Management Development ForumVolume 3 - N0. 1 (00)
A Practical Model for Identifying and Assessing Work Competencies
Chee-Leong Chong, Yuen-Ping Ho, Hwee-Hoon Tan, and Kwan-Kee Ng
spacing bar---------------------------------------------------------------
Management Development Forum Home | Search | Index | Exit frames
ESC Home


In their recent article on emerging competency methods for the future, Athey and Orth (1999) assert that the main challenge facing HR professionals is leveraging “existing competency practices to greatly increase the impact of competency development on business results” (p. 215). Building on this assertion, this article proposes a model of competency identification and assessment that will draw upon existing competency practices and research with a focus on active participation by key constituents and on emerging requisite competencies. This approach concurs with Dalton (1997) who proposes that the two main flaws with current competency methods are the lack of future orientation and the means by which one could acquire these requisite future skills. Our model not only provides a flexible means to update competencies for the future via our conception of work, but it also proposes the manner in which the individual, organization and industry could acquire such skills.

In performing or carrying out work, it is essential that the required job skills first be articulated. This information not only helps to identify individuals who have the matching skills for doing the work but also the skills that will enhance the successful performance of the work. Yet often to perform well, it is not enough just to have these skills. It is also critical to complement the skills with the necessary knowledge and attitudes. The necessary knowledge will enable individuals to apply the right skills for any work situation that may arise while having the right attitudes will motivate them to put in their best efforts. These skills, knowledge and attitudes required for the work are usually collectively referred to as competencies (following the definition of Parry, 1998). There is general consensus about the importance of competencies both in the industry and academia (Athey & Orth, 1999; Dalton, 1997; Hoffmann, 1999; Kochanski, 1997; Spencer & Spencer, 1993). Organizations use information on competencies to a) develop training curricula for equipping new and existing workers to do the work, b) to form the basis for performance appraisal to identify workers’ training needs and to evaluate workers’ work performance, or c) simply to specify the recruitment needs for the work (Dalton, 1997; Kochanski, 1997). There is an abundance of existing research on competencies in the academic arena, largely marked by criticism about their fuzziness and an apparent lack of consistency across the various research streams (Currie & Darby, 1995; Ellstrom, 1997; Hoffmann, 1999; Robotham & Jubb, 1996).

Rather than argue for the need to improve existing research, this article seeks to contribute a new perspective by proposing a practical framework for defining and identifying competencies. It first examines existing research to establish a rigorous definition of competency. This definition is then used to develop a framework for the identification of skills, knowledge and attitudes. It is important to note that in defining competencies, we seek to move beyond the rhetoric of “higher is better” and instead to focus on what is really required for the job from the perspectives of the workers, supervisors and management. Because competencies should be understood in the context of jobs, it is also important to scrutinize the elemental constituents in work and then attempt to establish the competencies for each of these elements (Currie & Darby, 1995). By so doing, we believe that the proposed competency model will be able to provide practical insights for HR practitioners and, at the national level, manpower policy makers. More specifically, the model would a) define benchmark competency standards, b) measure competency levels of individuals, c) identify skills and knowledge where training is required based on competency gaps, d) determine the type and extent of training needed, and e) identify possibilities and opportunities for cross-occupation and cross-industry labor mobility.

Defining Competency

The existing literature on competencies or skills comes from many different disciplines and fields. It is therefore not surprising that there is little consensus on the meaning of competency. A good summary of the various meanings is found in a glossary developed by the Institute for Education Leadership and Dyn-Corp Meridian (1995). Competency appears to be a measure of successful performance and may refer to either a specific skill/knowledge or a cluster of skills and knowledge. It encompasses meanings that range from work-related definitions to those that describe the characteristics of workers. McLagan (1997) attempts to reconcile these meanings by proposing a hybrid definition of “attribute bundles.” Parry (1998) further expands on this by defining a competency as a cluster of related knowledge, attitudes and skills that fulfill four criteria: a) affects a major part of one’s job, b) correlates with performance on the job, c) can be measured against well accepted standards, and d) can be improved via training development.1 Spencer and Spencer (1993) include personality characteristics such as motives and traits and list five types of competency characteristics, namely motives, traits, self-concept, knowledge, and skill.

