Let me begin with a question. Would you rather have employees with basic competence in your organization or ones with experience and even mastery of the knowledge and skills required in their roles? The only situation I can imagine where anyone would truly wish for basic competence would be if there was only incompetence currently. Hopefully, that’s not the situation in your organization. Even if that is the case, there is nowhere to go but up, so it is not all bad.
When I began training people many years ago, courses were split into Basic, Intermediate and Advanced levels. People were able to figure out which level applied to them based on the description of the items to be mastered. As work sped up and the time available for training decreased, corporate trainers began trying to cram as much into each course as possible and those breakdowns disappeared. As a result, people never reached mastery of the basic level material before they were expected to take on the intermediate knowledge and display even the advanced skills.
To learn complicated skills, people must be able to relate new knowledge to what has been mastered previously and then build on that knowledge. Even though documents are critical communication tools in legal, some were able to get by when things moved slower, and the standard for good documents was simply getting something to print correctly. However, as workflows became more complex, technology changed more frequently, and documents were exchanged electronically, their deficiencies became more apparent, and they got further and further behind. Only the very determined have kept up.
Along Came Core Competencies. Unfortunately, at a time when we should have been helping people to gain more real life practice and experience in order to get to mastery, along came “core competencies.” Corporate trainers and HR teams began rushing to establish “core competencies” several years ago, as this was the latest trend. Initially, I thought this showed promise because laying out the specific knowledge and skills for particular positions gives everyone a way to measure where they stand and a more objective level playing field. However, you cannot just lay out a list of competencies and leave it at that.
As I’ve done more research on motivation and engagement, I’ve learned that a mere list of competencies is actually de‑motivating to learners! They will simply perform to the lowest common denominator in order to achieve competence and not stretch themselves to try and achieve mastery. Think about it. If you will pay me for mere competence, why should I put forth the additional effort?
The other issue that I have with the core competency approach is that it generally involves assessing people at some point. Assessments are tricky with learners, and something I have never really been comfortable doing. Call it whatever you want to, but when people hear assessment, they interpret it as testing, which strikes fear into them and throws a pall over the entire learning environment. Research shows that challenge can be a beneficial and effective part of the learning process, so instead of assessments, trainers should be incorporating realistic practice and challenges into their instruction with meaningful consequences and feedback to get the learner back on track. I think that it is great to set a level of expertise for people to attain, but simply having a list of competencies does little to motivate people and assessments certainly do not.
Competencies Done Right. Because I did see promise in establishing standards, I set out to learn more about defining competencies to understand how they might be used in a positive way to motivate people to learn and work towards mastery. In talking with a trainer friend who has a solid background in establishing competencies, I learned of the company, Workitect, and how full competency models are actually constructed. Later at a local Association for Talent Development meeting, I listened to presenters from Dell who recently won an award for their competency program, which was a joint initiative between training and HR. As they described their process for defining competencies and the details of their competency models, it finally made sense to me.
First, they began by identifying the top performers in each role. They observed and talked to the top performers (and also their managers) to determine the areas of expertise and unique behaviors that exhibited mastery of their roles. They grouped those behaviors into a handful of the most important skills or competencies, ideally ten or fewer. These should include only those things that accurately predict high performance in a role. They then defined and split the behaviors into five proficiency levels from “no experience” up to “expert.”
Aha! Those were the two parts that had been missing for me previously: behaviors and levels. If there are not specific behaviors delineated for each competency that can be used by the employee, then how do they know they’re doing something the best way versus just getting it done? For example, I can manually create a table of contents in a document, but is that the most efficient and best way to do so? Clearly not. With defined levels, there could be improvement and mastery of a particular skill! Also, if you do not break behaviors into the different skill levels required in their roles, then you are telling people they simply need to be competent versus seeking out the higher level of mastery. Only by clearly defining behaviors and breaking them into levels will they be a useful tool for measurement and attainment by learners. You did say that you would want to have employees with experience and mastery as opposed to merely competent ones, right?
This provides a solid framework that can be used from pre-hire to promotion of someone into a new role. Also, by having this level of specificity, the team at Dell was able to differentiate roles that might have the same title, but slightly different requirements, such as junior and senior levels. A good example in a law firm would be litigation legal assistants who require different levels of expertise in some skills than those working in transactional practice areas or junior level paralegals versus senior ones.
Additionally, these competencies and the associated behavior levels were incorporated into self-assessments, and 360-degree feedback done inside Dell’s learning management system. In this way, employees were able to identify their current skill level, the required level for their position, and what their gap was. Learning was then presented to close the individual’s skill gaps. The assessments were driving the learning paths. Thus, employees see them as an ongoing development tool, a clear, objective way to demonstrate their mastery.
Improving Hiring. Despite my hesitance to use assessments within training, I feel that pre-hire is the perfect time to use them, as the assessment is not directly part of the learning process. People expect that their knowledge may be tested as part of the hiring process, and it is a very objective way to compare candidates. I’ll never forget an HR manager who told me delightedly that she had hired a top notch corporate legal assistant (with corresponding top pay). Imagine my surprise on the first morning of new hire training when my inquiry to the new assistant about her knowledge of Microsoft Word was met with the response that she had never used it. Her previous firm had been using WordPerfect. This was at a time when firms had been using Word as their primary word processor for several years. On the first break, I had to go explain to the HR manager that the new assistant’s training would take longer than our typical new hire training.
Despite lots of extra hand-holding, I was not terribly surprised when the poor woman did not last long at the firm. She was ill-equipped for the demands of the desk. Her basic knowledge was nowhere near the expert experience level required by a very demanding group of attorneys who had been using Word for years. With clearly defined levels of mastery for a position, it would have been easier to hire someone who could meet the challenges of the role.
If a new hire has most, but not all, of the skills for a position, then that sets up a development path as well. Additionally, by using pre-hire skills testing, then testing can be done after new hire training to determine how effective the training is and what additional areas a new hire needs to focus on during their first few months or year with the firm.
Getting to Expert. In my last post, I floated the idea of three different levels of development for critical skills – Basic, Experienced, and Expert. I’d like for you to take a look at the definitions of those terms, as well as competence and mastery, below and think about how they relate to real world work situations and building training to help people acquire new knowledge and skills.
of, relating to, or forming a base; fundamental
Synonyms: Elementary, essential, key, primary
The quality of being competent; adequacy; possession of required skill, knowledge, qualification, or capacity
Synonyms: Capability, capacity, know-how
1 – the process or fact of personally observing, encountering, or undergoing of things as they occur in the course of time
2 – knowledge or practical wisdom gained from what one has observed, encountered, or undergone
Synonyms: Encounter, know; undergo refers to encountering situations, conditions, etc., in life
1 – command or grasp, as of a subject
2 – expert skill or knowledge
Synonyms: Comprehension, genius, dexterity, finesse
1 – a person who has special skill or knowledge in some particular field; specialist; authority
2 – possessing special skill or knowledge; trained by practice; skillful or skilled
Synonyms: Connoisseur, master, experienced, proficient
I see competency as falling somewhere between Basic and Experienced. It’s like the old adage “just enough knowledge to be dangerous.” The differentiator between that level and Expert is real-life practice and the wisdom gained from it. The more experience and different situations encountered, the more likely someone is to reach the expert level of mastery. To get beyond basic competency, let’s focus our HR initiatives on defining what standards we want people to strive to reach by observing the top performers in their roles. Then, let’s focus our learning initiatives on providing enough real life practice and challenges with consequences and meaningful feedback to help people get from Basic to Expert.
This post was previously published on LinkedIn here.