Competencies and capability Part II: what about Learning and Development?

I talked yesterday about SFIA, an competency framework which has been building up value over the past 9 years. None of the organisations I mentioned as implementing SFIA were driven by a need to improve Learning and Development (L&D). Rather, more effective training and clearer development paths were seen as one of the outcomes of using competency frameworks.

Not all Learning and Development professionals agree, though, that using competencies will lead to these conclusions.

Two weeks ago, I presented online for CLTI 2007 on capability management and competencies.

The gist of my talk was that learning and development needs a common language of skills to ensure L&D links to business imperatives.

In response, Tony Karrer flagged up former IBMer Tony O’Driscoll’s recent comments on competencies. Tony O’Driscoll is a great thinker in the learning technologies space, and a mine of information on virtual worlds in particular. He describes what he calls the ‘traditional competency model’ and is pretty unrelenting in damning it:

The current competency model approach we apply as a matter of course within our profession is clearly not focused on, or couched in, an opportunistic light. Instead, it is more about “lets figure out what you suck at and make you work at that till you get at least average at it.” How will this approach drive insight and growth for both the worker and the enterprise?

And, of course, he’s right.  Expressed like that, nobody is going to buy into competencies, and sadly, it’s too often the way learning and development are coupled to competency. Instead (as I suggested yesterday) employees (and others) have to be enthusiastically engaged in competencies from the outset for success.

The key point that Tony makes against competencies is that they just can’t keep up:

the skills that we have gaps on are … swapping in and out all the time. Hence, the overhead associated with keeping competency models current (and more importantly getting people to assess themselves against them) is increasingly challenging.

In other words, in a world of rapid change, the cost of maintaining a competency model outweighs its potential advantages. I have some sympathy with this view, but experience shows it can be tackled by:

  • Using a third-party competency framework (ideally one that you can have some say in updating). This spreads the maintenance workload and ensures breadth of coverage.
  • Truly dealing with competencies, rather than detailed tasks or technologies, which change far faster than competencies.
  • Associating a realistic number of competencies with each job role, and updating them frequently, when appropriate, rather than waiting for change to build up.

Taken together, these three steps allow organisations from Microsoft to BAE Systems to reap a number of benefits from using competencies, including effective delivery of formal Learning and Development interventions.

However, much of the rest of Tony’s piece is spot-on in terms of the need to produce a self-aware, self-sustaining group (call it a profession, or practice, if you will), that relentlessly drives effective learning for its members. I don’t see a dichotomy here. It’s possible to have networked, self-motivated learners who also share a common language of skills. In fact much of what Tony suggests is being practiced in this context at places such as Norwich Union Life.

Norwich Union (the UK’s largest insurer), helped by IBM, have put in place seven ‘practices’ for its professional IT staff (see case study), and uses SFIA. InfoBasis supplied the software to handle the competencies piece, but this story goes well beyond competencies, to an innovative way of structuring the professional identity, development and deployment of a group of several hundred IT professionals.

Ray Sims‘ reflections on my CLTI presentation drew on his own experience in having them imposed on him, saying that there is a risk with framework:

with the attempt to be comprehensive and specific, the framework grows within a company to such a size and sophistication that it then collapses under its own weight to become shelf-ware. 

That’s absolutely possible, and I’ve seen it happen. The trick is to use competencies to the point where they are useful, but keep them under control. This is again where using an external framework can be so useful, it prevents detail-obsessives running away with the deployment.

In fact, I fear that L&D professionals may fall into this trap. There are enough organisations using competencies now to convince me that they are a useful enabler for many things, including effective learning and development. The risk is that L&D allows itself to get carried away with the detail, and doesn’t work to the big picture. The result is likely to be that others – probably from operations – will get involved, leaving L&D sidelined as a minor fulfillment arm, rather than where it should be: a driver in helping people and organisations develop.


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