Competency-Based Learning: Why Talent Management Needs to Get on Board

This past week we made some changes to our Thinkzoom platform. No, we didn’t just rearrange a few buttons or take away any of your fave features… We wanted to truly add something of value. And we did - with Learning Tracks, our new Thinkzoom feature that focuses on competency-based learning.

In fact, this is a feature that many of our current clients have been requesting. All of our courses are now mapped to 36 of the 67 competencies based on the Lominger model. Thinkzoom users and admins will now be able to offer and assign videos specifically about those competencies, which will make development around those competencies a piece of cake, with much less guesswork.

OK, so why is this big news?” you ask.

I get it - if you’re not incorporating competency-based learning already, you might be wondering why this is a big deal. And you’re not alone: Roughly 31% of organizations have yet to define the essential leadership competencies required for their leaders in order for them to achieve their business goals, according to a 2016 study by the Brandon Hall Group. And only 24% are fully using any of the components of a competency-based talent management program.

Well, I hope to change your mind about competencies, including how your organization approaches them. There is some good research showing that the most successful companies use competencies both for assessment during hiring and for development. They have shown over and over again that using competencies is a proven way to grow your people, something ej4 has been committed to from the start. (That’s our tagline: “People Grow Business. We Grow People.” It’s in our DNA!)

And FYI, this will be the first in a series of blog posts about competency-based learning. I want to show some of the particular competencies used in the Lominger model and how they directly link up with the success of your company. That way, you can see them in action and sample some of the content that can help you grow and nurture the skills linked to those competencies.

But before diving into that nitty-gritty, it would be helpful to understand why competencies (and learning tracks based on them) are so important. So here’s the 101:

What, Exactly, Are Competencies?

Competencies are abilities, behaviors, knowledge, and skills that impact the success of employees and organizations. They can include general skills (like communication skills), role-specific skills, and leadership skills, as well as others. The common theme is that a competency can be broken down and analyzed into a set of specific behaviors that tell employees what is expected of them, and that management can measure.

There are 67 competencies defined in the Lominger model. To give you a feel for them, here are some common ones that organizations choose to focus on:

  • Action Oriented. The employee enjoys working hard; is action oriented and full of energy for the things he/she sees as challenging; not fearful of acting with a minimum of planning; seizes more opportunities than others.
  • Deals With Ambiguity. The employee can effectively cope with change; can shift gears comfortably; can decide and act without having the total picture; isn’t upset when things are up in the air; doesn’t have to finish things before moving on; can comfortably handle risk and uncertainty.
  • Business Acumen. The employee knows how businesses work and is knowledgeable in current and possible future policies, practices, trends, and information affecting his/her business and organization; knows the competition; is aware of how strategies and tactics work in the marketplace.
  • Customer Service. The employee displays a serious commitment to the highest level of service to all customers. Aligns company goals with those of the internal and external customer by listening and responding to their needs and changes in the industry. Ensures quick resolution of problems, provides quality service and products, and maintains open communications to promote customer commitment and long-term retention.
  • Builds Effective Teams. The employee can get a team together when needed; creates strong morale and spirit in his/her team; shares wins and successes; fosters open dialogue; lets people finish and be responsible for their work; defines success in terms of the whole team; creates a feeling of belonging in the team.

The idea is that these competencies should be well-defined across the organization. Take the customer service competency above. It is defined in such a way that it can be employed anywhere, for any role and in any department. This way, everyone is on the same page and working from the same definition.

The definition is not enough by itself, however. It needs to be paired with specific behaviors or tasks that are expected of the employee. These will be different depending on the role of the employee in question. Take customer service again. If this is a core competency for your organization, everyone should be focused on it! But customer service to a sales rep looks different from customer service for a warehouse employee. And that’s OK: These jobs are different and their “customers” are different, so the ways that customer service will manifest itself will look different.

Once you have your competencies defined, you can create a competency model.  A competency model is a set of 7-to-10 core competencies that are aligned with your company’s business goals. Businesses differ in many ways, so the competency model for each business will look slightly different.

Once you have a model, you can begin defining tasks for each competency for given roles. You can then use these to:

  • Assess potential employees for the given competencies
  • Communicate expectations for various roles (in a consistent way)
  • Measure competencies as part of your talent review process
  • Create development opportunities for employees to improve upon these competencies

Why It Is Important to Incorporate Competency-Based Learning Into Your Organization

Competency-based learning is now a mainstay in the most successful businesses. In one study by Development Dimensions International (DDI), 89% of best-in-class organizations had core competencies defined for all their roles, compared to a mere 48% of all other companies.

A separate report, the Top Companies for Leaders report done in conjunction with Fortune and Aon Hewitt, found that a full 100% of companies making the global top companies list use a well-defined competency model.

Of course, just because something is popular does not mean that it is truly useful or effective. (Fidget spinners, anyone?) Still, there is ample evidence that using competencies does help businesses:

Granted, some of these stats speak to using any well-tested competency model. So why did we choose the Lominger model in particular when deciding how to organize the training content in Thinkzoom?

Most simply, the Lominger model has been around for a long time (since the 1980s). It has been vetted, tested, and tweaked. Many businesses have adopted it already, and so there are plenty of well-documented cases where the model has helped businesses achieve their learning and development goals.

So the issue, then, is not whether the model works. The issue is how to get started using the model without having to make a sea-change in your organization.

Kathy’s Recommended First Steps Toward Using Competencies

If you have the resources and the backing to rebuild your talent management systems, and you can do so from the ground-up using a competency model, more power to you. But most organizations don’t have that luxury, and so it might be hard for an HR professional to know where to start.

Here, then, are six steps I recommend for getting your feet wet with competency-based learning:

  • Get yourself a cookie, or a cupcake, and start small. Don’t re-invent the wheel. Work to identify just a handful of competencies—no more than five or six—for your organization. It is easier to introduce a handful to start the process, and then get input from other leaders about which other competencies to bring on board than it is to try to get input from everyone at the start. Once you’ve incorporated a select few and shown success, then you can worry about others.
  • Decide on consistent terminology to be used. This includes the names and definitions of the competencies themselves. Don’t feel like you have to make it dry either! Add some fun, so that it sticks with your employees.  For example, maybe you can use the first letter of the names of each competency to spell out a word, GROW or STEAM or CAKE. Seriously, for this step, you probably need something to eat so get yourself another cupcake.
  • Think in terms of specific, concrete tasks. Think about the tasks or behaviors that demonstrate the competencies you have chosen. Also, think about tasks and behaviors that fail to demonstrate them. Remember: Concrete = easier to remember. Like a leaf or a shell that gets stuck in concrete when it dries. (See what I did there?)
  • Work your new terminology into job descriptions, and when advertising positions. When it comes to describing job positions or roles, and when looking for people to fill those roles, use the language you adopted when talking about your competencies. This not only communicates specifically what you are looking for, but also help you build your culture. And culture is important to advertise.
  • Research how competencies can be measured in your assessments. Both assessment questionnaires and 360 surveys can be tuned to uncover evidence of your competencies in your employees. Select your assessment tools accordingly.
  • Craft training around those competencies. If customer service is a core competency across your organization, you should be training your employees in ways that improve their customer service skills. Find content that speaks to your competencies and create courses that can help both your leaders and your front-line employees grow in those areas.

Our use of competency tracks in our learning management platform Thinkzoom is just one way we are helping clients do that last bullet point. If you would like to see some samples of videos crafted into a course for a given competency, you can request a free trial anytime.

I hope to make a believer out of everyone soon!  Now go get yourself a slice of pie!

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