Time to retire competency systems?

Perhaps it is time to retire competency systems, not because we’ve found the silver bullet to replace them, but because they’ve simply had their day and are no longer creating value for organisations.
When they were originally conceived in the early 1970’s, competency frameworks offered a compelling solution to help assess, develop and manage talent with the aim of increasing value from individuals and teams in the organisation. However, they have fallen way short of this stated purpose and in an increasingly volatile and uncertain world, are increasingly looking like the earliest cell phones of the 1980’s in a radically different digital, 4G age. There are a number of reasons why these frameworks are no longer creating value:
Traditional competency models are designed on the assumption that jobs and organisations don’t change much, they assume the job specifications put together today will be the same in a few months or even years and that the criteria used to select talent and high potentials today will be the same in a year’s time. However, in a rapidly changing and uncertain world, this couldn’t be more misleading. Jobs, teams and businesses are changing almost constantly and people hired to do a job in the knowledge sector are rarely doing the same job several months, or even weeks, after they were hired. Rigid and cumbersome competency frameworks simply aren’t designed to take account of the fast-changing world we live in.
One size fits all assumption
Competency models are based on the questionable assumption that all good performers achieve their results in the same way. Research shows that this is simply not the case; different role-holders bring their unique skills and strengths to bear in different ways to achieve equally good results. All that ends up happening if we impose competency frameworks on people is we end up constraining creativity and individual behaviours that are different from the norm or accepted way of doing things. This is particularly the case where competencies are strongly reinforced through the company’s performance management and reward system. Imagine the result if Richard Branson or Steve Job’s ideas and behaviour had been constrained by a rigid competency framework – we might never have seen the results of their uniqueness and genius. Of course, this one-size fits all assumption also flies in the face of current thinking around inclusive workplaces that cater for diverse strengths, personalities, backgrounds and work styles. Rather than putting people in narrow boxes, the best workplaces seek to understand and play to people’s unique strengths, enabling them to bring the best of themselves to work each day.
Competencies don’t energise people
OK, so when did you last see a manager or employee hopping around excitedly talking about their competency framework and how it has helped them at work? In a world where engagement and motivation are top priority, competencies fail to take account of what people are really passionate about and therefore do nothing to raise motivation and create positive, inspirational workplaces. In fact, the bureaucratic, rigid, one-size fits all way competencies are applied in many organisations often undermines positive energy and morale. In order to create a sense of clear purpose and excitement, organisations need different tools and processes that play to people’s strengths and help them understand those tasks/activities that really energise them rather than simply assessing and developing competency areas they might be good at, but are not at all passionate about.
We are not suggesting that organisations with well-designed and embedded competency frameworks should abandon these. However, they should be applied with more flexibility, skill and realism, taking into account that employees, like professional athletes, possess only a few distinctive strengths; they cannot be equally good at the long ‘wish list’ of behaviours and skills typically demanded of organisations. Of course, more innovative and agile companies like online businesses and the challenger banks might want to move away from competencies completely. Those that do would be well advised to replace them with more energising and inclusive strengths-based approaches as there is a growing body of evidence showing the link between these approaches and positive workplace outcomes including improved customer loyalty, productivity, teamwork and financial results.
James Brook