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The US Federal Government has become a leader in defining and organizing skill sets into positions and career roadmaps. Yet the struggle to design jobs that really align to organizational missions continues to be the subject of Human Capital analysis. To really understand the challenge, its important to know what is in a model and what you usually won’t find there.

What is a profession?

Occupations grow into professions when their policies and ethics are codified into a common standard by professional societies or associations. For example, as a corporate function, Human Resources had a humble beginning in the 19th century when “welfare officers” watched over women in the workplace to protect them from exploitation. In the next century, the title “personnel management” arose to track employees’ records. The first Human Resources professional association was the American Society for Personnel Administration (ASPA), which was founded in 1948. This early society evolved into the Society for Human Resource Management, which lists its purpose as to elevate the Human Resources profession and its mission to empower people and workplaces by advancing Human Resources practices and by maximizing human potential.

Human Resources have shown a steady elevation of importance to employers as industry environments have evolved to the modern workplace. Today, Strategic Human Capital (HC) heightens human resource management through the development of systematic frameworks that standardize and demystify professions. One such framework is the competency model, which has become a central tenant of Strategic HC.

What is a competency model?

As membership organizations are founded, their governance seeks to define industry expertise as a collection of demonstratable knowledge and skills called competencies. Competencies are a related set of attributes that establish the ability to perform a job function. A competency model gathers together the components that a person who performs that job function must have to demonstrate mastery. These models have become the basis of career road maps, compensation bands, and industry strategic plans.

The Federal Government is another frequent author of competency models. Perhaps the most well-known models have been developed by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) as part of their Handbook of Occupational Groups and Families. OPM models generally encompass two types of competencies: behavioral and technical. OPM’s competency models tend to lean more toward behavior or soft skills, such as the ability to work well in a team, whereas professional associations lean more toward “hard” or technical skills, such as the ability to develop an analogous estimate.

What should a competency model look like?

There is no single standardized graphic structure to use in presenting a competency model. They are shown as a simple list of attributes or a more detailed hierarchal structure. The best competency models show skills that escalate in complexity and responsibility as they ascend from intern to journeyman to expert level.

What is missing?

If the purpose of a competency model is to define and sequence all of the skills it takes to master a profession, then most competency models tell only half the story. There are usually a mix of behavioral and technical skills grouped at levels, but what is missing is proof points. The listed competencies are usually completely subjective. How can you tell whether a person “exhibits emotional intelligence in interpersonal relationships”? Even for technical skills, it is hard to find the criteria for success. If a person “demonstrates the ability to write a project plan,” does this mean that any document titled, “project plan” fulfills that criteria?

Models that are created by some professional associations are closer to the ideal. For example, the Project Management Institute (PMI) publishes a model that is available for members at https://www.pmi.org/pmbok-guide-standards/framework/pm-competency-development-2nd-edition.

Within the many attributes and activities, PMI describes “Project Scope Management” as the ability to perform these processes: Plan Scope Management, Collect Requirements, Define Scope, Create the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS), Validate Scope, and Control Scope. That is a much more definitive description than most. A person who is not very familiar with PMI’s famous Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) may not know how PMI defines “Control Scope.” The user can go to the PMBOK and find the characteristics of a “Control Scope” process and complete the equation. Stating that the criterion for success is conformity to a standard is a valid and objective performance measure.

Most professional organizations have at least a list of attributes for the profession, but few add the success factors by which to objectively judge the existence of and the level of mastery. So, using the industry model is still insufficient to definitively choose the candidate with the most potential, to manage employee performance, or to base a targeted training program. Unless there is a body of knowledge or a standard, organizations that are serious about workforce planning, knowledge management, career mapping, and succession planning will have to work to create quantifiers for success.

Assessment tools that are in use by private and public sector organizations help list attributes and prioritize importance through surveying practitioners. A good next step can be found in a standard instructional systems design technique called the Mager three-part objective. This style of objective forces inclusion of relevant conditions, an action, and criteria for success. A competency model may name “problem-solving skills” as a managerial attribute. The following objective gives a much clearer picture for choosing the manager with the most business acumen for problem-solving: Given a description of a business problem to solve and appropriate constraints, the consultant will be able to identify the root cause of the problem and provide three alternative solutions that include each solution’s strengths and weaknesses, so that a recommendation is made to the customer that provides a viable solution.

Why so much detail?

Writing an objective for every competency might seem to generate a lot of unnecessary work when it is possible to rely on the opinions of the organization’s senior representatives in the competency. It is actually very hard to come up with the success factors on the spot. Different experts may provide alternative performance indicators so that everyone who is assessed is not fairly judged by the same criteria. Without the necessary specificity, career road maps and succession plans may not offer the same fair chance to all candidates.

What is the solution?

Organizations can choose an existing model as a starting point and have their experts expand and prioritize factors that are customized to their culture and mission. They can document an objective criterion for success by thoroughly searching the industry literature, surveying experts, conducting a series of facilitated focus groups, or using some combination of research and inquiry. A model constructed with this rigor will inform resulting job descriptions, career road maps, performance evaluations, human development plans, and will help advance the industry.

In response to the Program Management Improvement Accountability Act (PMIAA), the U.S. Federal Government is about to embark on this work to codify the profession for employees. PMIAA is driving a substantial and incredibly valuable program with far-reaching effects in federal workplace governance and in raising the probability and the accountability for proven success in federal program missions. It will be interesting to watch the Program Management model evolve and hopefully demonstrate a truly useful prototype for other industries to emulate.

About the author

Theresa Falance

Theresa Falance

Theresa Falance is a human capital subject matter expert at Fors Marsh Group, a research and strategy company in Arlington, Virginia. She has more than 30 years of developing and implementing workforce planning, human development, and performance improvement strategies through systematically strengthening competencies, refining procedures, and rewarding quality. For the past 20 years she has consulted to federal government agencies as a specialist in human capital strategy, organizational development, and performance improvement. Falance employs industry best practices to develop customized solutions to complex problems, taking guidance from instructional design theory, Lean Six Sigma, and project management science. She has served as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University for usability and at George Mason University in the instructional design department.

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