Blog: What is this thing called Competency?

Strategic HR

What is this thing called Competency?

There are four elements that are integral and germane to the subject – Knowledge, Intelligence, Ability, and Competency
What is this thing called Competency?

There are four elements that are integral and germane to the subject – Knowledge, Intelligence, Ability, and Competency.

The term ‘Knowledge’ connotes the cerebrally comprehended thing in content and its form, in its static and its dynamic states, both existentially (empirically) and logically – apprehended through querying in terms of 5W & 1H ad finem – a cognitively acquired/acquirable possession – and thus an object. ‘Intelligence’, is the processing capacity of the entity for all the three above, and is the subjective endowment, in the individual or the collective entity possessing it – a software-embedded-hardware.

‘Ability’ is the capacity to ‘do’ what is ‘known’ cerebrally, a proficiency in effective application of knowledge in action – a psycho-motor program of the entity to perform action involving Ideas (cognitive), Things (technical) and people (inter-personal) – and thus a dynamic combination/ interplay of hardware & software possessed by the entity, which acknowledges/admits the environment into the schema, as an Ability is about “modifying status quo of the environs – immediate or distant”. It subsumes the term ‘Skills’, being of a similar nature and synonymously used.

‘Competency’, finally, on the other hand is the ability not only to perform but perform successfully, and is thus seen as the totality of all things needed to ensure successful outcome of the action – which again is a composite of Hard-and-software, with a prominent interplay with the environment that is predicative. It may be noted that the above are common to an individual, group or a system. The focus of this present enquiry is, within them, the Individual, and among the elements, the Competency, since that subsumes the other three elements in it as sub-sets.


The long corporate and institutional management career over 35 years has, among others, left me with the following questions.

  1. What elements constitute Competency?
  2. How do human beings develop new abilities/competencies?
  3. Is there a process underlying, that is generic and universally valid as a template?
  4. What/how would it look like in the realm of Business Management?
  5. What would be the correlation & limiting conditions between competencies and successful performance?
  6. How would these limits modify/differ/change, as one moves through the competencies spectrum, across management functions and levels in the leadership pipeline?

As one would see, the answers to these questions have the potential to create immense Value in the Human Development and Organizational Development directly, and have enormous salutary fall-out upon Socio-economy of the human world.

The Transformational path of Learning & Development would have the following commonly known stages of evolution of an individual, matrixed across Expertise levels and Time.

Novice – Apprentice – (cross ability Threshold) – Adept – Competent – Expert – Master.

This schema intuits that the whole process gets divided by a Threshold, what could be called an “Inertia Threshold”, which needs to be crossed by the Individual to progress without regression. Taking this progression at face-value, one is able to see that the destination is to reach the state “Competent”, for the purpose of Management, where it is as defined in the preamble earlier.


If reaching the level “Competent” is what is adequate, then the question reduces to know the process to reach it.

To do that, we need to be able to articulate & define “Competent”. Taking ‘Competent” to mean acquiring/possessing the ‘Competencies’, the task shifts to articulating & defining “Competency(ies)” There have been many ‘definitions’ for the term ‘Competency’, and yet it has remained somewhat ‘fuzzy’ and nebulous, lead to misunderstanding, wandering, and waste (Cooper, 2000; Dalton, 1997). There has been no clear distinction even between the term ‘Competence’ and ‘Competency’, with some claiming that they are distinct and the others maintaining the terms to be interchangeable.

The first good formal definition we come to is from Boyatzis: “any underlying characteristic of an individual, which is causally related to effective or superior performance in a job” and could be “a motive, trait, skill, aspect of one’s self-image or social role, or a body of knowledge he or she uses” (Boyatzis 1982), and we note that this definition is Context-free, meaning that it is generically valid. This definition owes a debt of origins to McClelland (1953, 1973) for his seminal work examining Motives as the steering factor for performance and hence a frame to view Competencies from/through.

