What is a Competency Framework and Why does Everybody Suddenly Want One?

Let’s begin with a full confession:  we are in the competency business, and yet recently found ourselves asking each other: “do you know what people actually mean by ‘competency framework’?”  “Competency frameworks” have become ubiquitous, and Volta Learning Group is frequently asked to develop them, especially for emerging or evolving industries. This is work we do routinely — and successfully.  Yet it has recently become obvious that the concept is itself evolving and that organizations have vastly different ideas about what it is, what should be included — and what its purpose is.

It’s worth thinking about where the term “competency framework” came from.  It originated in HR as a key component of performance management. You specify the competencies that a specific job requires, and then you can determine whether an employee has them. That’s the theory, anyway.  But in practice, managers have sometimes found it challenging to use competency frameworks as a mechanism for evaluating performance. There are at least two issues.  One is the problem of determining the appropriate level: Is an employee “emerging,” “developing,” or “leading”? And even if you determine the right box to check, the language does not necessarily match expectations  — or the inevitable gap between human behavior and desired performance. Furthermore, the more prescriptive the framework, the less it is likely to fit actual humans and actual jobs. But the second — related — issue has to do with the competencies themselves:  are they intended to be descriptions of the minimum necessary to do the job or as aspirational statements of performance? This is a problem that still plagues us today and is one of the reasons people sometimes push back on the use of the word “competency” — it sounds somehow grudging, the lowest level of acceptable performance rather than full proficiency or mastery.

Despite these complications, the competency framework became widely used in industry, especially in the UK.  It has now spread globally — a natural corollary of the growing interest in competencies (a concept itself rooted in industry expectations).  In the US, at least, the competency framework is less likely to be linked to individual performance than to occupations and sets of occupations, often across sectors. The AICPA Pre-certification Core Competency Framework, for example, defines a set of skills-based competencies needed by all students entering the accounting profession, regardless of the career path they choose or the specific accounting services they will perform.  

Our work in corporate education and training has unearthed another use of competency frameworks.  Companies want to avoid learning “waste” or needless repetition. Many are going through rapid change and want to develop employees’ skills quickly, via “reskilling” or translating existing capabilities into similar new capabilities. They want to show employees a rational progression that is in sync with their overall business strategy and desired future talent needs.

Because of their granularity, competency frameworks have also enabled innovations such as microcredentials, which growing numbers of companies and professions use to measure the accretion of skills individually and collectively.  Microcredentials also allow the capture of “informal learning” that occurs through experience or on the job, away from classroom settings. Microcredentials (a term that sounds more serious than “badges,” which is also used) can provide needed connections between different courses and programs, helping to cut through disciplinary silos.  Whether they lie on top of larger credentials or as a component of them, microcredentials can provide a badly needed antidote to the all-or-nothing march to the four-year degree, which has helped create the “completion” or “success” crisis in higher education.

For some in postsecondary education, the competency framework has an even bigger job to do:  its purpose is no longer to evaluate, guide, or even capture individual performance, but rather to provide the structure for education and training. As Holly Zanville of the Lumina Foundation expressed the idea in her 2017 article “Competency Frameworks: Blueprints for Strong Learning Structures”: “Frameworks are tools used to establish clear and transparent learning outcomes for courses, programs, and credentials. Put another way, frameworks are the blueprints we use to make sure the foundations of all credentials are strong. However, not all credentials use blueprints or build from strong foundations. This shortcoming results in great variation in quality among credentials.”

In other words, the job of the competency framework is now to enable transparency — and in the process, to keep higher education honest. It is a noble and worthwhile goal.  But it is asking a lot from a blueprint. Of course, if competency frameworks can enable educators and employers to have badly needed, reality-based conversations about what learners need to know and be able to do — and what credentials would have the most value — that would be a great step forward.

But we think this does not completely explain why everybody suddenly wants a competency framework.  We think the answer lies in the changing nature of work itself.

In the face of an unpredictable and mercurial economy, the competency framework seems to offer a bulwark against chaos. The future of work is unknown and scary, despite all the ink that has been spilled describing it.  We want to believe that a rational journey of reskilling and upskilling through continuous learning — if properly delineated — will help people successfully make the transition to what lies beyond — not to mention the many transitions that will inevitably follow.  We naturally try to impose some order on the uncertainty.

This is not to denigrate the competency framework: we find both the concept itself and the process of developing them extremely useful, not least because the exercise requires stakeholders to move beyond “I know it when I see it.”  Furthermore, competency frameworks can also show the interrelatedness of different categories of skills and knowledge, which can highlight often-underappreciated “soft” skills. But like all such schemas, competency frameworks have their limits.  They are a means to an end, not the end itself. The end is not to develop competency frameworks, but rather competent people, capable of thriving even in the face of a shifting and uncertain future.   

 

By Kate Kazin and Kris Clerkin

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