and planning, we recommend that:
The quality and validity of competency assessment instruments are key to the success of competencies. To ensure that quality, we recommend that MIT:
In addition, we recommend that MIT:
TRAINING AND DEVELOPMENT
Detailed proposals for the future of training at MIT can be found in the Performance Consulting and Training Team Annual Report and the Training Polices and Administration Team Report. We recommend that:
As organizations strive to implement new systems to attract, develop and retain a highly skilled, more flexible workforce, career development provides a system of support that can help the organization and its employees develop to meet these evolving needs.
We recommend that MIT explore the delivery of career development systems to support the strategic goals of MIT as a part of Integrated Competency-based Human Resource practices, recognizing that:
To derive these benefits, we recommend that MIT explore the benefits of an on-site Employee Career Services Center, as a separate unit, that would serve all MIT employees.
Organizational infrastructure might contain:
To further assess these recommendations, we suggest that the following be analyzed and explored:
GENERIC ROLE DEVELOPMENT
Generic roles are tools for describing the commonalties among a set of jobs—for abstracting the shared accountabilities, skills, tasks and performance criteria in those jobs. Generic roles can be defined at different levels, from roles that apply to a few jobs within a single department to roles that apply to a whole category of employees across the organization. Generic role descriptions are a necessary base for creating competency models that apply to more than a single position.
In addition to emphasizing the shared aspects of jobs, generic roles provide templates for new position descriptions, allowing the people creating new positions to benefit from the best thinking of others about the nature of the work requirements for that position. Generic role descriptions typically apply to entire jobs (i.e. the majority of a person’s responsibilities are found in the generic role description). But it can also be useful to define generic roles that apply to parts of jobs. We refer to these as Overlay Roles.
We recommend a multi-level approach to continued development and support for the use of generic roles at MIT. This approach provides a range of options, from off-the-shelf role descriptions that may not be perfectly applicable to a department’s needs but require no further definition, to locally-developed generic roles matched precisely to those needs.
Category Roles. These are very-high level role descriptions that encompass entire categories of positions, such as Administrative Staff. Such roles provide a platform for widely applicable competency models like the Administrative Staff Core Model that has been developed through Behavioral Event Interview research. We recommend that a similar model be developed for Support Staff so that competency-based hiring, performance management, and other applications can be applied across the board.
MIT-wide Job-Level Roles. These are role definitions that apply to closely related positions across the Institute. Examples of this might be Administrative Officer, Personnel Officer/Assistant or Financial Officer. It is an empirical question whether or not there is sufficient homogeneity in some of these positions to warrant creation of roles and competency models at this level, beyond the core models for administrative staff and support staff. Data relevant to this question will come out of the Behavioral Event Interviews conducted to develop the Administrative Staff Core Model. We recommend that the implementation team explore the feasibility and usefulness of developing such roles for key positions at MIT.
Job-Level Local Roles. These are roles that apply to a set of positions within one area or department, and are carefully tailored to the needs of that area. Development of these roles makes sense where several positions are variations on a common theme (for example, the role of Assistant Director in Facilities). The majority of the roles developed with the help of HRPD have been of this type. They are developed through expert panels interviews with incumbents, managers and others with a stake in a particular role. We recommend that MIT maintain the expertise and tools to support departments in creating generic roles of this type. We also recommend that a database of all such roles be maintained so that areas undertaking the development of generic roles can build on the work of other areas.
Overlay Roles. These are generic role descriptions that don’t speak to the entirety of any one position, but rather outline functions and clusters of competencies that relate to part of a job. Some examples are the Coach role developed by the Performance Management Project Team, or the Team Member, Team Leader and Strategic Leader roles that have been developed and used within Information Systems (I/S). Overlay Roles can serve several purposes.
We recommend that the implementation team further explore how to make the best use of and/or expand these types of roles.
IMPLEMENTING THESE RECOMMENDATIONS
Continued evolution of an integrated, competency-based system of human resource practices will require effective transitional and ongoing support for their use and development. That support should include widespread education and communication about competencies and competency-based practices, continued development of competency-related tools and resources and technology to facilitate access to information.
We recommend that a time-limited transition team be deployed to support the continued evolution of programs until they are self-sustaining, perhaps two years from its inception. This team will combine the expertise and interests of Personnel, Performance Consulting and Training, and HRPD, along with other keys stakeholders in the process.
A possible model for this team is the Compensation and Classification Project, with a core project team, which receives guidance from an Advisory Group, made up of leaders from across the Institute. We strongly recommend that only limited use (if any) be made of the 20%-time "volunteer" project team model used in HRPD. Though this model is good way to get a wide range of knowledge and expertise together, we expect that the time demands of implementation will make this model impracticable.
The Human Resources Practices Transition Team
The transition team should consist of competency content experts and/or members of Central HR and Information Systems. This team will be charged with the following:
Competency Resource Team
To ensure the consistent and effective use of competency-based practices, we recommend that a standing team, which we will call the Competency Resource Team, be created and supported. The transition team (see Implementation below) will have the task of getting the Competency Resource Team up and running.