Identifying Competencies

Besides these definitional variations, there are also a variety of approaches for characterizing competencies and skills. McLagan (1997) clusters these into three main schools of approach – differential psychology, educational and behavioral psychology, and management sciences. In their study, Wise, Chia and Rudner (1990) review previous approaches to identifying necessary job skills and classify them into the broad categories of industrial psychology, task characteristics and job activity approaches, ability requirement approaches, and business approaches.

Some of these approaches lend themselves better to practice than others. For example, the abilities taxonomies developed using psychology-based approaches are often too generic. In HR management and training and development planning, the job and task approaches originating from management sciences are the most appealing. These approaches involve producing documentation of job descriptions and task analysis. One drawback of this approach is that the original definition of competency often becomes lost and the resulting identified competencies are essentially task statements with no elements of skills, knowledge or attitudes. This is observed in a number of skills and competency standards documents where tasks performed within particular occupations are described in great detail but with no mention of the requisite knowledge, skills and attitudes (Parry, 1998). Even worse, a number of such documents mix competencies with task statements.

The Proposed Competency Model

Our approach is first to understand what constitutes work, to articulate a standard taxonomy of knowledge, skills and attitudes (KSAs), and then to develop scaled measures for each set of KSAs. These will be matched to each job component of work to make the link between required competencies and nature of work explicit.

Structure of Work

The first issue is the unit of analysis most appropriate for the study of competencies. Because competencies in this study refer to skills, knowledge and attitudes necessary for satisfactory job performance, the unit of analysis should be based on the work done by employees in general and not the individual employees themselves.

Work, however, is itself a deceptively simple word that describes what is in fact a complex and multi-layered concept. Recognizing this, we adopt a more systematic approach by conceptualizing work according to the following scheme based largely on traditional job analysis literature (e.g., Ghorpade & Atchinson, 1980; McCormick, 1976; Zerga, 1943).

Occupation is the highest level on our structure. This corresponds to the title or designation given to employees who are expected to carry out work of a specified nature and scope. Each occupation is in turn made up of jobs, the major components of the occupation. Jobs can be further decomposed into its component tasks, which need to be performed to carry out the job (Gates & Field, 1990). Each task is further differentiated into its detailed activities.

Figures 1a and 1b illustrate the application of this occupational structure scheme in two occupational examples taken from the travel industry: outbound ticketing consultant and inbound tour consultant. Details of the job tasks and activities were developed using the following methodology:

Figure 1a:  reduced version

Figure 1a. Occupational structure scheme for outbound ticketing consultant.
(a full-size version of the graphic is available)

Figure 1b:  reduced version

Figure 1b. Occupational structure scheme for inbound tour consultant.
(a full-sized version of the graphic is available)

From each of the developed occupational structures, the next step was to decide on the level at which the set of requisite competencies should be identified and assessed. For parsimony and yet sufficiency of details to ensure meaningfulness, the jobs level was selected. It should be highlighted that even though most competency models adopt occupations as the level of analysis (e.g., Ellstrom, 1997) and using the occupation level would certainly make the data collection process easier, it would sacrifice important details such as how people actually carry out work. More importantly, because occupational titles are not harmonized across organizations, doing so would limit the ability to generalize and thereby limit the practical application of the model. On the other hand, selecting the tasks and activities levels of analysis would lead to an astronomical increase in the data to be collected and the possibility that the details may be too fine for meaningful analysis.

In addition to these considerations, the choice of jobs as the unit of analysis is also appropriate as it allows for the concept of “building block” competencies for occupations. This unique cross-occupational feature is important because many occupations share some similar jobs and hence their competency profiles. By enabling the addition and subtraction of jobs in and out of the competency certification, we readily provide a means for individuals to identify quickly the new competencies required across occupations that differ from theirs. This is particularly useful in occupational transitions that are driven by the increasing need to continually adapt new future competencies in our competitive landscape (Athey & Orth, 1999).

