Competency Assessments Provide as Many Gains for Individuals as Organizations
By Selena Rezvani
Competency assessment has long demonstrated value to HR departments in areas such as recruitment and selection, performance management, employee development, succession planning, and organizational change. As a consequence, the majority of leaders in organizations focus on organizational gains rather than the individual benefits of competency assessments. But competency assessment is more than just an organizational tool. It has benefits for individual employee development, as well.
What is Competency Assessment?
Competency assessment allows an organization to identify the professional and personal characteristics needed for high performance in a given job role. A "skill inventory" for an organization's workforce, competency assessment helps leaders identify desired behaviors and compare them to actual behaviors exhibited on the job. Effective competency assessment encompasses a holistic approach to employee performance, including the measurement of knowledge, skills, abilities, behaviors, and values (see Figure 1). These components are often confused with one another, but it is important to understand and assess each distinct component to get the most complete picture of an individual.
Figure 1: Components of Competency
While knowledge represents the retrievable set of facts, concepts, language, and procedures needed for a job, skill is the acquired talent needed to perform tasks in a job (Brannick, Levine, & Morgeson, 2007). Abilities are defined as innate aptitudes that individuals are able to carry out, while behavior is exhibited in outward expression, and constitutes the actions or reactions of a person on the job. Finally, values inform a person's behavior and can be described as a person's key beliefs.
Competency assessment, along with other workplace strategies that encourage employee-centered assessment and development, have a strengths-based philosophy at their core. This philosophy emphasizes individual assets, growth, and a focus on the future. Strengths-based initiatives such as competency assessment foster employee empowerment and ownership over one's career, factors that can lift overall organizational engagement and performance.
Competency Assessment Pays Individual Dividends
The five areas outlined below represent the most valuable benefits individuals can derive from using competency assessment. Career practitioners can help employees make the most of the competency assessment process by coaching them in each of these areas.
1) Identifying Individual Strengths and Weaknesses
Perhaps the most simple, and yet the most powerful benefit individuals can derive from competency assessment is a realistic appraisal of their strengths and weaknesses. Many professionals are overscheduled; and, as a result, opportunities to reflect on one's work responsibilities and performance are rare. Competency assessment allows individuals to formally take stock of their areas of strength and areas for development. What's more, if used regularly, assessments help individuals to measure their progress and skill growth over time.
2) Providing Evidence for Needed Developmental Activities
With many companies cutting professional development budgets, employees can feel they have to justify their own desire for growth and continued development. Developmental activities such as training, seminars and conferences, coaching, mentoring, job rotation, and international assignments can vary in cost and require time away from the office. Focusing one's professional development activities is therefore quite important. Competency assessment results allow individuals to pinpoint exactly where they need further development. For example, competency assessment results may show that Sasha, a Communications Manager, was rated unfavorably by her peers in the area of project management. Sasha could turn the situation into a positive one by showing her boss the competency assessment results, which could allow her to better advocate for formal training or assignments that could help her grow her project management skills.
3) Increasing Ongoing Dialogue with the Boss
A major benefit of participating in competency assessment activities is that dialogue with one's manager is likely to increase. Rather than addressing development only during performance appraisals, competency assessment encourages ongoing conversation regarding performance levels. Increasing communication with one's boss is almost always to an employee's benefit. Doing so helps employees' development stay at the forefront of their boss' mind, and gives employees a chance to ask for further feedback or clarification. More formalized discussions with one's boss also provide an ongoing "reality check" on the status of progress made.
4) Fostering Continuous Improvement
Competency models, and subsequently competency assessment, are built based on the behaviors of high performance employees. The very foundation of these assessments, therefore, is aspirational in nature. Competency assessment provides a guide for continuous improvement and can help answer questions like, "How have I progressed? Am I where I want to be? What kind of support or resources do I need to move forward?" Since competency assessments are often built using a five-point scale, employees' results uncover exactly how the individual rates now, and what it takes, behaviorally speaking, to move up to the next level.
5) Informing Short- and Long-Term Career Decisions
The value of participating in competency assessment can benefit an individual even after he or she leaves an employer. Self-assessments can provide insights that lead to identifying one's preferred industry, job role, or, at the very least, information about one's dominant strengths, traits or work style. Competency assessment can also augment workers' confidence by reinforcing what they may have long suspected was a skill, but for which they had no validation or evidence. Competency tools can also serve people in concrete situations like job interviews. For example, if an employer asks a candidate about their quantitative skills, the candidate could explain, "I've always had a high degree of skill and aptitude with numbers. In fact, my current employer administers competency assessments each year and my peers and boss recently gave me the highest possible rating in the Quantitative Abilities section."
Competency Gains for Individuals Just As Compelling as for Organizations
The advantages of using competency assessments are numerous. These tools provide a "reality check" and baseline of individual performance. Beyond a simple recognition of skill levels, however, strengths that emerge from competency assessment can be used to determine readiness for a promotion or justification for new, more challenging learning opportunities. Regardless of whether or not an employer sponsors competency-based assessment, several types of competency assessments exist, which individuals can explore on their own. The Riley Guide is an excellent starting point (www.rileyguide.com/assess.html). By confirming their aptitudes and skills, individuals can make decisions that reinforce their favored career path, give them confidence in their next career move, and keep them from getting stuck in their current position.
Brannick, M. T., Levine, E. L., & Morgeson, F. P. (2007). Job and Work Analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
The Riley Guide: Self-Assessment Resources. (2009). Retrieved August 19, 2009, from http://www.rileyguide.com/assess.html
[Ed. Note: due to the importance of competencies, this 2009 article is being re-run now.]
Selena Rezvani is a Consulting Lead at Management Concepts based in Vienna, Virginia, where she builds and administers assessments targeted at individuals. Selena has consulted widely on issues of organizational change and has worked with organizations internationally and across many industries. Selena holds an MBA from The Johns Hopkins University and MSW and BS degrees from NYU. She can be reached at srezvani@ManagementConcepts.com