Back when I was working in corporate learning and development, when the mere mention of the two words “competency frameworks” in any team meeting, there was an audible groan.
My experience of these have always been negative.
Although I’ve never been involved in creating one, it seemed that I was always in departments that had one going – whether it was being done by a team that no-one ever saw or had it outsourced to some training provider whom we never saw.
In 25 years of being in learning and development working in corporates, I can put my hand on my heart and say that I have never been through some competency framework or ever had to create one.
I was, however, always within the vicinity of one around me – I just never saw it as it seemed to be a nebulous and invisible project that seemed to take months and years to deliver on or was promptly forgotten about at the first whiff of an organisational restructure.
Last week a colleague had asked me about “competency frameworks” and this was my reaction…
Luckily upon further discussion, it turned out that they were asking for something completely different but I did ponder and reflect upon my reaction towards these two little words.
So I asked myself, “are competency frameworks a thing anymore?”
I posed the question to my Twitter network not really expecting much in return however, I was surprised with the response.
For all learning and development types, what’s your take on competency frameworks? I thought they were long dead and buried because how can you devise competencies and levels for job roles that are changing all the time? Can anyone shed any light.
— Helen Blunden #AlwaysBeLearning🤔🧠🦉📚🥇 (@ActivateLearn) March 3, 2020
You can read the full thread of responses here.
Over 22 people responded with their different ideas (publicly) and then more direct messaged me with private responses (I’ve had an increase in private conversations as more people seem to not want to engage publicly anymore on Twitter). Some even sent me links to work they’re doing or competency frameworks they’ve used or created in the past. Thank you to everyone who shared their thoughts and work – I do appreciate it.
However, I was surprised at the immense aversion people had to them much like what I have.
Now I have to explain something about my aversion – because it’s a bias – so let’s clear this upfront.
What’s My Own Reaction to Competency Frameworks?
My aversion had always been to the fact that I had someone else “the other eg a manager, a supervisor, a team leader, a colleague” assessing my competency based on some random chart that was drawn up likely copied from somewhere else with no basis of truth, comparison or recognition of the real work – the “thinking and creating” work I do behind the scenes.
It’s different when I first started out in a new job that had strict requirements around skills and capabilities to do the job so that I don’t end up killing myself or others but in knowledge work that I do now, competency frameworks just don’t fit anymore. They’re nonsensical, irrelevant and wait a while, they’ll be out of date.
So why are they bugging me so?
I think it’s because I’ve always had an issue of OTHERS telling me what THEY THINK I SHOULD be doing in my job against what a CHART or FRAMEWORK devised by some unknown third party THINKS I SHOULD be doing in that job. I would NEVER follow what these people – whether they were my managers or colleagues telling me to do – if they themselves didn’t follow, do or demonstrate these competencies themselves because I felt that these frameworks gave them a reason to not question or consider alternative approaches and as such were used as methods of control.
All I hoped was that my managers and colleagues gave me the vision of possibilities and explained to me how important these were for the team, department, company so that I (indeed all of us) could given the freedom to explore and then create our own ideas, actions, tasks to get to that outcome the company wanted in the time frame required.
In other words, be treated with fairness and respect that I would take it upon myself – with the support of my manager and team – to create the plan to build new capabilities towards competency.
If I was measured on anything, I wanted to be measured on how together, as a team, we were meeting the need to achieve whatever business outcome and not individually against some random framework that much of the other business gives it lip service to.
As a worker – and one who is continually learning on the job so that I could improve my practice, build a community of people around me to support me and to feel connected and inspired with my job, I wanted to practice my own way, my own style, my own preference at work and through work.
Rigid competency frameworks don’t fit with the type of work that many of us in corporates are doing at the moment.
My question was always….How can I EVER be deemed “competent” in knowledge work?? It’s impossible.
So my aversion to competency frameworks was really because I felt they were unfair and biased to the individual doing the work.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, my next question was, “what’s the difference between competency and capability?”
Back to the Drawing Board
I was confusing myself because of my own disdain of competency frameworks. I had to go back to the basics by trying to understand the definition of “competence”.
In our field, we have so many buzz words and the Twitter threaded conversation above made it evident that some people were mixing the words “competence” with “capability”. That is, they didn’t know the difference like me.
Competency comes from the 1630s as “sufficiency of means for living at ease,” from French compétence, from Latin competentia “meeting together, agreement, symmetry,” from competens, present participle of competere, especially in its earlier sense of “fall together, come together, be convenient or fitting” (Ref: Etymology Online). However in 1708, it’s meaning changed to “adequate range of capacity or ability, sufficiency to deal with what is at hand”.