The Competency Resource Team should consist of competency content experts and/or members of Central Human Resources and Information Systems. This team will be charged with coordinating the following:
Education and Communication
Education and communication are key to the success of competency based practices, and will be a critical function of the transition team. To accomplish this, we recommend that the team develop and implement a thorough communication plan with the following elements:
The success of a system of integrated competency-based practices depends on communication, education and easily available information and tools. On-line information and interactive applications are a core part of the implementation of such a system.
The following principles should guide the development of such information systems:
We recommend the following components as part of an integrated system:
A common concern surrounding the introduction of competencies and competency-based practices into an organization is that they will be used as a tool to terminate people. We have, indeed, heard this expressed at MIT.
Everyone at MIT should understand that competencies are not being introduced for the purpose of reducing the workforce. Competency-based practices are focused on getting the right people into the right jobs, and helping them to develop and improve their effectiveness and value to MIT within those jobs.
No employees will be terminated on the basis of competencies alone. As in the past, people may lose their jobs for failure to perform, in accordance with MIT’s policies on corrective action. The element added by competencies is that the requirements of a job may now include demonstration of competencies that are deemed critical for successful performance.
Supporting documentation for Generic Roles and Competencies recommendations
Competency Model Development
Reference Note 2
Reference Note 3
Reference Note 4
Training and Development
Reference Note 5
From the HRPD Design Report
A future scenario
NOTE: Career development issues have been raised in all collaboration projects and from a majority of the groups and individuals that HRPD has worked with, including the School of Engineering, Facilities, Personnel Services, the Working Group on Support Staff Issues, Performance Consulting and Training and Information Systems.
Reference Note 6
Generic Role Development
At Harvard University job families are defined for the whole university and models are built based on them.
The categorization of jobs follows a structure of:
Reference Note 7
This section integrates information from our review of human resources literature, data from benchmarking interviews on universities, and community feedback from competency users at MIT. These data inform and support the recommendations put forward in the previous section, and also, in part, inform the overall HRPD recommendations and those of the Performance Management Project Team.
The usefulness of competencies as a tool in various areas of human resources practice is widely documented. We will speak briefly here to the issue of why organizations adopt competencies, and the benefits they derive from doing so. The goal of this section is to draw some conclusions about how competency-based practices can best be implemented at MIT and place our recommendations in the context of competency-based practices outside of MIT. See Volume I of the HRPD Final Report for more background on competencies and the case for using them.
The Potential of Competencies
Many organizations in both for-profit and non-profit sectors (including government) have explored how to apply competencies in a wide range of human resource practice areas. Why? Because competencies are a tool that can help organizations focus human capital and human resource systems on the factors that contribute to organizational success (American Compensation Association, 5). Competencies help people and organizations speak to the behavioral "soft" skills as well as the technical skills required when defining job expectations and requirements; they provide a common language and framework for those critical—but sometimes elusive—aspects of job performance. Competencies are an effective tool for communicating about performance because they help people frame expectations and goals in clear behavioral terms.
Applications of competencies fall into two broad categories—applications that support getting the "right" person in the right job, and applications that support performance management and development within jobs.
Job-person matching applications can include:
Performance management and development applications can include:
When competencies are used in multiple applications within an organization, they can serve as a unifying framework for human resource practices (American Compensation Association, 18), leveraging the effort required to define competencies and educate and train people in their use as well as providing a shared language.
What Motivates Organizations to Adopt Competencies?
The American Compensation Association, in a 1996 study titled Raising the Bar: Using Competencies to Enhance Employee Performance, surveyed a wide range of organizations about their experience with applying competencies. They collected data from 217 North American organizations that had established at least one competency-based application. The respondents covered service industries, including educational services (46 %); manufacturing industries (41%); health care (9 %); government (3 %) and others (1 %). Eighty-two percent of the organizations surveyed had over 500 employees, and 30 percent had over 5000. The most-cited overall business objectives of the organizations were controlling costs and increasing customer satisfaction.
The study asked respondents to indicate their overall goals and strategy for human resources (of which competency initiatives are a part). The top three strategies listed were:
The respondents indicated that in implementing competency applications, they hoped to:
Though many organizations hadn’t yet implemented systematic measurement of the impacts of competency-based practices, most organizations (56-75%) with competency applications in place for more than one year reported that their competency applications had indeed had positive effects in the above areas.
As can be seen from this data, competencies are applied to focus employee behavior. They are used as a vehicle for communication as well as a tool for getting the "right" person for the job and promoting skill development.
Competency-based practices tend to have the greatest impact in organizations where the nature of the business is dynamic and the work is knowledge-based, because the effective management, communication, innovation and collaboration skills—which competencies tend to emphasize—are central to such organizations’ effectiveness (Sibson & Co, 70).
Benefits of Getting the "Right" Person for the Job
Using competencies to guide decisions about hiring and promotion does take some extra effort, training and resources. So what are the benefits?
