Competencies and capability Part I: a working framework

DEBRR2It’s been a competency-packed fortnight (US localisation: that’s 14 days). The result: I plan to make this week competencies week on the blog.

We’ll be dealing with competencies as an abstract idea and as a practical tool. I’ll examine where competencies are being used effectively, and asking what the challenges around them are.

SFIA Conference 2007Let’s start with the SFIA Capability Management Conference 2007, which I chaired at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) in London last Thursday.

SFIA is a framework of 78 competencies for IT professionals. It’s been around for some 9 years, and is now pretty much the standard to describe IT skills in the UK. As I’ve noted before, SFIA is the result of collaborative industry effort (in both public and private sectors), with a lot of volunteer input.

The capacity audience of about 230 came to learn more about implementing SFIA in their own organisations. They were split 70/30 between IT and HR professionals, which tells you that the impetus for this comes from the line. In other words, deploying competency frameworks (or this one, at least) is done for direct operational impact, not because it seems like it might be a good idea.

The conference presentations are all available online, but here I want to pick out the two key themes repeated in most of the case studies: the benefits of implementing SFIA, and the difficulties in getting there.

Why use competencies?

Nobody implements a competency framework for its own sake. They do it to solve a problem. Here are some that the conference speakers had tackled:

  • to recognise abilities, release potential and optimise utilisation (Colin Tweddle, HMRC)
  • to ensure that people are in the right job, and have a plan to develop themselves within that role and beyond (Tony Freer, CGI Group)
  • to support assignment-based working, career development and to raise the level of employee engagement (Peter Leather, Norwich Union Life)
  • to produce job descriptions that reflect reality, make sense to IT professionals and fit a grading structure, and to do all this transparently and fairly (Ian Wathen, London Borough of Lambeth)

These are common themes among our clients at InfoBasis, and I should disclose that CGI Group and Norwich Union Life both work with InfoBasis. The point is this, though: the aims of deploying the competency framework were varied, but all revolved around the operational impact of understanding better what people can do. There is a strategic outcome to all this, too: by aggregating and collecting employee skills data you get a great view of organisational capability. That, however, is currently seen as a bonus to, not a driver behind, competency implementation.

Implementation hints and tips

Colin Tweddle has learnt some lessons implementing SFIA at HMRC. They are:

  • Have visible competency leads, with adequate support, who define what it means to be part of a particular competency family
  • De-personalise it. Critique roles and their fit, not individuals and their histories
  • Don’t make it any more complex than it absolutely has to be – start simple, start small
  • Embed in the familiar. Build into routine management practices from day one

Tony Freer of CGI Group, meanwhile, stressed a point that Colin also made, that executive buy-in is essential, in his concluding comments:

  • Do not under-estimate the change management that may be required
  • You need a statement of intent – clarity of direction for all
  • You need top-level sponsor
  • It will be difficult to show early ROI

These are common themes in any competency framework implementation. It’s worth noting that the use or deployment of any supporting technology is never the issue. It’s getting people’s involvement at all levels.

  • Executives need to be convinced of the value of competencies and to keep supporting initiatives after the initial push.
  • Managers need to be given the environment where they have the time to get involved, and a clear benefit for doing so
  • Employees need to know there’s something in it for them.

The crux of all this is that competency frameworks are clearly doing something useful for these organisations, which are effectively early adopters.

This was the sixth annual SFIA conference, and for the first time we had more potential speakers with good case studies than we could find speaking slots for. This illustrates that SFIA is building up steam, and I would argue that’s indicative of competency frameworks in general.

In fact, based on what I see at SFIA, and with InfoBasis customers, I predict that the implementation issues around SFIA, and around competency frameworks in general, will reduce in the near future, thanks to:

  • A growing body of shared experience and implementation ‘know-how’ by practitioners
  • Increased understanding by managers and executives of the benefits of competencies and their role in implementing them

That’s it for now on this one.

In Part II we look at learning and development and competency frameworks. How do they work together, and does everyone agree that’s a good idea?

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One response to “Competencies and capability Part I: a working framework

  1. Pingback: Competencies and capability Part II: what about Learning and Development? « Donald H Taylor

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