Competency Based TM

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Competency-Based Talent Management
Domain Expert: Douglas W. Crisman, Vice President, Competencies, Salary.com, Inc.
Bottom Line
Subjects

October 2008

Companies that adopt competency-based talent management retain valuable employees, drive efficiencies
and organizational effectiveness, and build a storehouse of information about every job function.
Competencies, talent management

Companies Are Realizing that Talent Management Is Mission Critical
Globalization is an unstoppable force. But the daily headlines usually focus on how it is
affecting trade or manufacturing. Rarely does one read about the impact globalization is
having on talent management or how it affects a company’s ability to develop and retain
employees outside the borders of the home country.
Indeed, one might think that the mere fact that a company is global would translate into
plentiful employee growth opportunities. But, rarely are these new career paths really
understood. Although there may be more opportunities in larger companies, that doesn’t
necessarily mean there is a common understanding of career paths or the competencies an
employee needs to master to navigate a career path.
Talent management has increasingly become strategically important, but due to corporate
financial and competitive issues not always urgent. Often there’s not enough time or a
company hasn’t had the process, technology or data to make it practical.
But now companies around the globe are realizing talent management is critical to their
survival and long term success.
In response, suppliers with new technologies, expertise and competency data have created
solutions to assist. Companies that adopt global talent management will drive efficiencies and
organizational effectiveness and retain their most valued employees.

What’s the Role of Competency Data and what’s the Best Process?
In this article, we’ll focus on the importance of competencies—especially functional
competencies (i.e. the technical skills required for success in a particular job), and a step by
step review of a proven implementation process.
In order to manage talent, we must start by defining what skills, knowledge and abilities your
staff members need to succeed. This is best done job by job. This is what competencies are all
about and why every major talent management system includes a provision for competency
data.

© Copyright 2008. Salary.com. Inc. All Rights Reserved

Companies around the
globe are realizing talent
management is mission
critical.

The Salary.com jobcompetency model,
which we outline in this
article, uses a four-level
proficiency scale: Basic
understanding, working
experience, extensive
experience, and subject
matter depth and
breadth.

We suggest an
implementation
approach broken into
five phases: project
planning and definition,
model customization,
staff assessments,
results analysis and
actions, and
maintenance.

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Just what are competencies, and why are they so important? Competencies manifest themselves as behaviors. Good or not so
good, we see our staff member’s skills, knowledge and abilities on display every day.
Each Salary.com competency description includes a set of behavioral descriptors (or anchors) that are used to assess the
proficiency level an incumbent can demonstrate in a particular competency. The Salary.com job-competency model, which we
outline in this article, uses a four-level proficiency scale, each with four to six behavioral descriptors unique to each of the four
proficiency levels. However, other scales can also be used, but four and sometimes five are the most common. See a sample of
proficiency levels for a functional competency below. Also shown are the “Learning References” for this competency – a unique
feature of Salary.com competency models.

Sample Functional Competency Proficiency Levels

© Copyright 2008. Salary.com. Inc. All Rights Reserved

2

In addition to functional competencies, the Salary.com Job-Competency Models include business, individual and management
competencies, which we define as follows:

Business Competencies

Knowledge, skills and abilities that result in behaviors that affect the
conduct of the organization's business activities

Individual Competencies

Knowledge, skills and abilities that result in an individual's personal
effectiveness and effective interactions with others

Management Competencies

Knowledge, skills and abilities that result in the effective supervision or
management of people

Moreover, there are “core competencies”, which also come in a few flavors:

Core Management

Applies to all managers regardless of function or department. Examples
are ”Team Management” or “Performance Management”

Core Functional

Applies to all jobs in a function or department. An example for the IT
function is “IT Standards, Policies and Procedures

Just Plain Core

Applies to all jobs in the company. One example might be “Business
Ethics”

The Keys to Implementing Competencies
How can a company implement competencies to support a talent management program? A strong, well-designed management
process lays out a path to success. It will ensure the implementation moves along rapidly and helps avoid the pitfalls that can
derail such an important project. We recommend a well-documented methodology that outlines flexible, repeatable processes,
and accounts for multiple approaches based on the needed outcomes.
Therefore, we suggest an approach broken into five phases:

© Copyright 2008. Salary.com. Inc. All Rights Reserved

3

Phase One: Project Planning and Definition

In this phase, companies must determine the project scope and objectives. This may seem simple, and in some cases it may be.
But it is absolutely critical to nail this step. If the scope and objectives are not agreed upon (and actually achievable), there is little
chance of success. Part of this step necessitates developing a project plan and an internal communications strategy.
In addition, a company must take the time in this step to determine project team roles and responsibilities and ensure executive
level commitment and visible support. Finally, a company should evaluate and select available talent management software. We
also of course highly recommend the acquisition of an off-the-shelf competency model to jump start the process.
Phase Two: Model Customization

Any off-the-shelf competency model needs to be customized to reflect the unique needs of your organization. So the project
teams and subject matter experts must work to select competencies from the model that are critical to the success of the
organization.
The best approach is top-down. A bottoms-up approach usually results in too many competencies that are hard to manage and
end up being meaningless. Moreover, it can require too much customization.
To address this concern, often a steering group is assembled to identify the core competencies the company needs. Then,
managers and individual contributors are led through a process to help them quickly and efficiently select the competencies for
each job and assign proficiency level standards. Salary.com job-competency models come with preset standards developed over
the years by working with client companies.
The typical definitions for a four level proficiency schema are as follows:


Level One, Basic Understanding: This implies a cognitive grasp of the competency in question (i.e., an intellectual or
academic understanding of it). It specifically does not imply an ability or requirement for hands-on use of the competency.
Therefore, proficiency descriptors at this level are not necessarily observably behavioral in their wording.



Level Two, Working Experience: This implies hands-on use of the competency, but to a limited degree—that is, within
one's own unit, on a single platform or environment, in a simple process or application.



Level Three, Extensive Experience: This implies full mastery of the competency, the ability to use it in multiple platforms or
heterogeneous environments, on complex applications, etc., or a track record of having done so.



Level Four, Subject Matter Depth and Breadth: This implies expert status in the competency—guru status, if you will. The
distinguishing notes here are recognition as a go-to expert inside the organization—a person who monitors the industry,
profession or specialty so as to ensure one's organization stays reasonably current with regard to new developments, trends
and best practices—including the regulatory environment or a person who discusses and addresses issues relative to the
competency with senior management. For technical competencies, this identifies a person who reinterprets the meaning or
applicability of the competency from an organization’s business perspective. Few individuals in an organization need to
achieve Level Four in a given competency to fully meet the requirements of their job.

Phase Three: Staff Assessments

This step focuses on the collection of information on the competencies and proficiency levels of the selected competencies of the
employees. This is usually accomplished by providing the employee group access to the competencies critical for success in their

© Copyright 2008. Salary.com. Inc. All Rights Reserved

4

jobs. The proficiency descriptors provide an objective basis for
assessment. The employee can self-assess and/or do multiassessment, which enables managers and HR professionals to
weigh in.
During this process, employees are able to ascertain their proficiency
in the skills required for that position. Gaps between their
assessment and the preset proficiency standards will indicate what if
any development they would need to pursue to acquire the skill level
required for that position. The overall process is usually
facilitated by an HR professional or project manager. However, selfassessment has become a higher priority so that, to varying degrees,
employees can direct their own career development.
Although the entire process starts as a top-down exercise, it’s in this
step that an employee is afforded an unparalleled opportunity to
communicate with their manager regarding their own development. It
is in this step that employees’ voices are heard and they are
empowered to address their own development. The results are
integrated into a talent management system to assist management in
providing career coaching, training, and development resources.
Phase Four: Results Analysis and Actions

By the fourth step, all the information has been collected.
Now it’s time to focus on analyzing individual and aggregate data.
This analysis will reveal critical skill gaps and strengths for
individuals, teams, departments, countries and/or the enterprise.
In addition, this step affords a company the opportunity to design
implementation strategies for closing the gaps and exploiting the
strengths.
Phase Five: Maintenance