Improved Performance. According to Spencer & Spencer, competency-based selection predicts superior job performance (8). If a competency model is developed and applied correctly, it serves as a tool that can help interviewers distinguish likely superior performers from likely average performers. The economic value of the ability to make that distinction is substantial. Research indicates that the ability to select candidates who are one standard deviation above the mean in capability results in a thirty-two to forty-eight percent increase in productivity for moderate- to high-complexity jobs (Spencer & Spencer, 14). While it is impossible to predict in quantitative terms what the benefits will be in any given position or organization, it is clear that making the extra effort to define job requirements as fully as possible and select on the basis of those requirements can have great value. A research-validated tool (such as competencies) that helps organizations look beyond résumés, work history, and interview presentation in making hiring decisions is easily worth the cost and effort of development and implementation even if it results in only modest improvements in the quality of new hires.
It should be made clear that competencies do not supplant the intuition and experience that people bring to bear in deciding who will be right for a given job. Instead, they complement and extend people’s informal efforts to make such judgments. They also make it easier for groups of people to discuss and reach consensus about what criteria they want to use in selecting candidates. One important aspect of competency-based interviewing is that it focuses on actual, past behavior. Interviewees asked to speak about how they behaved in real-life incidents in concrete terms, rather than being asked to speculate about how they might behave. Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior (Spencer and Spencer, 9).
Reduced turnover and increased job satisfaction. People who are well-matched to their jobs in terms of both skills (technical and otherwise) and temperament (patterns of behavior) tend to remain in those jobs longer than others. Hiring is expensive and time-consuming. It makes sense that any reasonable measures that can increase competencies, is well worth the investment. While technical skills or expertise may be non-negotiable in many cases, it may
be worth considering that it is more cost-effective to train for specific skills than it is to have a person without the right competencies. Says one personnel consultant, "If organizations are hiring people based only on their current skill sets, they are engaging in planned obsolescence" (Caudron, 23).
The problems of having employees who are mismatched with the competency requirements of their jobs is not only limited to "not having enough" competency. Evidence suggests that individuals with particular competencies much higher than those required for a given job will focus on the wrong aspects of the job. For example, a supervisory engineer with a strong achievement orientation may spend too much time solving challenging engineering problems and not enough time managing (which requires more inclination towards influence and communication) (Spencer & Spencer, 57). Such a situation leads not only to underutilization, but to inadequate performance because the individual’s values and motivations aren’t aligned with the needs of the job.
Reduced bias. Though competency-based interviewing is, of course, still prone to subjective judgments, it helps people making hiring decisions focus on more objective criteria than they might otherwise use. Competency-based hiring has had very few successful legal challenges in discrimination suits (American Compensation Association, 36).
At MIT, the experience with selecting candidates on the basis of competencies has been quite positive. Competencies have been used for staffing decisions in many diverse areas of the Institute, including the Student Services Center, the School of Engineering, the Office of the President, Technology Review, Performance Consulting and Training, Information Systems and Facilities. Interviews with people involved in hiring on the basis of competencies indicate that candidates assessed and hired for competencies have worked out well (Interview 3). According to one of them, "[competency-based] selection interviewing techniques were very valuable, and will continue to be used for new positions" (Interview 4). According to a focus group of people at MIT who had used competencies for hiring, use of competencies "increases the probability for a good hire" (Focus Group 2). Many also reported that hiring for competencies helped individual interviewers and search committees to articulate and focus their thinking about what they were looking for (Interviews 1-4).
Benefits of Performance Management Through Competencies
Using competencies in the context of systems intended to assess and improve employee performance can have an impact just as significant as hiring for competencies. After all, even if you have a profile of exactly the person you need for a job, you can’t always get that person (at least, not at a price you can afford).
If the survey sample assessed in Raising the Bar (American Compensation Association) can be taken as representative, performance management programs are the most common targets of competency applications. Almost all the 72 respondents who used competencies in the context of performance management have formal processes with multiple components, including performance appraisal or measurement, performance planning, employee development discussions and performance coaching or feedback. Of the respondents, eighty percent used competencies as part of performance appraisal, employee development discussions and performance coaching together as part of an integrated system.
According to psychologist and professor of organizational behavior Richard Boyatsis, "People have been socialized into work behaviors that are inadequate to meet today’s needs. [They are] commonly accepted, but not distinguishing superior performance" (Yeung, 122). In today’s world, a great deal is being placed on group management and team leadership because more situations occur where people are required to work in groups and teams. Awareness of people’s competencies will help create groups and teams that can work harmoniously.
Several benchmarked organizations are currently using competencies for development purposes. One university plans to incorporate them into performance evaluation, compensation and rewards by end of the year [‘98], citing that competencies present clear, specific development areas for staff and support staff (Benchmarking 5).
Research indicates that an important factor in implementing a competency-based performance management system is training managers to provide coaching and developmental assistance (Spencer & Spencer, 270). However, we were cautioned that the time and effort required for managers to manage performance with competencies is substantial (Benchmarking 3).