The Competency Identification Instrument

From an exhaustive review of existing competencies taxonomies, in particular the work of Spencer and Spencer (1993) and the U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration’s (1999) Occupation Information Network (O*Net) initiative in America, a list of knowledge, skills and attitudes (KSAs) was compiled. Each KSA item was assigned a unique six-point scale, with worded anchors provided for the first, third and sixth points.

For these worded anchors, first level knowledge was defined as knowledge that can be obtained through mass media and general sources, first level skills were basic abilities that require little effort to master, and first level attitudes were minimal demonstrations of the attitudes. Third level knowledge was defined as specialized technical knowledge which is gained from attending formal training courses, third level skills were intermediate level abilities that require higher degrees of application, and third level attitudes were the norm – the level of the majority of people. For the highest sixth level, knowledge was regarded as that possessed by a subject matter authority or expert. Skills at the sixth level referred to a complete mastery, and attitudes at this level indicated extreme manifestations of the attitude. Table 1 shows an example of the anchors developed using these guidelines.

Table 1. An Example of Anchors Developed on the Six-point Scale.
Knowledge of Geography Analytical skillsAttitude: Optimistic
1Basic knowledge gained from mass media and other general sources; no formal training in subject area (e.g., knowing the capital cities of major countries such as Japan and the UK)Break a problem into simple lists of tasks or activitiesHopeful for positive outcomes in favorable situations
3Specialized knowledge in subject area, equivalent to diploma level (e.g., identifying specific locations on a world map, knowing the characteristics and resources of specific locations)Analyze relationships among several parts of a problem or situation and systematically break down complex tasks into manageable tasksHopeful for positive outcomes in uncertain situations
6Acknowledged as a subject area expert or authority (e.g., knowing in great detail the physical relationships and characteristics of land and sea masses)Make extremely complex plans and analyses; organizes, sequences and analyzes extremely complex interdependent systemsHopeful for positive outcomes even under extreme adversity

An Example of Anchors Developed on the Six-point Scale.
The initial instrument that was developed comprised 34 knowledge, 73 skill and 52 attitude items, with a supplementary list of technical and machine skills specific to those working in manufacturing- or engineering-related occupations. The instrument was first pretested with a group of university research staff to ensure clarity in the scale anchors descriptions.

The instrument was then pilot-tested with representatives from the insurance industry, focusing on the insurance agent occupation. Feedback received was used to refine the list of KSAs – rewording to enhance understanding and precision in meaning, eliminating certain items and consolidating some items which were deemed to be closely related. Some participants in this pilot test also recommended the exclusion of KSAs, which were obviously irrelevant to their occupations. This was also considered since it increases the parsimony of the instrument and minimizes the possibility of mental fatigue of respondents. Hence, several knowledge and skill items that were deemed occupational-specific were also relegated to supplementary lists.

A revised list of 21 knowledge items, 60 skill items and 52 attitude items was administered to several incumbents in the travel industry. Participants opined that the list was still too long and contained several highly similar items. The research team also observed that the attention of most participants flagged towards the end of the interviews, with responses generally unreliable and tending toward the high end of the scale.

Using this feedback and the data collected, the list was further reviewed and revised to a final list of 12 knowledge items, 17 skill items and 21 attitude items. The knowledge items included broader areas that could be expanded in coverage and depth with reference to the specific occupation being studied if necessary. For example, for an outbound ticketing consultant, knowledge of arts and humanities will be interpreted as having an understanding of geography and specific aspects such as location, human geography and physical geography. These aspects could be further elaborated. As an example, human geography includes knowledge of language and economic activity in a specific geographical region.

