20 Competency Modeling Best Practices

Posted March 23 2014

By Jim Graber, PhD


We’ve previously made the business case for competencies and competency modeling, and we have written and advised extensively about different types and many aspects of competency modeling in this beginning series of blogs. Now, in one place, we want to consolidate some of the best practices, considering our experience as well as the views of other experienced practitioners.


One of the best reviews on competency modeling is Doing Competencies Well: Best Practices In Competency Modeling, PERSONNEL PSYCHOLOGY, 2011, 64, 225–262, written by Michael Campion et al.

Seventeeth entry in a seventeen part introductory series on competency management:
  1. Why does the world need a competency toolkit?
  2. What’s a competency? How do they differ from KSA’s? 
  3. What are the main types of competencies?
  4. What is integrated talent management, and how do competencies relate?
  5. What’s the business case for competencies?
  6. Why are behavioral indicators so important?
  7. How are behavioral indicators created?
  8. What’s competency modeling?
  9. How does a competency model fit within a job description or job profile?
  10. Different approaches to competency modeling
  11. Principles of competency modeling
  12. Job role competency modeling
  13. Job family competency modeling
  14. Decisions to be made before a competency modeling project
  15. Organization core competency models
  16. Preparations for a Competency Modeling Project
  17. 20 Competency Modeling Best Practices


Competency Modeling is Different Than Other Types of Job Analysis


Campion and his team have identified some differences between competency modeling and job analysis that we have previously mentioned (our comments are in red):


  • Competency models often attempt to distinguish top performers from average performers. The focus on people, not the job, and on excellence, is key to identifying important non-technical competencies as well as competencies with significant impact.
  • Usually, a finite number of competencies are identified and applied across multiple functions or job families. This is best accomplished by using a shared competency library. Further the overlap of competencies between jobs is needed to build logical career paths.
  • Competency models are frequently used actively to align the HR systems. This is one of their greatest strengths; selection, training, performance management, development and succession all work from the same palette.
  • Competency models are often an organizational development intervention that seeks broad organizational change as opposed to a simple data collection effort. They truly can fundamentally change how business is done in an organization. Despite the extensive work required by a comprehensive competency modeling effort, we have witnessed far more excitement about competency modeling than typical job analysis efforts. In this same vein, according to Campion, “Executives typically pay more attention to competency modeling.”



best-practicesTwenty Best Practices in Competency Modeling


The 20 best practices identified by Campion and his co-authors follow next, along with brief comments.


Analyzing Competency Information (Identifying Competencies)

1. Consider organizational context
2. Link competency models to organizational goals and objectives
3. Start at the top
4. Use rigorous job analysis methods to develop competencies
5. Consider future-oriented job requirements
6. Using additional unique methods


We are in agreement with the first 6 practices, perhaps with the exception of #3. As long as sufficient top level support is built, then we believe the organization should consider factors like what parts of the organization are anxious to begin, which can be champions, and which are likely to be “friendly” while competency modeling practices and competence are initially being honed.



Organizing and Presenting Competency Information


7. Define the anatomy of a competency (the language of competencies)
8. Define levels of proficiency on competencies
9. Use organizational language
10. Include both fundamental (cross-job) and technical (job-specific) competencies
11. Use competency libraries
12. Achieve the proper level of granularity (number of competencies and amount of detail)
13. Use diagrams, pictures, and heuristics to communicate competency models to employees


Recommendations 7-13 also gibe with our experience. However, for #8, we are in favor of building levels of proficiency through use of a rating scale, not through the identification of different behavioral indicators per level as is typically done. Doing a sound job of scaling the behaviors into different levels is a difficult task that has plagued even trained, psychometrically sophisticated organization psychologists for many years.



Using Competency Information

14. Use organizational development techniques to ensure competency modeling acceptance and use
15. Use competencies to develop HR’s systems (hiring, appraisal, promotion, compensation)
16. Use competencies to align HR systems
17. Use competencies to develop a practical “theory” of effective job performance for the organization
18. Use information technology to enhance the usability of competency models
19. Maintain the currency of competencies over time
20. Use competency modeling for legal defensibility (e.g., test validation)


The last set of recommendations, 14-20, strikes us the most important of the whole list. A competency modeling effort can easily survive less than ideal methodology, but these recommendations are critical for ensuring that competencies have high impact and value, and that their implementation is important.
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