The section on Performance Management at MIT later in this report, provides more data on implementing competency-based performance management at MIT.
All our research sources—the input we got from competency users at MIT, benchmarking sites, and human resources literature, contained common themes and lessons relevant to introducing competency-based practices into a large organization.
Emphasize communication and training. When asked "What would you do differently?" several companies mentioned that they wished they had communicated and educated about competencies better. Remarked one HR manager, "[we should] spend as much time with communication and training as we did with development (Sibson & Co., 74).
Many competency practitioners also emphasized the importance of ongoing communication, involvement and feedback from the community. Said one veteran, "I would have involved more people" (Sibson & Co., 75). Another indicated that focus groups and test runs were critical to buy-in and credibility (Morris, 64). MIT Focus group participants echoed that sentiment, indicating that communication and keeping the community apprised of successes is very important. The focus groups also suggested that participation in expert panels to develop competency models was in itself a very effective educational experience that made the usefulness of competencies clear (Focus Group 2).
Small groups or individual meetings are the most effective and widely used means for educating people about competencies and their applications (American Compensation Association, 24), though most organizations use multiple channels.
Two benchmarking sites (Benchmarking 3, 5) suggested that it is important to communicate to employees that competencies are not "added" expectations. Competencies are, instead, tools for clarifying existing expectations.
Take time to get implementation right. Many competency practitioners emphasized that the implementation phase took longer than expected, and that it was important to allow the time to get the implementation right (Dubois, 182-184; Sibson & Co., 74). Getting frequent feedback could be important in that process. Practitioners indicated that competency applications can take a year or more to develop.
Focus group participants emphasized the importance of a centralized entity to support implementation across MIT (Focus Group 1). The implementation plan, they suggested, should take into account the unknowns that will affect timelines and costs.
Ensure consistency of language. Focus group participants and industry competency practitioners stressed that it is important for people to get clear and consistent messages about the meaning of new terminology in order to avoid confusion (Focus Group 1; Sibson & Co., 75)
Get high-level sponsorship and visible support. Several of our
benchmarking sites emphasized the crucial role upper management needs to
play in supporting competency initiatives (Benchmarking 2, 3, 5). Practitioners
in industry echoed this.
Build on successes. One practitioner suggested "It is important to find someone ‘doing something right’ and build on it. Define internal ‘best practices’ based on what people are already doing" (Dubois, 305). Focus group participants agreed: "people will respond to success—use successes to promote competencies" (Focus Group 2).
Along those lines, one strategic move recommended by practitioners is to start competency applications first (or early on) in the HR area itself, sending an important (and maybe critical) message (Sibson & Co., 74).
Make sure there are sufficient centralized resources for support. Focus group participants interested in continuing to use competencies expressed concern that there might not be adequate resources and recommended creating a centralized resource for education, training, expert help and resources (Focus Group 2). One interviewee added that "Personnel should be familiar with competency-based hiring and should be a resource" (Interview 2).
According to the American Compensation Association study, large additional resources do not need to be added to support the administration of competency-based practices (25). Changes that were made were focused on realigning roles to support new practices, and enhancing computer support. However, some centralized entity for quality assurance and development seems to be important. One practitioner lamented that as yet she had been unable to get support to set up a "recognized infrastructure for maintaining and evolving tools" (Morris, 50).
Keep use of competencies aligned with organizational strategy. "Competencies have to be positioned as part of an overall business strategy or change process—they should never stand alone," warned one HR manager (Sibson & Co., 68).
We heard concerns expressed about the potential risks and difficulties of competency-based practices both from the MIT community and in the human resources literature. The main themes that we identified are the:
Within MIT, one of the major areas of concern in using competencies stems from the culture at MIT. The fact that some employees work for multiple supervisors, who in turn may expect or require different sets of competencies (Focus Group 2) was brought up as a potential stumbling block. Another similar concern was that competencies might be more difficult to implement in academic areas, because the faculty, who are often supervisors, may not be willing to take part in the competency process (Focus Group 2). The culture at MIT values individuality (Focus Group 2), which may lead some to see competencies as a "pigeon-holing" system, and thus try to avoid using the competency process. Another concern was that the use of competencies might seem "too trendy, too pop-psychology, too slick, too dependent on subjective things, and that doesn’t fit in well with MIT’s culture" (Interview 3).
Other concerns within the MIT community focused on some of the more technical aspects of switching over to competency use. People want to ensure that technical competencies, skills, and credentials are not completely ignored (Interview 3). There is also a concern that once competency models are created, someone must update them regularly, as "job circumstances [are] changing quickly" (Focus Group 2). People questioned how competencies will be tied to compensation (Focus Group 1); how MIT will manage the expectations of employees who may think that switching to a competency-based system automatically means more money (Focus Group 1); and how easy it will be to use competencies for interviewing when they are looking for core competencies (Focus Group 2). There is also a concern about trying to balance the need for team competencies with the need for position competencies (Focus Group 2).