This is a process without an end—a race without a finish line, as it
were. Accordingly, the competency model is never completed. It
continues for as long as the information is needed in the

Unisys Turns to Strategically Driven
Competencies
Ettie McCormack—who heads up talent
development projects for Unisys, the global
information technology consulting and
services company—had a challenge.
“Over the years, a library of about 12,000
competencies had sprouted, which—even for
a company of 31,000, was hard to manage,”
says McCormack. She knew she had to focus
on fewer, more relevant competencies; in the
process, she wanted to classify competencies
and skills in logical and helpful ways. Added
McCormack: “My goal was to provide a clear
and consistent model, resources and process
for managing competencies and development
in an integrated way.”
Using the Salary.com approach, she placed
competencies at the center of her company’s
talent management efforts. She engaged with
business experts and stakeholders to reduce
the Unisys competency library from 12,000 to
a much more manageable 1,200. In the
process, she’s ensured that employee
competencies are strategically driven,
relevant and a priority to the business.
“With the new competencies in place, we’ve
improved resource deployment effectiveness
because we have more reliable information on
employee competencies and readiness to take
on project assignments,” says McCormack.
“We’ve been able to establish expectations
and standards for competency excellence.”
The result? A systematic approach to
professional development, improved job
satisfaction and better employee retention.

organization. As an organization changes, the model will need to be
updated to accommodate new products, technologies and processes.
This stage focuses on the upkeep of the competency data, jobs,
profiles, learning resources, assessments and systems.

© Copyright 2008. Salary.com. Inc. All Rights Reserved

5

What Are the Challenges?
Like any company-wide project, a global competency effort is not without its challenges. But each one is easy to overcome if
they’re integrated into the project plan from day one.
For example:

Bottom-Up Design

Building the model by soliciting input from lower-level technical or operational staff is
likely to produce a huge number of competencies. Such an approach reflects the
knowledge that exists rather than competencies that are critical to success.

Momentum and Timing

Other priorities often interfere with the initial competency management
implementation. Or, the champion moves on. Make sure that key stakeholders see the
potential value and help you keep going.

Weak Governance of the
Architecture

To have a solid foundation and to create a common language, all areas of the
organization need to adhere to specific formats for jobs, competencies, learning
references and their interrelationships.

Lack of Ongoing Resources

Organizations change continuously; new jobs are created, jobs are consolidated, new
products, technologies, disciplines and tools are introduced. People change jobs,
people leave and new people join the organization. Incumbents learn and increase
their proficiency levels. All these changes need to be monitored and reflected in the
competency database.

Underestimated Time and Cost

To be truly effective, a competency initiative needs input and involvement from top
executives, selected line managers and successful performers. The competency
system itself needs to “talk to” other systems and remain up to date. All of that requires
time and effort—something that’s often overlooked in the initial budgeting process.

© Copyright 2008. Salary.com. Inc. All Rights Reserved

6

Takeaways


Keep the objectives in mind. Don’t stray from your original project plan and definition without understanding the
consequences and resetting the plan.



Deal with organizational issues head-on. The development process can be an opportunity to clean up jobs, increase
employee morale, and reduce turnover. Use the model customization process to build cross-organizational teams.



Solicit input from successful incumbents. High performers are a storehouse of information. What distinguishes them?
Learn from the best.



Use a phased, release-based approach. Don’t try to do everything at once. Go department by department, division by
division.



Keep sponsor and execs informed and involved. Establish timeframes and roadmaps then provide regular updates on
progress and successes.



Don’t expect 100% acceptance. The entire company won’t accept the new approach right off the bat. But don’t let that
discourage you. Communicate your successes and make employees a part of that communication.

TalentManager®
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Learn more
To learn more about TalentManager or to schedule an online demonstration, visit tmdemo.salary.com
To speak with a product specialist:
Phone: 1-866-601-DEMO l Email: [email protected]

© Copyright 2008. Salary.com. Inc. All Rights Reserved

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