Is it time to consign competency frameworks to the bin?

Personnel Today published Is it time to consign competency frameworks to the bin?

HR departments have relied on competency frameworks for decades, but given how fast operating environments change, they are arguably no longer fit for purpose. James Brook, joint founder and managing director of Strengths Partnership, looks at why this is the case.

It is time to retire traditional competency systems, not because we have found the silver bullet to replace them, but because they have simply had their day and are no longer creating value for organisations.

When they were originally conceived in the early 1970s, competency frameworks offered a compelling solution to help assess, develop and manage talent with the aim of increasing value.

However, they have fallen far short of this stated purpose and, in an increasingly volatile and uncertain world, are looking more like the early mobile phones of the 1980s 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 do not change significantly. They assume the job specifications and the criteria used to select talent today will be the same in a few months’ or even years’ time.

However, in a rapidly changing environment, this could not 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 are simply not designed to take account of the fast-changing world we live in.

They assume one size fits all

Competency models are also based on the questionable assumption that all good performers achieve their results in the same way.

Research shows that this is inarguably not the case; different role-holders bring their unique skills and strengths to bear in different ways to achieve equally good results. The result of imposing competency frameworks on people is constrained creativity; it ignores any individual behaviour that is different from the norm.

This is frequently 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 behaviours had been constrained by a rigid competency framework – we might never have seen the results of their innovation and specific strengths.

Of course, this one-size-fits-all assumption also flies in the face of 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.

They do not energise people

Do managers talk excitedly about their organisational competency systems? Do candidates feel that they can truly shine in competency-based interviews? Do employees feel adequately recognised and rewarded by competency evaluation?

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 competencies that are applied in many organisations can undermine positive energy and morale.

In order to create a sense of clear purpose and excitement, organisations need different tools and processes that nurture individual strengths and help them understand those tasks or activities that really energise them, rather than simply assessing and developing competency areas that they might be good at, but are not passionate about.

Innovative and agile companies will move away from competencies completely. They would be well advised to replace them with more energising and inclusive strengths-based approaches. There is a growing body of evidence showing the link between these methods and positive workplace outcomes, including improved customer loyalty, productivity, teamwork and financial results.

No matter how embedded competency frameworks are, they must 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.