Increasingly, Education, Employers and Employees are thinking about the demands of occupations and the supply of talent in terms of competencies (#competencies)

For Education, competencies are becoming a key measure of the employability (#employability) outcomes of course curricula. For Employers, many major organisations are incorporating competency frameworks into their performance measurement models and are using them to describe how they want their people to work.

This short series of blogs from Blue Mirror Insights (BMI) investigates the various ways competencies are defined, and how data from occupational databases – in particular the US O*NET (#onet) database – can be adapted for measuring and analysing them.

What is a competency?

In the course of BMI’s work we have reviewed many different frameworks and sources and found that – as ever – definitions and opinions vary widely.

In some human capital models, a competency is seen as the equivalent of a skill, such as being able to build a business case for a new venture or to assess data vulnerabilities in a business’ IT landscape. Some of the education curricula that we have been asked to analyse may sometimes refer to these as technical competencies.

An important step towards a rounder definition of the term is to introduce the concept of hard skills and soft skills. We have talked to many organisations – particularly those in rapidly-developing and competitive sectors such as certain parts of the financial services industry – who say that for the most part, they themselves will teach new employees the hard skills they need to achieve what the company needs. Instead, what they are looking for during the recruitment stage is a strong indication that candidates already have the soft skills to understand how to get the job done.

In our view, the most complete competency frameworks understand that competency is a ‘cluster’ of knowledge, skills and other attributes that lead to successful performance. Harvard University describes competencies as:

…”things” that an individual must demonstrate to be effective in a job, role, function, task, or duty. These “things” include job-relevant behaviour (what a person says or does that results in good or poor performance), motivation (how a person feels about a job, organisation, or geographic location), and technical knowledge/skills (what a person knows/demonstrates regarding facts, technologies, a profession, procedures, a job, an organisation, etc.).

Harvard University Competency Dictionary

Is there a standard list of competencies?

No, there isn’t. Once again, opinions, lists and frameworks vary. The aforementioned Harvard dictionary lists 42 competencies – a good number for the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, but too many in BMI’s opinion to be an easily-useable model (although it does have useful features like pointing out groups of competencies which are mutually exclusive, or which are specific to one human resource group such as leaders). In other examples, the UK Civil Service describes a mere ten, which it further groups into three clusters: Set Direction; Engage People and Deliver Results. The Australian Government Department of Education, Science and Training originally listed six key competencies, which it subsequently expanded into eight employability skills of communication; teamwork; problem-solving; technology; planning and organisation; initiative and enterprise; self-management; and learning.

Fully-implemented competency frameworks, like the ones we have surveyed for the UK Civil Service and National Health Service (NHS), go further and attempt to link levels (or benchmarks) of each competency to grades. Some may also describe the variations in competencies between operational-level grades and leadership grades.

On the Education side and its quest for employability outcomes, some sources attempt a similar – if less targeted and more simplistic – type of benchmarking. For example, some (but by no means all) of the Subject Benchmark Statements published by the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) attempt to define threshold, typical and excellence levels for competencies, or at least for the knowledge and skills elements that could be used to cluster into competencies.

The world-renowned Occupational Information Network (O*NET) from the US, to which we will turn our attention now, loosely maps what other sources call competencies into the domain that O*NET calls Work Styles. This (by no means definitive) list is shown below.

Bringing in the data

A key advantage of using O*NET for many types of occupational analysis is that it is one of the only databases (perhaps even the only database) of its type in the world to provide a scoring system for the attributes of nearly 1000 occupations. For example, in its skills table it provides scores for the degrees of importance (IM) and levels of

achievement (LV) of 35 common skills across each occupation. At BMI, we favour using

the LV scale wherever possible, as O*NET also provides useful level benchmarks for each element (see right) and allows us to perform detailed occupational content analyses and comparisons of the type shown below.

Using O*NET data for analysing competencies, however, is more challenging. Although O*NET contains libraries of knowledge, skills, abilities, education/training/experience and many other occupational attributes, each set of attributes exists independently in relation to the others. Therefore, if we follow the definition of a competency that we discussed earlier – that is, that a competency is a cluster of different types of attributes – how do we make the link?

In other words, how do we answer the question: what combination of knowledge, skills, abilities and other attributes does a person need to be competent at doing a certain thing, at a certain level?

The answer lies in mining the O*NET data to find correlations and patterns. And this will be one of the subjects of our future blogs on this topic.

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