Methodology for Data Collection

Data were collected in three stages: developing occupational profiles, setting desired benchmark levels of KSAs, and evaluating individual and industry competence levels in important KSAs.

For developing occupational profiles, management was first required to identify key occupations in their organizations and associated jobs performed in each occupation by filling out a questionnaire. Following that, job analysis interviews were carried out with incumbents and their immediate supervisors to develop job and task profiles of these occupations.

For each developed job profile, competency identification interviews were conducted with the incumbent (deemed as a good performer by the supervisor and management), immediate supervisor and the management to map the relevant KSAs and the desired levels of KSAs based on a defined six-point competence scale. The desired level of competence or benchmark level is the level that is needed in order for a worker to perform satisfactorily in that job.

Finally, individual and industry competence levels in relevant KSAs were evaluated. A representative sample of incumbents was selected to fill out a competency evaluation questionnaire, rating their competence levels in the KSAs identified as relevant to their occupations. This questionnaire contained a consolidated list of relevant KSAs for all the jobs within an occupational area. The aggregated results formed the industry competence levels.

The Competency Plot (C-Plot)

All the identified KSAs and the desired levels for each job are graphically presented in a C-Plot. This plot provides a simple visual tool that will help to identify the competency gaps and highlight areas where training is required. The plot could be done at three levels – individual, organization, and industry. An individual’s C-Plot plots the individual worker’s competence levels (see Figure 2), while the organization’s C-Plot gives the competence levels for a specific organization. An industry C-Plot includes identified KSAs relevant to each job and benchmark level of competence for each KSA. This allows the organization to compare its employees’ performances with the average competence levels in the industry.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Individual C-plot.

An organization can also examine each individual’s competence levels with respect to the organizational competence levels. If the benchmark level of competence for a knowledge or skill item is higher than the individual’s competence level, training is recommended for that particular knowledge or skill item. This can be clearly shown using a training needs plot (see Figure 3). The training needs plot shows explicitly and graphically the knowledge and skills that need to be upgraded as well as the specific levels of upgrading needed. As the competence scales are anchored, the nature of training required can be determined more readily.

Figure 3

Figure 3. Training needs plot

Although the identification of relevant and important knowledge and skills provide the means to bridge the competency gaps, attitudes are identified more for the purpose of recruitment. The attitude items are used to compile “psychological profiles” of individuals that are necessary for the occupation. Organizations can focus on these key attitudinal dimensions and construct the necessary instruments for testing and assessing applicants. Selection can be based on the match between the applicant’s psychological profile and the occupational benchmark profile. Having such data provides a useful tool for ensuring that the organization can select the right employees. Figures 3a, 3b, 3c and 3d show examples of training needs analysis and psychological profiles for two occupations: inbound tour consultant and outbound ticketing consultant.

Figure 3: reduced version

Figure 3a. Training needs analysis for inbound tour consultant.
(a full-size version is available)

Figure 3b: reduced version

Figure 3b. Training needs analysis for outbound ticketing consultant.
(a full-size version is available)

Figure 3c: reduced version

Figure 3c. Psychological profile for inbound tour consultant.
(a full-size version is available)

Figure 3d: reduced version

Figure 3d. Psychological profile for outbound ticketing consultant.
(a full-size version is available)

Three-Tier Classification of Knowledge and Skills (KS)

Besides identifying what to train, we also propose a three-tier classification of knowledge and skills (see Figure 4) to determine the appropriate level for administering the required training. Tiers 1 and 2 are industry- and sector-specific and should be administered by national training institutions. Tier 3, which is organization-specific, should be administered by the organization.

Figure 4

Figure 4. Three-tier classification of skills and knowledge.

Discussion and Conclusion

Although the proposed model is still in its developmental phase, its benefits are evident. Overall, the model provides a more resource-effective approach to HR planning, facilitates training and development, and sets objective industry competence standards that can raise overall professionalism.

Companies can have information on competencies needed for each occupation to help them formulate an objective basis for recruitment screening, to design a system for performance requirements, reviews and appraisals, and to have a tool for identifying training and development needs of employees.

