The Argument for Competency Based Management

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Posted by Joshua Flage, Consultant for Hula Partners


I transitioned out of a challenging career as a submarine officer in the U.S. Navy a few months ago and I now work for an outstanding young company named Hula Partners. Hula Partners helps large enterprises solve their HR process and Competency Management needs. These enterprises range from Industrial Oil and Gas companies to Pharmaceutical providers. I come from a Navy Nuclear Power background, which has a very focused culture in ensuring that mistakes rarely, if ever, occur. I have sat through countless formal Critique’s that diagnose the nature of any potential mishap. I have typed up a myriad of Lesson’s Learned documents designed to educate the rest of the Fleet on potential problems and how to avoid them. More often than not, there was an element of human error involved. (Perfect human beings are tough to come by these days.) The Nuclear Navy maintains a culture of rigid adherence to procedure to minimize the influence of imperfect humans, but sadly it does not always work. As a result, hundreds of man-hours are devoted to preventing and learning from mistakes. Any company in a highly-regulated industry such as nuclear power recognizes the impact of these mistakes and takes steps not only to ensure that their employees are highly trained, but that their training is documented. Every person must be 100% qualified for their job 100% of the time.

I believe that competency management will continue to grow in importance for regulated industries. The rise of social media and world connectivity has made mishaps far more damaging to companies due to public backlash. A superb Competency Management program minimizes the chance for mishaps to occur and provides solid evidence that employee training was not the cause.

I have included here an excerpt from Mr. Aaron Zook, a retired Colonel in the Army. He wrote a thesis on the benefits that competency based management could bring to the whole military. Obviously, such a solution would be extremely complicated to implement across the entire military, but there is precedent for it as argued below by Colonel Zook, Ret.

Adopted from the works of Zook, Aaron, M.; “Military Competency-Based Human Capital Management: A Step Toward The Future,” January 2006.

“Competency-based management is the wave of the future and necessary for energy and technology companies to keep up with the rapidly changing and complex environment. Many military, and a few civilian, experts focus more on leadership competencies than the concept of competencies. Though competencies are discussed as a baseline for being competent in a job, when one talks about competencies in an organization, the focus turns quickly to the leadership of that organization. In the military, that leadership is recognized through the term officer, warrant officer, or Non-commissioned officer. Special trust and confidence are placed in these individuals to lead others in peace and war.”

In the private sector, competency-based Human Capital Management (HCM) became “in vogue” in the late 1990’s. As previously mentioned, leadership competencies have become popular ways to set an organization on the path to success. Often, competencies are ill-defined, loosely defined, or not defined at all by many who deal with them. Definitions of competencies in current literature include:

  • A mixture of knowledge, skills, abilities, motivation, beliefs, values and interests (Fleishman, Wetrogen, Uhlman, & Marshall-Mies, 1995)
  • A knowledge, skill, ability, or characteristic associated with high performance on a job (Mirabile, 1997)
  • A combination of motives, traits, self-concepts, attitudes or values, content knowledge or cognitive behavior skills; any individual characteristic that can be reliably measured or counted and that can be shown to differentiate superior from average performers (Spence, McClelland, & Spencer, 1994)
  • A written description of measurable work habits and personal skill used to achieve work objectives (Green, 1999)

It’s easy to see the struggle to obtain one agreeable working definition of competencies in the private sector. Below are a few definitions of competencies proposed for the military sector by various agencies:

  • …a behavior or set of behaviors that describes excellent performance in a particular work context (Job Role, Position, or Function). These characteristics are applied to provide clarification of standards and expectations.
  • A set of behaviors that encompass knowledge, skills, abilities (KSA’s) and personal attributes that are critical to successful work accomplishment. They describe what employees know, what they do, and how they do it and translate into effective on-the-job-performance.
  • Competency describes a cluster of knowledge, skill, ability, or attitude an individual must possess or obtain (or circumstances that must exist) in order to perform one or more tasks in a particular job context.

