Competency Model as the Foundation of Talent Management

Competency Model as the Foundation of Talent Management

A competency model serves as the foundation of talent management. But what exactly is a competency model and how does it differ from a job description? Why is a competency model the basis for recruitment, selection, assessment, development, promotion, and talent retention? This short article answers these questions.

Competency Model vs. Job Description

Competency refers to a description of the attributes of a person who performs a job at a competent or high level. Without a competency model that describes the ideal employee, it is difficult to determine who should be hired, developed, promoted, or retained. In fact, without a competency model that portrays a high-performing individual, talent management can devolve into a popularity contest.

The first job descriptions were developed in the early 20th century during the industrial revolution and literally described the work. In contrast, a competency model describes the people who perform the work. Both job descriptions and competency models are necessary to determine what work people do and who does the work.

Job description forms the basis of human resource management. According to mainstream HR theory, all HR processes are based on job analysis and its outcome – the job description. A job description typically summarizes the purpose of the job, the job’s position in the organizational structure, and a list of typical duties, tasks, or responsibilities. The second part of the job description, known as the job specifications, specifies the minimum educational requirements, experience, and other elements (e.g., licenses or certifications) necessary to perform the job.

Everyone knows that job descriptions have their drawbacks. One such drawback is focusing on what people do (i.e., on actions), which can quickly become outdated. Another drawback is that most job descriptions do not explain how often specific duties, tasks, or responsibilities are performed and how essential they are to job success. Most job descriptions do not specify measurable performance standards expected from individuals performing the job.

Competency models are more in tune with modern times. Based on research on the individual characteristics of high-performing individuals – and the best employees can be up to 20 times more productive than average – competency models better explain the required interpersonal skills or level of emotional intelligence of effective employees than job descriptions. Because competencies relate to people rather than job descriptions, they do not age as quickly as job descriptions. Competencies are measured using observable behaviors, job results (outputs), or work outcomes (results perceived by customers).

Competencies should be described in precise language – based on behavior descriptions, outcomes, or results. They can form the basis for assessing the most effective individuals for recruitment, selection, assessment, development, promotion, or talent retention.

The competency model helps overcome three common errors encountered in talent management programs:

    1. Assuming that success in one job automatically guarantees success in another (higher) job
    2. “Like me” bias. Managers tend to favor people “similar to them.”
    3. “Like us” bias. Managerial groups tend to favor individuals who will fit into their team.

William J. Rothwell, Ph.D., SPHR, Honorary Member CPLP