What Competencies Tell Us About L&D

Competencies work, and are increasingly popular. But although they concern people’s skills, and can be incredibly useful for the learning and development department, competencies are not usually deployed by L&D.

Why not?

The answer is revealing about L&D’s standing in most organisations. And it isn’t pretty.

It’s not that competencies are a minority sport. According to the CIPD’s Trends in Learning and Development survey in April, 60% of UK organisations are using competencies, with 48% of the remainder planning to deploy them within two years.

Meanwhile, the recent SFIA Conference at the Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) included a number of case studies of successful application of competencies. (The conference presentations are available online.)

Competencies can become an academic exercise, used for a while, then steadily de-prioritized until they are abandoned to die slowly on the shelf.
The Skills Framework for the Information Age describes 78 competencies for IT professionals and is an established standard for describing IT skills in the UK. The key lesson from the conference is this: competency frameworks are always deployed for operational impact, not for academic reasons, and never solely to meet training needs.

In their own words, here are some of the reasons that conference speakers used competencies:
• to recognise abilities, release potential and optimise utilisation
• to ensure that people are in the right job, and have a plan to develop themselves within that role and beyond
• to support assignment-based working, career development and to raise the level of employee engagement
• to produce job descriptions that reflect reality

Learning and development goals are on this list, but they are not the sole reason this or probably any framework is deployed. Nor, pointedly, were the deployments mostly done by the L&D function. The most likely people to take the lead were (in this case) the IT department, followed by HR.

Why is that?

The most obvious reason is that deploying competencies takes work across the board. Most notably it requires the buy-in of line managers and employees in their daily lives. Unless they can clearly see some benefit to themselves from this, these people are not going to play ball. When that happens, competencies become an academic exercise, used for a while, then steadily de-prioritized until they are abandoned to die slowly on the shelf.

So why don’t employees want to get involved? Isn’t personal development valuable enough for employees and their managers to volunteer to help with the deployment of competencies?

Sadly not.

The sad truth is that the way competencies are deployed today reveals the low standing of learning and development in many organisations
Part of this is down to the way competency models are pitched to the organisation. Academic and former IBMer Professor Tony O’Driscoll recently commented on the ‘traditional competency model’ and was pretty unrelenting in damning it:
‘The current competency model approach we apply as a matter of course within our profession is clearly not focused on, or couched in, an opportunistic light. Instead, it is more about “lets figure out what you suck at and make you work at that till you get at least average at it.” How will this approach drive insight and growth for both the worker and the enterprise?’
And, of course, he’s right. Expressed like that, nobody is going to buy into competencies, and sadly, it’s too often the way learning and development are coupled to competency.
Yet a well-implemented competency framework should be worth deploying for the L&D benefits alone. It provides a view of the required skills profile of the organisation, and an understanding of how far adrift the current skills profile is. The next step – establishing a training plan to bridge the gap – is invaluable.

That, however, is just seen as helping the L&D department do its job better. And the rest of the organisation couldn’t care less about that. Competencies or no competencies, they will still get their training, and that’s what the department is all about – isn’t it?
The sad truth is that the way competencies are deployed today reveals the low standing of learning and development in many organisations. L&D is seen as a fulfilment function annexed to the organisation, something deemed to be working well when it deals quickly with the orders it is given.
In contrast, the people who make things, and who make things happen, will get on with deploying competencies. Why? Because it enables them to do more, better. According to the list above, they want to release potential and optimise utilisation, to get the right person in the right job. Yes, they want to support development, but it is career development they wish to support. In other words, to ensure that individual learning and development opportunities match the current and future needs of the business.
And that’s why they are driving competency deployment, not the L&D department.
Is this really how we want the L&D function to be seen?

Fortunately, the picture is not entirely bleak. On 3 December, Lesley-Anne Bealey posted a query in Training Zone’s Any Answers entitled (perhaps a little optimistically) Making Competencies Exciting. Lesley-Anne aims to support a change project in her organisation using competencies.
It seems she has done the right thing. She first got managers involved in writing her competencies framework, and posted her question seeking advice on the best ways of ensuring their further support during implementation. And now she’s getting plenty of input from fellow members of the Training Zone community.

I don’t know Lesley-Anne, but her sensible approach – and the response it has attracted – gives me hope.
It may be that, with enough Lesley-Annes, L&D will become the natural home for expertise on competencies. More than just tactically useful, competencies offer the chance to aggregate and use information on organisational skills for strategic benefit. That’s skills, the daily currency Learning and Development department, coupled to strategic benefit.

This is the opportunity for L&D professionals to take a lead, to show their strategic vision and the value of the learning they provide. Let’s not waste it.