Reviewing each of the definitions reveals that most focus on measurable behaviors as a critical part of competencies or competency modeling. Though competencies may include intangible qualities, often measurable behavior attributes are key to determining if a person possesses the competencies desired by management.

Another aspect of the definition of competencies relates to whether we are referring to organizational competencies or individual competencies. It is possible to distinguish these by the concepts of core competencies and workplace competencies. In general, core competencies transcend any particular product or service or even any single business unit within the organization. Workplace competencies focus on job position versus enterprise endeavors. This distinction is critical, as workplace competencies are the key to a good Competency Based (CB) Human Capital Management (HCM) system.

Having defined competencies, the next step is to gain understanding about how external or organizational competency frameworks and the concept of metacompetencies might affect the military’s application of CB HCM. Competency frameworks establish organizational-wide competencies that leadership expects specific individuals or all employees to possess, which in turn relates to individual competencies required for successful completion of a position’s tasks. First, we will explore how a particular competency framework is established and then we will review metacompetencies.

There are at least three approaches for competency framework construction to review: research-based, strategy-based, and values-based. A study conducted by Briscoe and Hall in 1999 analyzed 31 leading North American organizations with strong involvement in executive development efforts.1

A research-based competency framework relies primarily on two basic approaches; “Behavioral Event Interviewing’ (BEI)” and “interviews or surveys with executives or human resource professionals on the executive skills critical to their current performance.” Briscoe and Hall noted that 12 of the 31 companies in their study used this approach. BEI involves interviewing selected executives because of their top performance. These executives describe ‘critical incidents’ that exemplify the keys to their success.

The strategy-based approach sets competencies for the organization based on the future needs of the organization, not past competencies. These strategic level competencies allow for rapidly changing environments including technological fields. Nine organizations in the study directly used the strategy-based approach and several others gained some indirect benefit as well.

The values-based approach applies “idiosyncratic, normative, or cultural values to construct competencies.” Using this definition, Briscoe and Hall discussed the possibilities of using formal or informal values to construct the competencies needed. Their method included asking the senior executives to write specific desired requirements in order to use the exact language in competency formulation. This approach allowed the executives creating the competencies to buy-in to them completely. There were 4 of 31 companies that used this technique directly and at least 5 more out of the 31 that partially used this technique.

The final recommendation of the Briscoe and Hall, derived after reviewing the advantages and limitations of each approach, is to focus on “continuous learning.” For the military, this recommendation fit generally with the life-cycle personnel model in use. Education and training are key components to a sailor’s growth in rank and responsibility. The following excerpt outlines how to put continuous learning into practice, including the introduction of a metacompetency concept as essential to successfully achieve the desired results.

Hall has proposed the concept of a metacompetency – a competency that is so powerful that it affects the person’s ability to acquire other competencies. …Hall has proposed that two key metacompetencies related to career development are identity and adaptability. If a person has adaptability, he or she is able to identify for himself or herself those qualities that are critical for future performance and is also able to make personal changes necessary to meet these needs. But adaptability alone is not enough. The person also has to change his or her awareness of self, so that he or she internalizes and values that change. Thus, the second metacompetency is identity: the ability to gather self-related feedback, to form accurate self-perceptions, and to change one’s self-concept as appropriate. …With adaptability and identity change, the person has learned how to learn.2

Adaptability and identity change metacompetencies form the basis of continuous learning, resulting in the foundation of what are called learning organizations today. Therefore, metacompetencies are part of a legitimate approach to solve the issue of creating the most successful HCMS possible. Metacompetencies will drive individual competencies. In order to manage each individual to the benefit of an organization, HCM leaders must break metacompetencies into individual competencies for measurement, utilization, promotion and assignment.”



  1. Briscoe, Jon P., Hall, Douglas T.; “Grooming and Picking Leaders Using Competency Frameworks: Do They Work?, An Alternative Approach and New Guidelines for Practice,” Organizational Dynamics, Autumn 1999, 38.
  2. Ibid, 48, 49
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