The most common concern raised both internally and externally was the time element. People within the MIT community seem to be aware that implementation will take time (Interview 3). Companies outside of MIT who have already implemented competencies also caution us to be aware that it will take time. Employees need time to learn competencies and, as one company reminds us, "People don’t learn a new competency in six months, they don’t learn a new competency necessarily in a year." (Sibson & Co., 66)
Another potential problem, seen from both perspectives, is the implementation of competencies. Within the MIT community, there is a belief that "consistent implementation will be difficult, but will also be necessary for success"(Focus Group 2). A similar concern was voiced by the companies who have already begun implementing the use of competencies, who tell us that "competencies are practically useless if not [applied} correctly" (Sibson & Co., 68)
What is the best way to go about constructing a system of competencies and competency models to provide the foundation for competency-based practices for a large, diverse organization? This section discusses various aspects of this question, from guiding principles and high-level design, to how to run sessions for developing competency models. Most of our data on these issues comes from the experience of other organizations developing competency systems, as reported in the human resources literature. That is supplemented by information from organizations with which we conducted benchmarking interviews, and feedback from individuals at MIT who have been involved in competency model development projects.
We found in our research some general themes and principles that guided organizations in designing a system of competencies and models (or in hindsight, that they wish had guided them more).
Ensure connection between competencies and desired results at all levels.
Repeatedly in our survey of human resources literature, competency researchers, practitioners and human resource managers emphasized that competencies are only a tool—a tool that provides a language and framework for thinking about job performance and development. They are not a "silver bullet." Developing competency models for positions does not automatically lead to improvements in performance; people (and organizations) must learn how to use them constructively. As with many tools, there can be a tendency for people to focus on the tool itself and lose sight of the results that the tool was supposed to bring. As one human resources manager remarked, "Competencies tend to take on a life of their own" (Sibson & Co., 68).
Thus, competency systems must be designed and implemented in such a way that all users of the system are encouraged and supported in making the connection between competencies and desired results. The ideal end result is an organization where all employees have a clear understanding of what results they are trying to get, and how they can develop and better make use of their competencies to get those results. As one competency practitioner remarked, "[People] have got to see in their minds that yes, this competency is associated with my getting a result I want in the business. If they don’t perceive that from the beginning, they tend to blow it off because they’ve got a million other things to do." (Sibson & Co., 71-72)
At the highest level, the design of a system of competencies should be tied with the overall mission, vision and strategy of an organization. As several human resource managers emphasized, competency applications should not be undertaken unless there is a clear link to business strategies or a defined change process (Sibson & Co., 68). To give just one example, Eli Lilly & Co., in developing competency models for their Human Resources area, set as criteria that those models "support the future needs of the organization" and "focus on the results that would help achieve the company’s strategy" (Dubois, 125).
Get a broad range of input and involvement. Along with a comprehensive program of education, competency system developers stressed the importance of involving the community in the design and development of tools, practices and competency models. Such involvement creates a sense of ownership, as well as being a powerful educational channel itself (Benchmarking 4; Focus Group 1).
Ensure consistency of models, language and practices. As with any new tool or program, the introduction of competencies can create confusion and anxiety. Many competency practitioners, as well as competency users at MIT, emphasized the importance of
Competencies have become a widely-used tool in the management of human resources, a "veritable institution" in the words of researcher Paul Sparrow. And yet, though the central concept of competencies is shared among various researchers, consultants and practitioners, there are many ways that the actual content of competencies can be defined.
What are Competencies and Where Do They Come From?
The concept of competencies grows out of the work of psychologist David McLelland in the early 1970s. McLelland was asked to study the performance of Foreign Service Information Officers in the State Department, to understand what factors led some officers to succeed and some to fail. The success-predicting factors that grew out of that research were not personality traits, nor were they skills in the simplest sense of that word. These factors (for example, Cross-Cultural Interpersonal Sensitivity) were, instead, patterns of "behavior, combined with skills, knowledge and personal attributes" (American Compensation Association, 5). The success-predicting factors came to be called competencies, and McLelland, along with many others, spent the next 25 years refining, developing and applying this concept. (The consulting firm retained by MIT to develop competency applications was founded by McLelland.)
Competencies are always described in measurable, observable terms, but they are not simply concrete behaviors that are easily mimicked. Instead, competencies are manifestations of some underlying intent—driven by a person’s basic motivations, self-concept or social role and values (Spencer & Spencer, 12). But different competencies may reflect "deeper" aspects of individuals to varying degrees. This idea is sometimes represented using the metaphor of an iceberg. Competencies that reflect technical skills and knowledge inhabit the part of the iceberg above the water line. They are relatively easy to observe and test, and relatively easy to develop. Competencies that are manifestations of self-concept, attitudes, values and motives are below the water line (with motives being the deepest and most enduring), and are more difficult to observe and to develop (Spencer & Spencer, 11).
