Lee Iverson is the CTO at TeamFit platform – view his profile on TeamFit.



Competency models are designed to describe what is required to perform a particular job or role within an organization. HR departments often take great care to define these competency models and track the match between employees and these competencies. Strangely, at least for many who work in HR, people don’t identify with these models and tend to view the work around understanding them and evaluating them as a waste of time.

A lot of this disconnect comes from the way competency models are defined, the role they play in an organization and the disconnect between the goals of the organization and the individual employees. To get an idea of this, let’s start by looking at a couple of what a typical competency model for a global company with a multi-level competency model within its marketing teams:

Brand Strategy: Basic Level
• Has a fundamental understanding of brand strategy concepts to support the Brand Team in the development and implementation of the brand strategy and related strategic plans
• Understands and applies basics of market and customer segmentation and targeting to one’s assigned brand(s)

So, we have here a competency (Brand Strategy), a competency level (Basic) and a sample of some of the behaviours associated with that competency (there are more in the full model). These behaviours should align with the company goals and practices and represent easily observable traits of any employee wishing to be recognized as competent in Brand Strategy. It is thus easy for a manager or HR professional to assess whether that individual demonstrates those behaviours and thus can be recognized as having the competency. When a careful mapping is done between these competencies and job or project roles, the company has a straightforward way of determining whether any employee fits their current role well or may be suited for advancement or a different role within the company.

That’s the key phrase “within the company”. These competency models are necessarily situated within a set of company roles, practices and knowledge – note the references to very particular company-specific terms “the Brand Team”, “the brand strategy”, and even to “one’s assigned brands.” These behaviours are observable and relevant, but not transferable. They are defined and only understandable in the context of the organization, it’s existing practices, strategies and structures. This is a big part of the reason that restructuring a department almost always involves a complete redrafting of the competency models of its new roles and responsibilities – a cumbersome and costly process. It is not unusual for companies with large investments in competency modelling to have to wait years after a restructuring for new competency models to be drafted, approved and put into place.

So where does the employee come in? They are supposed to be able to see their role in the organization, how their behaviours support their current role and be able to plan a for advancement or different roles by developing and demonstrating behaviours that suit those new roles. In many cases, that is completely unrealistic since the behaviours that suit a different or more advanced role can never be shown within their current working context since they are not required. But the really fatal flaw from an employee’s viewpoint is that these particular behaviours and their associated competencies are totally non-transferable to a position outside the company. These models work for an employee only when it is assumed that a career happens entirely within the same company. And when bringing in new hires, it can be largely a guess whether they have the foundation for a particular role.

The alternative is a foundation built on transferable skills that can be demonstrated and evaluated in context but that generalize to other situations. At the core of “understands and applies basics of market and customer segmentation and targeting to one’s assigned brand(s)” are the skills “market segmentation”, “customer segmentation” and “customer targeting” as well as knowledge of a specific set of brands. Moreover, these transferable skills can act as bridges between behaviours in completely different competencies and roles so that one could use skill profiles to find competencies and roles that employees or new hires are ready for.

Critically, there is no need to abandon competency models to make this transition. One need only map the component behaviours of a competency onto a set of these transferable skills. Endorsement of a behaviour endorses its component skills, and the employee and managers see not only their fitness for their current role but the personal skill gaps for other roles or competency levels. And an employee profile consisting of a well-demonstrated set of transferable skills is immensely useful to any employee with a practical view of their career either inside or outside the company.