Basically, a person be measured as being competent if they have the knowledge, skills and behaviour to perform at some satisfactory level.
Meanwhile “Competencies” that were used in corporate organisations effectively mean a collection of “a generic body of knowledge, motives, traits, self images, social roles and skills that are causally related to superior of effective performance in the job.” (McClelland and Boyatzis (1980).
According to etymology again, it’s “quality of being capable, ability to receive or power to do”. In effect, capability means the POTENTIAL to acquire a knowledge or skill. That capable person may then, over time, become competent in that task. That is, capability seems to have a more future focus than competencies which is what that individual possesses to meet current needs.
I explored further and found this paper called Coping with Complexity: Educating for Complexity, where the researchers Stacey and Stephenson explained it in terms of agreement and certainty in completing a certain task in familiar and unfamiliar environments.
The zone of complexity is where learning happens and indeed, many organisations are now complex environments where you cannot anticipate the future due to continual change. Our work environment is changing all the time, many of us are faced with doing unfamiliar tasks (coronavirus and remote work anyone?) with low degrees of certainty or agreement in what is the ‘best/right/standard’ way.
The authors argue that in a world like this, we cannot focus on competence alone but we need to provide environments where individuals can practice, receive feedback and support people to “construct their own learning goals, receive feedback, reflect, and consolidate and avoid goals with rigid and prescriptive content”.
Learning which builds capability takes place when individuals engage with an uncertain and unfamiliar context in a meaningful way
This diagram made a lot of sense for me. It highlighted the need that organisations now really have to look at different ways of building NEW CAPABILITIES for their workforce as opposed to spending time creating competencies for job roles that may be non-existent tomorrow.
The authors demonstrated ways in which to build new capability in the Health Services education sector in this paper by providing a table of different ways that allowed for “process-orientated” learning and cited many different ways that involved informal and unplanned experiential learning opportunities, personal learning logs, self-directed learning, team building, small group learning, social learning and more.
These are the things that I have been writing about on this blog (I have written extensively about personal learning maps, social learning, and indeed, my blog and YouTube channel are my entire portfolio of my work and learning since 2013) as well as many other people such as John Hagel @jhagel (who is now exploring small groups driving change); Jane Hart @C4LPT with all website on learning experiences at work; Harold Jarche @hjarche with his work on new skills needed such as Personal Knowledge Mastery and of course, Jay Cross with his work on Informal Learning.
Recently Harold Jarche (@jarche) sent me this article “Competency Badges: The Tail Wagging the Dog” that also promptly reminded me of the conversations happening in our field around open badges and e-Portfolios back in 2014-2015. Since then, I have not heard of these talked about by any learning and development people and I wondered if they too, had been discarded?
In the article, the authors also lay to rest the idea of having rigid competency frameworks preferring a “more open approach exploring the potential of recognising practices in lieu of recognising competencies.” They concluded that, “the opportunity to move from ego-recognition to eco-recognition, from recognition that affects the individual and the individual alone, to the recognition within a community where individual recognition certainly affects the person, but simultaneously the recognition of the community as a whole, thinking of recognition as flows in motion within and across levels (micro, meso, macro) and not mere static states. Moving from ego-recognition to eco-recognition is also the way to give back nobility to the informal: informal learning and recognition are not inferior to formal learning and recognition, they are at their origin and a source for their potential transformation. It is time to put the informal and interdisciplinary back at the centre of our learning and recognition ecosystems for so long sterilised by the disciplinary and normative approaches to learning and recognition.”
So What’s The Alternative?
This question was asked by a few on the Twitter conversation and I go back to my original raison d’etre of starting this blog and indeed coming up with my Twitter name “activatelearn”.
To me it was always about activating and inspiring people to work and learn together through the work they were doing at work. That is, the workplace IS the learning environment that builds the capability.
It was never about following best practices nor rigid frameworks. We need people at work to have a mindset and behaviours that break them away from thinking that their job is stable, the workplace environment will remain unchanged and the activities they do in their work will be static. Those days are gone.
It also means valuing, accrediting and recognising people for creating and sharing new knowledge, solving complex problems with innovative thinking, showing them how to build their own networks, manage an overwhelm of information that they’re swamped with every day and allow them the trust that they will deliver in the end.
Consider helping your people build the following capabilities in their work:
- Continually learning
- Community participation and building
- Personal knowledge management
- Critical thinking
- Teamwork and collaboration
- Communication skills (in all forms)
- Problem solving
- Working out loud (showing their work)
- Building personal learning networks
I’m interested in your thoughts. What do you think? Are competency frameworks dead and buried?