Choices in Defining Competencies
Behavioral vs. Technical Competencies
In much of the human resources literature (and in common usage at MIT so far) the term "competencies" is presumed to represent "underlying characteristics of people [that] indicate ways of behaving or thinking, generalizing across situations, and enduring for a reasonably long period of time" (Spencer & Spencer, 9). By this definition, using the iceberg metaphor just mentioned, competencies are necessarily "below the water line."
But many practitioners refer to technical competencies. Technical competencies represent skills, knowledge or expertise developed through formal education or experience, and are at or above the water line on the iceberg. Technical competencies are often what can be assessed by reading someone’s résumé. Thus, there is sometimes a need to distinguish technical competencies from behavioral competencies.
Both technical competencies and behavioral competencies represent factors important for success on the job. It is equally important to define job requirements in both areas. The question for designers of a competency system is "Should technical competencies be included?"
One answer is that making technical competencies part of an organizational competency system is both unnecessary and too cumbersome. Because expertise, knowledge and technical skills are more easily assessed and understood, existing methods of evaluating such factors (interviews and résumés) are quite satisfactory. Most organizations that introduce competencies focus on behavioral competencies (American Compensation Association, 23), presumably because most organizations are trying to address the behavioral aspects of performance that have been previously poorly understood, assessed and articulated. Because technical competencies are more job-specific, more numerous, and more likely to change over time, including standardized technical competencies as part of a competency system is logistically complex and of questionable benefit.
Nevertheless, some organizations do address technical competencies as part of competency models and systems. Research indicates that the organizations most likely to develop and use technical competency descriptions are service organizations (American Compensation Association, 21). Information Systems (IS) at MIT, for example, has defined a set of some 18 technical competencies that represent areas of knowledge and expertise. These competencies are abstracted away from specific hardware or software systems (examples: Coding and Testing, Designing, Facilitation Skills). Such a system seems to make sense where there is a common set of knowledge and expertise within an area. It provides a way to standardize information about people’s skills and experience for purposes of planning, development and job-person matching.
Methodologies for defining competencies, matching competencies to organizational needs, and matching competencies to job requirements vary in their rigor. Any individual or group can sit down and define some behavioral attributes that would seem to be important for successful performance in a job or an organization (and that is, indeed, how it happens in some cases), but the validity and usefulness of those competencies might be suspect. Research can greatly improve the validity of competencies and competency models. But, of course, research methods can be very time and labor intensive, so there are trade-offs between validity and resources invested.
How does research support the definition of competencies? To be useful, a competency must be observable and reliably assessable. Research and field experience can indicate whether this is indeed the case. Competencies should also be correlated with objective measures of successful performance. This can be done through systematic behavioral interviews or observation. Without this validation, there is no guarantee (beyond common sense interpretation) that the behavior described in the competency is truly associated with successful performance.
HayGroup, MIT’s competency consultant, uses a careful and rigorous methodology for developing and validating competency descriptions. This includes maintaining a "core dictionary" of competencies which have been proven to be frequent predictors of successful job performance across different types of roles and organizations, plus a library of competency descriptions that have been researched and tailored to the needs of specific jobs and organizations.
But knowing that a competency is reliably assessable and is correlated with successful performance in some organizations does not necessarily mean that the competency will predict success in a particular organization, role or job. The method used for associating sets of competencies (or competency models) with organizations, roles or jobs is also a major factor affecting the validity of models. See Selecting Core Competencies and Competency Modeling Processes below for a discussion of these methods.
Behavioral competencies are defined in terms of observable behavior with some underlying intent. The definition of the competency may be in the form of a general description plus examples of behavior that demonstrate the competency.
Many competency practitioners use scaled competencies. Scaled competencies rank the behaviors that demonstrate the competency in terms of their sophistication. Thus Level 1 of the competency Ability to Influence might be defined as "taking a single action to persuade", whereas Level 5 might be "using complex influence strategies".
There are several benefits to using scaled competencies:
A nationwide study of competency applications found that 70 percent of organizations with competency applications use scaled competencies (American Compensation Association, 22).
Competency systems are likely to include competencies at various "depths", according to the iceberg metaphor presented above. Spencer and Spencer argue that competency-based selection should emphasize those critical competencies that are most difficult to develop (Spencer & Spencer, 258). Thus, information about the relative developability of different competencies should be available so that competency interviewers can set appropriate priorities, and competency development efforts can focus on the competencies where the greatest gain is most likely.
Approaches to Competency Systems
Suppose an organization wishes to implement competency-based hiring, performance management and development for all or a substantial part of its workforce. A prerequisite for implementing competency-based practices for any given job is a competency model--a set of behavioral and/or technical competencies that are important for success in that job. What are the different approaches that the organization can take in developing a system of competency models that applies to a wide range of jobs?