Individuals also derive benefits because the model gives them the ability to assess personal competencies and match these with competencies required for different jobs within an occupation. Competency gaps also help to identify specific types of training required to achieve promotion to higher level occupations. For cross-occupational mobility, individuals can assess their suitability strategically and plan accordingly.

Having conceptualized the model and having started the data collection process for establishing the baseline competency model, it is apparent that much work remains to be done. Throughout this initial phase, we have actively sought input from organizations to help us develop a better understanding of the industry and organizational issues that would affect the model. By doing so, the final developed model will be more applicable to organizations in terms of helping them to enhance the quality of their employees and to make them more competitive.


Athey, T. R., & Orth, M. S. (1999). Emerging competency methods for the future. Human Resource Management, 38, 215-226.

Currie, G., & Darby, R. (1995). Competence-based management development: Rhetoric and reality. Journal of European Industrial Training, 19, 11-18.

Dalton, M. (1997, October). Are competency models a waste? Training and Development, 51, 46-49.

Ellstrom, P. (1997). The many meanings of occupational competence and qualification. Journal of European Industrial Training, 21, 266-273.

Gates, R., & Field, H. (1990). Human resource selection. Orlando, FL: Dryden Press.

Ghorpade, J., & Atchinson, T. J. (1980). The concept of job analysis: A review and some suggestions. Public Personnel Management, 9, 134.

Hoffmann, T. (1999). The meanings of competency. Journal of European Industrial Training, 23, 275-285.

Kochanski, J. (1997, October). Competency-based management. Training and Development, 51, 41-44.

Institute for Education Leadership and Dyn-Corp Meridian (1995). Developing a common nomenclature for national voluntary skills standard system: A beginning glossary. Washington, DC: Institute for Educational Leadership.

McCormick, E. J. (1976). Job and task analysis. In M. Dunnette (Ed.), Handbook of industrial and organizational psychology (pp. 652-653). Chicago: Rand-McNally.

McLagan, P. A. (1997, May). Competencies: The Next Generation. Training and Development, 51, 40-47.

Parry, S. B. (1998, June). Just what is a competency? (And why should you care?). Training, 35, 58-64.

Robotham, D., & Jubb, R. (1996). Competencies: Measuring the unmeasurable. Management Development Review, 9, 25-29.

Spencer, L. M., & Spencer, S. M. (1993). Competence at work: Models for superior performance. New York: Wiley.

U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration. (1999). O*Net 98 data dictionary. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Wise, L., Chia, W. J., & Rudner, L. M. (1990). Identifying necessary job skills: A review of previous approaches. Washington, DC: American Institutes of Research.

Zerga, J. E. (1943). Job analysis: A resume and bibliography. Journal of Applied Psychology, 27, 249-267.

Chee-Leong Chong, Ph.D., is the director of the Productivity and Quality Research Centre, Faculty of Business Administration at the National University of Singapore. His research and teaching activities include managerial and measurement aspects of quality and productivity, manpower skills inventory and competencies, sociological perspectives of technology, and time and timing issues in organizations.

Yuen-Ping Ho is a research analyst at the Productivity and Quality Research Centre at the National University of Singapore. Her research activities include manpower planning systems, skills and competency mapping, and characteristics of work.

Hwee-Hoon Tan, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the Faculty of Business Administration, National University of Singapore. Her research interests are in the area of trust, contingent workers and skill competency.

Kwan-Kee Ng is a research fellow at the Productivity and Quality Research Centre, Faculty of Business Administration, National University of Singapore. Mr. Ng received his Bachelor of Social Sciences (Honors) degree and Master of Science (Management) degree from the National University of Singapore. His research activities include manpower competency identification and management, enterprise resource planning, total quality management, productivity and key performance indicators measurement, customer satisfaction, service quality, and benchmarking of best practices.

spacing bar---------------------------------------------------------------
SUNY Empire State College