Competency Models could be Misleading and Mischievous By T V Rao

In a seminar I was attending a few years ago a pharmaceutical company presented their competency model in the morning. After the session leader who presented it left, the same day afternoon an IT company presented its model. Observing the stark similarity and near sameness of the list of competencies presented in the two models by the Pharma and It presenters, the participants became curious how can IT and Pharma company require nearly the same competencies. The presenters themselves were surprised until we all discovered that both these organizations had the same consultant. It appeared that what they had is a standard model of a consulting company than a research based tailor made competencies needed for the two different organizations!

Now a days it has become quite fashionable to commission the making of competency models for organizations. A competency model describes the particular combination of knowledge, skills, and characteristics needed to effectively perform a role in an Organization and is used as a human resource tool for selection, training and development, appraisal, and succession planning. (p5, Lucia and Lepsinger, 1999). Competency models represent the most critical knowledge, skills and behaviors that drive successful performance with respect to a particular type of job or occupation.  They describe competencies in behavioral terms, using behavioral indicators, so employees can recognize the competencies when demonstrated. There can be competency models for a role, for a department, for a function or for an organization. Competency models often contain some sort of overall graphic depiction of the relationships between competencies or show them clustered into related groups.

Organizational competency models present a list of eight to ten most critical competencies required to perform various jobs in the organization. As they are derived after studying most successful incumbents at various levels (Executives, Deputy Managers, Managers, Senior Managers, Vice Presidents, Deputy General Managers, General Managers and Vice Presidents, Presidents etc.)Performing various roles across various departments in an organization they are considered comprehensive models of competencies required to be successful in the organization.  The competency models normally describe the competency, present illustrations of how the competency is exhibited at various levels and functions in the organization. They also present indicators of behavior which are classified normally into three or four levels like the beginner, practitioner, expert, leader, etc. or simply by naming them as proficiency levels like level 1, level 2, level 3, and level 4 and so on. The levels are sometimes associated with the job levels or designations in the organization. Most MNCs used to have competency models in the past and used them in induction, training, performance appraisals, career planning, potential appraisal etc. (TVRLS, 2006).

Indian organizations have also resorted to develop their own competency models in recent years. In the last one decade many organizations have developed their own competency models. For example Infosys, Wipro, Philips, HUL, Wockhardt, HDFC Life, Tatas, Cummins, Dr. Reddy's etc. have their own competency models. Inspired by these many more organizations are commissioning the development of their own competency models.  Once developed these competency models are used as a part of recruitment, induction, performance management, leadership development, career planning and development etc. Assessment centers or Development centers are being designed around these competencies.

While this is a welcome trend I like to point out that an overdependence on competency models can be misleading and might even amount to playing mischief with organizational effectiveness and productivity.
Limitations of a Competency Model:

   A competency model is arrived at for the organization after considerable research and study of various effective role holders at various levels. They are interviewed competency experts and asked questions like what Knowledge, attitudes, skills, qualities, traits etc, are required to be successful in the role you performed so successfully etc. Or alternately his superiors are interviewed. In the RSBCM model of TVRLS all role set members are interviewed and notes taken. After all the interviews are completed a list of competencies are culled out from the successful performers at different levels.
Over the years it has been found that most companies have same or very similar competency models. All of them list competencies like Vision, Strategic thinking, Systems orientation, Entrepreneurial attitude, Team work, Interpersonal sensitivity, Customer centricity, Technology savvy etc. In fact if we survey all the competency models we can list around 30 to 40 competencies and can be compressed into dozen across all companies. It looks as though if you possess these competencies you can be successful in any company and anywhere in the world. So why not our B-schools start only develops these score of competencies? In fact recent studies by Harvard Professors like Srikant Datar have outlined a list of competencies that top B-Schools should develop: Leadership skills, Creative and critical thinking, Change management, Soft skills etc.  Dave Ulrich and his team at Michigan have developed a list of competencies and Skills for the HR profession.

What is wrong with Competency Models?

Nothing. The only trouble is competencies are contextual. As contexts change the competencies required to do a job well may change. For example the competencies required y a finance head may change from initial stages of a company to alter stages and also depending on the economic situation and supply of money situation. Or the competencies of a HR head who during industrial unrest and union militancy may change to a different list when the organization needs global talent and is free of unionism.   A CEO or an R&D head competency profiles may change as the organization matures. Dave Ulrich and W Brockbank have presented different lists of competencies in the last one decade for HR managers as their context is getting changed. Hence the competency models cannot be considered as valid for all time and need periodic revisit and revision.

The second issue is organizational competency models cannot ensure success of all role holders merely on the basis of the possession of these competencies at a higher levels. The performance equation which is well accepted by now says that successful performance one given job is a function of abilities or competencies, motivation or work effort and organizational support. The definition of high performance varies from time to time and hence the need for defining the Key Performance areas, activities and performance indicators annually. By reasoning if the KPAs vary from year o year the competencies also vary. Hence no one time competency list for an individual can be considered valid across all times. Fortunately for us the KPAs normally don’t change from year to year but may change across a few years.  To the extent they change the competencies change and at organizational such cumulative changes of KPAs for all roles and the consequent change in competencies need to be reflected in the competency model.

No competency model can be exhaustive. It cannot take into consideration the innumerable competences required to perform each and every role. Hence an active use of competency lists should include the role related competencies.
Most organizations commissioning competency studies are happy when the consultant gives a short report and presents a graphic model of competencies. Unfortunately this is misleading and is inadequate for any purpose other than a standard package of induction, and periodic appraisal. Even for induction it is not the competency model that matters as much s the competency profile required by that job. Most organizations donor even asks consultants to give them the competency profiles of the jobs they surveyed. They are quite happy with the model.

It is high time that organizations realize the limitations of competency models and stat suing competency profiles of each of the roles mapped by the consultant or the internal teams. By ignoring this while we are preparing universal managers and not organization or role specific managers that bring success to the role.


I don’t wish to convey through these arguments that competency models are not useful. On the contrary they are good tools to communicate in one stroke the critical competencies needed to be successful in the organization and valued by the organization at senior levels. They are good tools to inform the job aspirants and also good tools to develop critical leadership competencies through a variety of interventions. However their utility should not be overstressed and overstretched.  They cannot become panacea for all talent management needs and interventions. They cannot be the only criteria for promotions and succession planning. They can be treated as necessary conditions but not sufficient conditions for success. They may be useful for Development Centres but not for promotion decisions as promotion decisions should be based on contextual competencies besides and job specific competencies rather than organizational competency models. Organizations should take pains to ask, get and retain the job specific competency profiles when they commission competency mapping studies. Job specific competency maps or profiles can serve better purpose of talent management than mere competency models.

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