The primary dimension on which approaches to competency systems vary is the breadth of application of a given competency model. At one extreme are "one size fits all" competency models--where a single set of competencies (sometimes referred to as core competencies) is put forth as a model for success for all members of an organization, or a significant subset thereof. At the other end of the spectrum are systems of competency models where each model applies to one or a handful of positions, with competency language tailored to the needs of that small set of positions. In between are systems that group jobs together into job families or generic roles, or mixed systems that try to incorporate the best aspects of the one-size-fits-all approach and more customized approaches.
There are costs and benefits to each approach. The reviewed literature suggests that the best approach for an organization depends on the strategic goals of the organization, the scope (range of employees) and applications for which competency models will be used, and the nature and heterogeneity of the jobs to be included in the system.
One-size-fits-all competency models have the obvious advantage that they require less time and fewer resources to develop than more complex systems, and yet can be used with substantial impact (Mansfield 10). Their other main benefit is consistency; such models provide a common "language of success," and it is relatively easy to tie overall organizational goals to a single shared competency model. The disadvantage of one-size-fits all models is the potential for mediocre fit between the model and the specific competency requirements of a diverse set of jobs. People may have a hard time translating the broad language of such a model into specific skills and behaviors on the job. Also, lack of specificity makes such models inappropriate for assessment. The fact that the model does not distinguish between the behavioral requirements of different positions limits its credibility and usefulness for hiring, performance management and development—both career development and employee development within a job (Mansfield 10).
One-size-fits-all models appear to be used in two places and with two different purposes: 1) within fairly homogenous organizations or organizational divisions, to provide models of success that can be used in hiring, performance management and development, and 2) within more heterogeneous organizations, as tools of broad organizational change. An example of the first type of use might be in the sales force of a retail chain, where there would be significant similarities across positions.
In heterogeneous organizations, a one-size-fits-all model can most powerfully be used as one tool for communicating a mission, a set of strategic goals, a set of values, or a vision of change. The competency model—sometimes referred to as a "values model" or "cultural model"—can serve as a bridge that helps people focus their behavior towards the mission, goals, values or vision. (Simply articulating the model is not enough, of course; much education and support is required for people to buy into the goals and then to change behavior.)
Single-job competency models represent the other extreme in getting the correct fit between competencies and job requirements. If a competency model applies to only one or a few very similar positions, then it is possible to match a set of competencies very specifically to the needs of that position, and often with the direct involvement of all people who will be using the model. The time and resources required to construct such models for a wide range of jobs can be prohibitive, however. Developing single-job competency models makes the most sense when there are many incumbents in essentially identical positions (such as the sales force in a retail organization), or when an organization wishes to target key jobs (such as leadership positions) or areas, where getting the right people will have a great impact. This is the approach taken to date at Stanford University, where competency models have been developed only in targeted areas (Benchmarking 3).
Aside from the costs of developing highly customized competency models across an organization, there are other problems that using such models across an organization could entail. Models developed independently in different areas may be inconsistent.
A competency model for a manager in one area could end up with a competency model quite different from a manager with a similar set of responsibilities in another area. Why? Because competency modeling is a human process, and despite procedural safeguards against competency models that reflect the whimsy of individuals, different groups of people with different values, ideas and experiences will create different models. Too much inconsistency could lead to confusion, and would certainly not be conducive to lateral movement or career development within the organization. To avoid this situation, some systematic connection between competency models is indicated (Mansfield 9).
The middle ground between the one-size-fits-all and single-job competency model approaches can be claimed in two ways. One way is to have some means of grouping jobs so that they can share competency models. Such an approach is being used at Harvard University, which has defined five high-level job families (Finance, Research, Museum, Faculty and Student Services), with a competency model for each. Lower-level groupings (which HRPD has generally referred to as generic roles) are also possible. For example, a competency model for Project Manager could be used in different areas across an organization. (There are other ways to approach this classification; see Recommendations).
Another way to get at the middle ground is to hybridize a one-size-fits-all system (or perhaps two-or-three-sizes-fit-all) with competency models for single jobs or generic roles. This is the approach that we are recommending for MIT. In such a hybrid system, the high-level "core" competency model serves as a base or starting point for all members of the organization (or the large subset for which the "core model" is defined). Then, to customize competency models for the needs of specific jobs or generic roles, competencies can be added to the core set and/or the core set can be "tweaked" to provide a better fit. According to a nationwide study of competency applications in a range of organizations, this approach is a common one: "About half the competency-based applications [of the 142 in the study] involve competencies defined at the job or role level, and most of the time they are used in combination with something else--typically, competencies defined at the business unit or organizational level" (American Compensation Association 19).
Mansfield (11) suggests that an important tool for creating competency models for a range of jobs is a set of 20-40 "building block competencies" from which all competency models within the organization are constructed. Having a defined set of competencies from which all models are developed not only provides consistent "competency language" across the organization, it also greatly facilitates the use of competencies for job-person matching within the organization.
The set of building block competencies must fit the organizational culture, and be broad enough to describe the behavioral requirements of jobs throughout the organization. HRPD has been refining such a set (known as the MIT Competency Reference Guide), based on data from forty-six single-job and generic-role competency models developed at MIT, and data from Behavioral Event Interviews of administrative staff.