The key point to note here is that causing/delivering effective/superior performance is the qualifier for a set of characteristics to be a Competency, as “a capacity to get in touch with the Environment in a constructive way” (Ingalls 1979)

This approach/definition was later labeled as ‘Clinical’, and the subsequent ‘Behavioral’ definitions arose, which viewed Competency as “a cluster of knowledge, skills, abilities, behaviors, and attitudes related to job success and failure” (Byham & Moyer, 2000; Cooper, 2000; Green, 1999; Lucia & Lepsinger, 1999; Parry, 1996). This allows for clarity, effort to develop/enhance, and measurability. In other words, useful.

The other key concept we see in this area is “Meta-competencies”- Meta competencies are personal attributes resulting from integrating of several other personal attributes – or what one could call a higher order ability that is a composite of personal attributes.

Finally we have had the ‘Emotional Competency’, arising out of the work of Boatzis and by Goleman (2002) on ‘Emotional Intelligence’. This model has become very popular, but is not free of controversies (Bastian, Burns & Nettelbeck, 2005, Guillen 2007 etc)

Competency Models

There have been many efforts to create competency models and frameworks over the decades past. Competency modeling is a process of determining what competencies are necessary for successfully performing a job or a role. In other words, it may be virtually called elsewhere as "competency profiling or competency mapping."(Punnitamai 2007)

The models always comprise of associated Knowledge, Skills, Aptitudes, and Other characteristics, abbreviated as KSAOs which represent effective work behaviors (Kierstead, 1998). These KSAOs are grouped into clusters, labeled, and defined in a systematic manner, with each competency having associated behavioral indicators subdivided into 3-7 levels of performance proficiency. Interested readers are referred to Briscoe and Hall (1999), Byham and Moyer (2000), and Mansfield (1996) for more details of approaches to establishing competency models.

Professional Competency (PC) is a Holistic model of five interconnected sets of competencies (Cheetham & Chivers 1996, 1998) covering five Competency dimensions – Cognitive (knowledge), Functional (skills), Personal (behavioral), Ethical (values) and Meta (Intelligence/Thinking) – that is quite comprehensive in a sense. It would be an interesting exercise to cross-map this with “Emotional Intelligence” model of Goleman (2002)

All these are role-based requirements of characteristics in clusters. We recognize here the interplay, between what an Individual has and what the role requires to perform effectively, as the critical utility link for further exploitation/management of Human Resources especially in the Learning & Development Management.

The critical Question

While we see that the Behavioral Models of Competencies as represented by KSAO framework is satisfactory in an overall sense, we know that the human beings are required to develop and deploy literally hundreds (if not more) competencies in order to live their lives in their vast diversity and distribution.

The area of particular need for further attention is the part called “Other Characteristics (OC)”. This is simply too general and non-deterministic as a residual definition, and thus does not help in directive or prescriptive specifics in a generic sense, of concrete, unique, precise elements of the model, for applied use.

Of particular interest is to also keep the holistic Professional Competencies framework in tandem while doing this
Can we thus further categorize the distinct elements within OC, and further enhance the precision of the model?

Typically OC is said to comprise of Attitudes, Values, (both of which are mental Convictions per se), Personality (which in itself is a composite of attributes), etc
Taking PC & OC together and splicing, we get the following Competency Frame-work / schema for the Competency model, proposed to be referred provisionally as KSACE

  1. Knowledge (know why, what, and how)
  2. Skills (doing abilities)
  3. Aptitudes (fitness to learn/do, talent, predilection, acumen, intelligence)
  4. Convictions (moral, ethical & non-denominational)
  5. Energy (Physical & Mental)

Here as part of the synthesis of PC & OC, I propose and add the specific dimension of Energy as an important driver variable for the effective materialization of Competency that would otherwise remain a potentiality

Also the area of Convictions – what some refer to as Attitudes – is of rich potential and interest to dive deeper and dissect further for understanding and further management exploitation
It is proposed to empirically rigorously test and validate this model as a thesis, with specific focus on the OC elements, and then offer it as a humble contribution to add value to the world.

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Topics: Strategic HR

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