Selecting Core Competencies
As mentioned in the previous section, a common and powerful approach for applying competency models widely across an organization is to have a set of core competencies that apply to all members of (or large subsets of) an organization. For greater flexibility, a set of building-block competencies (that can be combined to produce competency models for particular roles or jobs) may provide even greater clarity. But how should that core set of competencies be selected? One input to that set of decisions should clearly be some data about how people are currently going about their jobs—i.e. which competencies are being used by the majority of employees, and with what degree of sophistication. It is also very useful to know which competencies are consistently demonstrated by top performers, and which competencies seem to distinguish them from others.
The program of Behavioral Event Interviews that was undertaken to develop a core competency model for MIT Administrative Staff provided a rich source of such data for one employee category at MIT.
But such data are just the starting point, the foundation, of decisions about the set of competencies that should be considered "core." Other important considerations mentioned in the human resources literature are:
Methods for Building Competency Models
Different organizations that have applied some form of competencies (and the consultants that have helped them do so) have varying approaches not only regarding how to define the content of competencies, but also regarding how to go about creating competency models—sets of competencies that provide a "model of success." As discussed earlier, competency models can be defined at different levels--from organization-wide models to single-job models and at various levels in between.
The methods that can be used to develop competency models vary in terms of the validity of the resulting model, the time and resources required for development, and the degree of involvement and "buy-in" generated.
Available methods include:
Expert Panels/Focus Groups. A group of 5-12 people with knowledge of a particular job or role are convened by an experienced facilitator with competency expertise to select appropriate competencies. Expert panels or focus groups were indicated as the most frequently used method in the American Compensation Association 1996 survey of competency applications, with research interviews being the second-most-used method.
Surveys. Forms or structured surveys that ask people to rank a set of competencies for relevance can be used to develop models.
Expert Databases. Competency models can be taken directly from a database of competency models maintained by a consultant or a large organization. The validity of such off-the-shelf models depends largely on how closely the role or job the model was developed for matches the target role or job.
Observation. Similar to the Research Interview method, but uses on-site observation to gather data about demonstrated competencies instead of reflective conversations. This method is even more time-intensive than research interviews, and so is used infrequently.
The following table summarizes the pros and cons of each method:
The methods can often be combined. The more sources of data that go into building a competency model, the better.
Competency-based selection interviewing is the process by which people are matched to jobs, using competencies as the basis. In 1973, David McLelland (Spencer & Spencer, 4) discovered that the best predictor of what a person will do in the future is evidenced by what he or she has done in the past. Selection Interviewing provides a method for interviewers to collect this information and determine whether the candidate has demonstrated behaviors identical or similar to those that a position requires.
According to Spencer and Spencer (239) the better the fit between the requirement of a job and competencies of the jobholder, the higher job performance and job satisfaction will be.
Successful job-matching depends on having:
Selection interviewing is a tool that consistently helps to put the right people in the right place as well as providing a way to operationalize the organizations visions and values.
(Focus Groups 1 and 2)
During the past two years competencies have been introduced to the MIT community through multiple vehicles including:
From the beginning of this project we heard, from staff at all levels, that MIT needed a good process for measuring performance, defining accountability and developing employees. We continued to hear this as we introduced competencies in collaborative projects with department, labs and centers (DLCs) across the Institute. As the HRPD Core Team and the Generic Roles and Competencies Project Team developed generic roles and competency models in these areas, the process consistently led to a call for next steps, namely assessment and development.
In subsequent focus groups held to solicit feedback from collaboration areas, we heard [unanimously] that these areas plan to use competencies for performance management (Focus Group 1). When specifically asked about next steps, they noted that competencies won’t work if people are not held accountable (i.e. people will not take it seriously until it’s tied to performance management (Focus Group 1).
In every aspect of this project a need was expressed for a system of performance management that would provide consistence in accountability of and development for MIT staff at all levels. A system for competency-based performance management could provide the process to address this need. Research indicates that a good system of performance management includes clearly communicated goals, assessment and development tools, managers who are trained to coach, defined opportunities for development (i.e. training, on-the-job opportunities) and expectations that are measurable. The indicated needs for competency-based performance management parallel what we have heard across MIT and corroborated by Spencer and Spencer (267) as follows:
(Spencer & Spencer, 265)
(Spencer and Spencer, 269)
There are many ways that competencies can be connected to a system of compensation so as to provide incentives for employees to use and develop competencies, and thereby improve performance. Here is a sampling of the range of options:
The second most prevalent means of connecting competencies to pay was to use some kind of system of job evaluation to reflect required competencies in the pay structure. Twenty-nine percent of the 51 organizations had such systems in place, and another 41 percent had them under development.
Only 16 percent of the organizations with some competency-pay link had direct competency incentive pay. The literature suggests some reasons why this practice has not been, and perhaps should not be, widely implemented:
These pages last updated April 4, 1999 by firstname.lastname@example.org